Developing a Negative Attitude: 10 Ways to Use Negative Space in Photography

Negative space is filled with possibility. You just need to know how to frame it. There are 10 fundamental ways negative space can be used to create a masterpiece (and steal the show from the subject). How many do you use? 

Make shapes

Our brains are hard-wired to create patterns out of what we see. 

Negative space is an effective tool that can be used to create striking patterns ranging from the familiar to the abstract. In this shot, negative space has been used to frame the sky in a star shape, providing not only a tonal but a textural contrast in the process.

Create direction

Negative space has an amazing ability to direct the eye from a standstill. 

By simply leaving open space around the telegraph pole (pictured), the eye is directed up, down and along the diagonal, which in turn creates a sense of movement. 

The direction of lines and how much space you surround them with can greatly alter your shot. For example, vertical lines with minimal negative space might convey grandeur, while horizontal lines with a generous amount of space may be used to convey tranquillity or modesty.

Create movement

Negative space can be enlisted to create something called active space.

In the black and white image above, active space has been positioned behind the subject to signal direction and create a sense of anticipation for the viewer.

As an experiment, imagine if the subject was out of frame entering vast space, as opposed to out of frame making an exit from it. A totally different feeling, right?

Play with scale

Altering scale within an image is one of the most popular ways people use negative space — and for good reason. It’s an easy way to make something look spectacular. 

In this shot, the scale and sense of hierarchy between the people, mountains and the man-made structure are playfully subverted, with all of them seeming insignificant in relation to the sky.

Cast a spotlight

The subject is the subject for a reason. 

In no way playing second fiddle, negative space can be used to draw attention to the subject, either by eliminating distractions from the scene or by providing contrast. In addition, negative space has this beautiful ability to give the subject ‘room to breathe’.

Evoke emotion

Yes, all images evoke certain emotions, and yes, space plays a key role in their delivery. 

Lots of it might suggest, quality, tidiness, isolation, freedom or elitism. Less of it might suggest congestion, unity, balance or routine.

 In the image pictured, do you feel a sense of loneliness? Or liberty?

Add contrast

The relationship between the subject and the space surrounding it is often most harmonious when they are inset in stark contrast.

Take the above image for example. Even if you removed all the colour, the contrast would still be the main visual agent of impact.

Provide context

If you want to tell a story, context is key.

By using negative space to inform the viewer of the world in which your subject resides, you are able to create a richer narrative and add a layer of complexity to your shot.

Bring balance

When we talk about balance, we are referencing the relationship between negative space and positive space—the subject or details that stand out. Above, the autumn leaves are the positive space and the background scenery, the negative space.

Familiar with the rule of thirds? It’s a good rule of thumb for balance.

It states that you need twice as much negative space as positive space to create a visually engaging image. Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and playing around with this ratio is a great way to add or subdue visual drama in frame.

Accommodate text

It’s a practical thing really.

If you want your images to be versatile enough to be used in advertising or editorial, leaving enough room for something like a headline is important. A beautiful image that caters for copy? That’s what stock image searchers are always on the hunt for.

Want to feel more positive about your photography skills? Sign up to our ‘Travel Photography with Richard I’Anson’ course today and learn from one of the world’s most-awarded travel photographers.

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