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).

Using Portrait Versus Landscape for Your Photos

Figure 1

Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more  generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?

This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:

First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.

Figure 2

Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.


Figure 3

Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.

Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.

Figure 4

And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.

Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos

Was That Really Necessary?

So you’re finally on your way to figuring out this whole photography thing. You already know you should have your camera with you; you’ve shot photos by the hundreds, if not the thousands, always working to hone your craft; and you’ve trained your eye to look for a photo opportunity in nearly everything you see. All well and good, right?

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing: there is such a thing as trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not talking about the effort that goes into getting the composition you want, or making sure your settings are the optimal ones for whatever you’re shooting — that’s time well spent. What I’m referring to instead is… well, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Sometimes, whether it’s because of the lighting, the weather, or even just the subject itself, there’s something in front of you, but there’s just no photograph there.

I understand that itch we all get, and the need to scratch it. You know the one I’m talking about; you’ve been walking through a location for what seems like hours, and you’ve yet to see a single thing worth photographing. Everything looks flat and dull, and before you know it, you start to feel a bit flat and dull yourself. Your shutter finger gets itchy, maybe your eye starts to twitch a little because it’s been away from the viewfinder for too long. You’d hate to spend a perfectly good day out with a perfectly good camera only to come home with an empty memory card. So you compromise. You settle on shots that, on a better day, you wouldn’t bother with, or you start trying to compose interesting shots of topsoil.

If you’re really struggling with the shot, to a point where it’s not simply a matter of getting the basics right (composition, lighting, settings, et cetera) as much as it is a nagging feeling that maybe you’ve got your subject wrong, listen to what your instinct is telling you. Let it go. Trying to find the right photo at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, is like trying to find an Eames chair at Wal-Mart. It probably isn’t going to happen, and if it does, it’s probably going to be a pale imitation of the real thing. There’s no shame in leaving the camera at your side, or putting it in its bag. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with waiting ’til something comes along that’s really worthy of your, your camera’s, and your audience’s attention.

Shoot with your Feet


Example 1: 18-105 lens, shot at 18mm

Last week, we talked about the importance of not neglecting your other senses in your photography. This week, we’re going to take up something else that’s too often neglected by photographers: feet.

If you’re shooting with a compact, odds are better than even it has a zoom lens. If you’re shooting with an SLR, it probably came with an 18-55 or some other species of zoom. In fact, unless your camera’s either a rangefinder, or comes with a fixed lens, nearly everything comes with, and nearly all of us shoot with, zoom lenses.

Zooms can be a godsend, especially when they enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise have done. The ability to go from wide-angle to short telephoto (and, with some all-in-ones like the 18-200 and 28-300 zooms, go from wide angle to long zoom, all with the same lens) saves us time and missed shots. There’s also a cost factor involved. The average 300mm prime lens retails for $1350-$4900 bucks, while a zoom that starts at 55mm or 70mm and goes to 300mm will only set you back between four and six hundred. Big difference.*

Example 2: 18-105 shot at 105mm from the same vantage point as Example 1.

Zoom lenses also enable you, as a photographer, to cover more ground without necessarily having to move your feet. You can go from shooting a landscape, or the entirety of a train station (see Example 1) to picking out a detail in that scene without changing lenses or wearing out your shoes. This is not, as it turns out, necessarily a good thing.

Lots of things look interesting from a distance. The problem is, once we’ve gotten the photo, sometimes it doesn’t seem as intriguing as it did before we pressed the shutter. Sometimes the reasons for this are technical (the exposure’s off, it looks like there’s a branch sticking out of someone’s head), but other times it’s because when you have the chance to really see your subject, it turns out it’s not all that much to look at, as in Example 2. The opposite can also be true; things that look ordinary through a viewfinder at 200mm may also reveal shapes, textures, and details you might otherwise have missed had you not bothered to rub elbows with them. Looked at one way, those small details can be context for a larger image; they might also, however, turn out to be interesting subjects in their own right.

Example 3: Same 18-105, shot at 50mm, this time after some walking around.

If you want to start putting this in practice, there’s a very simple way to do it. Pick a focal length, and for a predetermined length of time, only shoot in that focal length. You want more of the scene in the frame? Take a step or two back. If, on the other hand, you want to emphasize a detail, walk toward it. As you do so, you may find yourself coming up against certain obstacles. Maybe you can’t step back as far as you’d like, your subject is significantly above you (as it is in Example 3) or maybe getting as close as you’d like means you’re casting a shadow on your subject.

Whatever the case, get creative. Re-frame the shot, either by changing your angle, or physically walking around the subject. As you do so, it isn’t uncommon to see other shots present themselves, or you may decide that the shot wasn’t as interesting as it seemed now that you’re seeing your subject up close.

Understandably, this isn’t always practical. Sometimes a couple of steps in one direction or another means the difference between going over the edge of a cliff or not. In those instances, zoom all you’d like. Otherwise, try resorting to your feet instead of your zoom from time to time. It can make an enormous difference in the composition and overall appearance of your shots.

*There’s a much smaller price difference when it comes to short, fast primes (24-50mm). You should also be aware that a prime lens affords other advantages, beyond cost, that zooms typically do not. We’ll be taking those up another time.