Composition Basics: Negative Space

Figure 1

In simple terms, negative space is the space around your subject. Sometimes this means completely isolating your subject against a stark background, but just as often (as with this photo by Robert Adams,  or to a lesser degree in Steve McCurry’s famous photo of an Afghan refugee girl)  it involves the creative use of emptiness as a backdrop against which your subject can breathe. While we sometimes want context and plenty of it, there are other times when having too much in the frame takes the focus off of your subject where you’d like it.

Figure 2

There are a lot of ways to acheive negative space. Shadows, silouhettes, bare backgrounds, and shallow depth of field all help to isolate your subject. The end result can change the meaning of the photo by putting the subject in a different frame. In short, it’s a good compositional technique to have in your toolbox.

But enough about theory. Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with Figure 1. My eight-legged friend — we’ll call him Boris — was mending his “net” first thing in the morning. Using a shallow depth of field takes details out of the background against which it would’ve been easy to miss Boris. I also chose to underexpose significantly (according to the meter, anyway) to give Boris and his web a bit more “pop” against a darker background.

Figure 3

Negative space can, of course, be tricky to navigate. It’s one thing when your background is a holly tree; it’s something else when your background is busier, as happens with this statue — who we’ll call Dolores — that’s set against a background of brightly-colored flowers, columns, trees, grass, and a pretty sizeable swarm of gnats. In Figure 2, I experimented with having Dolores surveying her domain, and figured that a shallow depth of field would give the impression of the columns without them ending up a distraction. You can see about how well that worked out.

So in Figure 3, I reframed the shot. Better, but still not quite there. This time poor Dolores looks as though she’s got a tree growing out of one side of her face (in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just shoot her other side, I’d have been trading columns and flowers for the less-attractive side of a house and some particularly ugly undergrowth).

Figure 4

So we end up at Figure 4, where I’ve said to hell with negative space, and decided to mostly fill the frame with Dolores’ cracked visage. “But wait,” you say. “This was supposed to be about negative space!” And it is, dear reader, it is… including not being so attached to the idea of something that you settle for a bad photo just to say you used it. If negative space “makes” the image, by all means, use it. But there will be times, as I’ve shown here, that no matter how badly you’d like to use something, it’s not necessarily the best tool for the job. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (preferably against a nice, neutral background).

2 Replies to “Composition Basics: Negative Space”

  1. Love your site..thanks for sharing!

    A few friends of mine do a p365 of sorts and post on facebook. It’s fun. I’m currently using a T3i with a 24-70/2.8, but am longing for the Mark ii. What kind of camera and lens are you using?

    I absolutely love figure 4! Great photo!

    1. I’m glad you like what you’ve seen so far.

      My usual camera is a Nikon D7000, though I also shoot with a Fuji and with an old Imperial Savoy. The lenses vary; this set was taken with a 28-300mm, which is usually what I slap on when I’ve no idea where I’m going or what I’ll be shooting. If I have a subject in mind, I’ll generally use another lens, since the 28-300 can be a bit soft, especially at the long end. The T3i is definitely a good camera (it was on my short list 🙂 ). For me, the Nikon was just a bit more comfortable in my hands, and the menus and controls a bit easier to navigate.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Nancy!

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