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.
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.
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).
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).