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The positive impact of negative space

By December 28, 2017 Photography No Comments

An extension of the idea of filling your frame is negative space, or quite literally having areas of nothing in your photographs.

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about filling your frame and negative space in the same sentence, but it’s more helpful to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

If you have a complex subject that’s detailed and busy, contrasting it against a blank area will bring some balance to the composition. It helps the eye to find a point of focus and to prevent the image from presenting itself as chaotic. The negative space itself, however, needs to be absolutely barren and as uniform as possible in order to maximise its effectiveness.

Consistency of tone and colour can support the main subjects without offering any distracting elements. Heavy fog can achieve this very well, as can blank architectural walls. The negative space may be a complementary colour, but most often it’s a simple neutral.

A sense of space

You can create a feeling of infinity by surrounding a solitary subject with negative space. For example, you could photograph a sailboat on a lake and include the shoreline, but that limits the feeling of space and gives a boundary to the water. By composing your image so that you capture just the sailboat on a negative space of water, it is suddenly sailing on an infinite sea.

negative space

Creating atmosphere

Negative space can contribute to the atmosphere that you want to create in your photographs. Dark negative space can imply brooding and foreboding. Negative space in certain colours can lend a particular feeling to an image; blue is calming, for example, while yellow is uplifting. Light-coloured areas of negative space work toward a feeling of airy positivity.

Accentuating the subject

When there is nothing else to look at except the subject in an image, that’s exactly where the eye will go. Placing the subject in a sea of negative space will accentuate it. Obviously this is ideal for product photography, when you want a $50,000 diamond ring to be the centre of attention; but you can also use it to make dramatic or slightly surreal images that aren’t intended to sell something. The first option is to photograph your subject on a plain background. If you don’t have a professional backdrop, a scarf or a sheet of uniform colour and texture will work, too. However, you can also use lighting to surround your subject in negative space. You can either light your background so strongly that you ‘blow it out,’ or overexpose it to the extent that the sensor cannot detect anything in that area; or you can light the subject with something significantly more intense than the ambient light, so that it will look as if it is emerging from the darkness.

negative space

Enhancing patterns and shapes

Our eyes and brains are constantly searching out and recognising patterns and shapes. Think about gazing up at a bright blue sky, and how we look out for cloud formations that resemble faces, animals, and countries. The interaction of positive and negative space in a photograph, especially a minimalist black-and-white composition, creates similar opportunities to create and/or discover different shapes. You just have to look out for the interplay among objects, or between light and shadow. High-contrast renditions will further enhance the effect, which can be done in post-production.

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