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Picture This: Accentuate the Negative

Incorporating ‘negative space’ into your images will add context and provide some breathing room.

By Earl Nottingham

As photographers, we strive for the perfect composition of whatever subject is in front of the lens at any given moment. 

We often use tried-and-true compositional techniques such as the “rule of thirds” or leading lines to draw attention to the subject or focal point of our image. In an effort to give the subject added prominence, we often zoom in or crop into the frame — thereby isolating the subject from any surrounding and possibly distracting elements. Sadly, we often crop so tightly into a subject that we lose important contextual space and environment around the subject, resulting in a visually simple statement rather than a potentially engaging image. It is the space surrounding a subject — the negative space — that we often don’t think about when shooting, but negative space can be as important as the subject itself in the making of a great photograph.

The concept of negative space has been used in art, design and sculpture for many years. Put simply, negative space is the area surrounding objects and between objects. Many artists consider this space just as important as the space occupied by a subject (positive space). It provides us visual “breathing room” in which to explore the subject’s very existence.

negative space

By adding more sky (negative space) and showing less terrain, the sky becomes its own character and enhances the image.

For photographers, negative space can be virtually any environment or background in which the main subject (typically off-center) becomes only a part of the overall composition. Practical examples of negative space could be open expanses of sky, land or water, a work or living environment or even a solid studio backdrop. Subjects photographed in silhouette are especially good candidates for large areas of negative space. The trick is to include just enough negative space in the photograph without overwhelming the composition and coming across as unnatural or gimmicky. The proportions between the subject’s positive space and the surrounding negative space should provide a visual rhythm to the photograph — a yin and yang illustrating the interconnectedness and balance of a subject with its surroundings.

In practice, adding negative space can be as easy as photographing the subject more off-center in the frame by turning the camera slightly or by zooming out to include more background. Just be careful not to include elements that would distract from the overall composition.

The old crooner Bing Crosby told us we’ve “got to accentuate the positive — eliminate the negative.” I encourage you to accentuate the negative (briefly) by making a self-assignment to seek out and photograph any common subject and the negative space that helps define it and give it context. You may find that you are seeing things in a whole different manner.

Sometimes it’s nice and refreshing to just strip a photo or scene down to its absolute bare essentials. Oftentimes, I get too caught up in trying to fill every part of the frame with something interesting. The problem is, when we try to fill up the entire frame with objects, lines, people, shapes, etc., we actually overcomplicate things and leave viewers wanting a place to rest their eyes.

The trick/secret is this: Negative space can be just as interesting in a photograph as anything else, if done right.

I encourage you to consider this the next time you go out shooting. Incorporating negative space into your images can be very rewarding — and at the same time quite challenging. Sometimes situations will present themselves where it’s clear. Other times you will have to get creative with a subject to find the proper framing to create this type of image.


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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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