Negative Space: How to Add Something with Nothing

Negative space is a powerful concept in art and photography that allows you to say a lot with very little. This article will explain the basics of negative spaces and show you how to use them as an artistic tool in creating powerful and creative photo compositions.

What is negative space?

Negative Space is space that’s not drawn to the viewer’s eye. It is any space left empty of interest so that the viewer’s eye cannot hold on to a subject or element.

This “empty” space both creates increased attention on the main subject as well as allows the viewer’s eyes to wander around the frame, providing calmness rather than busyness.

It’s up to the photographer to decide how they use negative space to talk visually about the interplay between the subject and their surroundings.

Negative space is a powerful medium to use nothing to make something. This space gives the subject breathing room. This helps to declutter the image, especially when there are competing elements. This helps to define the focal point or main element in a photograph.

This minimalist winter landscape photo has plenty of negative space in the sky and snow to clearly define the central tree as the main subject of the composition. Photo by Kuhnmi and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Negative space is an age-old concept in visual art, with widespread use in everything from paintings to graphic design to photography. Some of the most famous photographers, such as Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier–Bresson, have used negative space in their work.

Near Death Valley National Monument, 1942. Ansel Adams.
Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, 1933. Ansel Adams.

How and When to Use Negative Space

Deciding if and when to use negative space in a photo is an artistic decision and completely dependent on the photographer. It is a tool you can use to:

  • Provide “breathing room” and a place for a viewer’s eyes to rest.
  • Add a sense of size and scale, whether smallness or vastness.
  • Convey emotions such as calmness, loneliness, sadness, hope, etc.
  • Draw attention to a particular subject (or subjects).
  • Allow the viewer room to follow where a subject is looking.
  • Create a subject out of creative empty space.

Negative Space in a Subject’s Gaze

Negative space is not just used to show openness or convey emptiness, especially in landscape photos, but it’s also used to add depth and gazing space in portraits especially if the person is looking to their side instead of directly at the camera. This effect is demonstrated in two portraits.

Photo by Awar Kurdish

In this first portrait, the subject is looking towards camera left and the viewer’s eyes generally try to follow the gaze of the subject. But since we do not have enough space toward the left the viewer’s eyes abruptly cuts off and this creates tension in the image.

Photo by Awar Kurdish

On the other hand, in this second photo/crop, the viewer’s eyes get enough space to wander through the image and follow the gaze of the subject.

If you would have considered only one “rule” of photography, such as to fill the frame with the subject, then you would say the first image is more “correct,” but again there are certain rules that take precedence over the other. Knowing the intricacies of when to follow certain rules and when to break them can help take your photography composition to the next level.

Creating Negative Space Artificially

It’s not necessary that you add or budget for negative space while taking the photograph on location. It sometimes strikes you while you are in the post-production stage.

To give an example, this is a photo I took years ago while hiking up a hill to see the sunrise. I spotted a leafless tree on the side of the trail and it was being backlit by the morning sun. It was surrounded by fog, creating a mood. The branches of the deciduous trees were making an abstract design. I took a photo of them with my camera and dialed down the shutter speed so that it would appear silhouetted.

The image appeared good on the back screen of my camera and I felt that the editing process made it look ‘ok. So I started experimenting with the image — changing the white balance, removing a few elements like jutting out branches, etc. Then I thought, “let’s test out negative space.” The monotone orange color of the sky in the background helped with this decision.

I exported the image into Photoshop, expanded the canvas, and used Content-Aware Fill to add negative space on the top right side of the image. The total image size ballooned from just about 24 MP to almost 80 MP. Here’s the final image:

So as you can see by adding “nothing” to the image the entire composition changed. It conveys the loneliness of the tree in the vast landscape. Adding the negative space makes the minimalist photograph look aesthetically pleasing. The altered image would be better framed and hung on a wall as a print than the original.

This isn’t a “truthful” photo, of course, and many may have an issue with “adding” negative space in this artificial way. It is a good example of the power of negative space in allowing you to “add more with less”. The easier way to achieve this benefit of negative space is simply to create it with your framing when you are actually capturing the photo.

Using a Shallow Depth of Field

If a subject’s surroundings are far from empty and the background is filled with distracting elements, using a shallow depth of field to throw your background out of focus can be a way to add pleasant negative space.

This portrait has a busy forest background, but the blur from the shallow depth of field helps create negative space. Photo from Depositphotos

Using Light and Shadows

Negative space can also be created in a busy scene using light and shadows and a camera’s limited dynamic range. You can photograph a man on the streets of a big city with lots of negative space. Simply expose for some light, and then crush any shadows to make them solid black.

A business man walking around in the Toronto Financial district, with negative space created by exposing for a bright patch on the street and underexposing the shadow areas. Photo by Matt Wiebe and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Negative Space as a Subject

Creatively composed negative space can be a subject in itself. When the negative space forms a unique and artistic shape, it can be the main subject that a viewer’s gaze is drawn to.

In this photograph, while a canyon might ordinarily be the main subject in a landscape photo and the starry sky the backdrop, the shape of the windy canyon opening causes the night sky to become the main subject — it almost looks like a glittering river winding its way through a rocky channel.

Sometimes, negative space can make art and design more interesting than it is at first. FedEx’s logo is famous for its design. It has an arrow placed in the space between the letters ‘E and ‘x’.

Posters for the film The Dark Knight Rises famously used the negative space between crumbling buildings to create the shape of Batman’s symbol.

A poster for The Dark Knight Rises that features a creative use of negative space. Warner Bros. Image. Pictures.

Another example of creative use of negative space in photography is a series of advertisements shot by photographer Amol Jadhav to promote pet adoption — each photo shows people with negative space between them in the shape of an animal.

Photos by Amol Jadhav.

While creating this type of negative space in a photo can be hard and finding it out “in the wild” can be even harder, you may be lucky enough to find instances if you look hard enough at the space between things in the world.

Negative Space.

Negative Space vs. Filling the Frame

Negative space is against common photography practice. If you are just getting started in photography, you may have been given the advice of “filling the frame with the subject.”

This “rule” basically boils down to saying that the subject you are trying to photograph should be dominant in the image and as a general rule of thumb should be taking up about 80% of the space. This is correct. Viewers should focus on the subject you want them to see in your photograph. It’s a rule that should be broken, just like any other rule. This is an artistic decision at the end.

Photography follows similar principles to the design world, in which negative space can be used as well. In graphic design and advertising where effective communication is key, the use of negative space can be paramount. Volkswagen’s iconic “Think Small” advertising campaign brilliantly showcases the power of negative space.

The subject is still the car but just imagine how different the impact would have been if the same car was displayed covering the entire page. Volkswagen would have paid the same amount for the advertisement in either case.

The effect of negative space also shows up in typography and thus sentences written in a mix of upper and lower case letters look more legible as compared to only capital letters. Because the space is different around lowercase letters than in all caps, the eye can quickly distinguish each word.

Negative Space and the Rule of Thirds

Sometimes the rule of thirds and negative space goes hand in hand. To accommodate the rule of threes, you can offset the subject to one side to create negative space.

Placing the seagull on a “rule of thirds” intersection point creates plenty of negative space on the left side of the frame. Photo by Robert Yorde and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is one of the reasons why the rule of thirds is a common piece of composition advice given to beginners: it is a simple way to provide breathing room and interestingness when framing a composition.

Examples of Photos with Negative Space

Here are more examples of photos that use negative space in their composition:

Negative space used to direct the viewer toward where the man is looking as well as to set a mood. Photo by Gianluca Zuccarelli.
Photo by Hansen de Sade and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Negative space between buildings when looking up from the street. Photo by Joey Gannon and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Conclusion

Negative space is a powerful concept to know and keep in mind when composing and editing photographs, and it’s a simple way to transform a mundane picture of a subject into one that is more aesthetically pleasing and visually interesting.

The next time you are framing a shot, consider what you want to communicate with your viewer and keep negative space in mind as a way to “say a lot with very little.”


Image credits: Header photo by Boris Thaser and licensed under CC BY 2.0. Other photos by Aditya Ashish unless noted otherwise.

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