Composition Basics: Negative Space



Negative Space is difficult concept to grasp. It is somewhat nebulous and for this reason is an often overlooked element of composition.

Simply put, negative space is the area of an image that surrounds your subject(or positive space). The negative space in a picture is defined by the positioning of the subject so its easy to disregard but the space around the subject in a photo is very important to the overall picture. Too little and there can be a cramped feeling, too much and the strength of the subject is reduced. An example that makes the concept a little more concrete is the head room issue mentioned in the Quick Fixes section of this module. Notice how too much head room is just empty space that doesn’t help to emphasize the people in the photo. Conversely leaving to little gives a cramped feeling. Similarly a sense of motion can be emphasized or lost by the negative space in a photo.

Once you’ve decided where to position your subject matter try changing your camera angle slightly (left, right, up or down) then recompose the shot to place your subject where you originally wanted it. This will change the relationship between your subject and the negative space that surrounds it.

Learning to control Depth Of Field (see Depth of Field Section in this Module) can be a very powerful tool in creating a strong negative/positive space relationship. By properly using Depth Of Field it is possible to have your subject in very sharp focus and the background completely out of focus. This places all of the emphasis on the subject and not miscellaneous background objects.

Here you can see how look space is actually a function of negative space:

The black areas are the negative space, the white, positive space or the subject.

A somewhat easier use of negative space to grasp comes into play when you have two subjects in an image. The space between these objects no matter how subtle, can have a huge effect. A great example of this can be seen in Michelangelo’s painting of God and David in the Sistine Chapel. The tiny space between God’s and David’s fingertips creates tension and implies a sense of motion by capturing the movement neither at its beginning or ending.

It's a subtle concept but paying attention to the division of subjects in a photo can create great emotional appeal.

In this shot the underground sign is touching the clock tower. This lack of negative space takes away from the sense of depth in this photo
Here the slight separation of the sign and the tower give a better sense of depth.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, be sure to check out the other tutorials that are available in the Discovery Center. If you have any ideas for tutorials or projects that you would like to see in the future, please leave us someFeedback.


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