How To Use Negative Space to Make Your Photos More Powerful

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Carefully thought-out photography compositions often incorporate negative space in their design. Photographers who make use of negative space add power and meaning to subjects that may otherwise be bland.

Negative space in photography composition is all the area around the subject. Positive space is your subject. It’s not a matter of one being good and the other bad. Positive and negative space are the terms used to describe these areas in sculpture, painting, music, and other creative art forms. Design and architecture also make good use of positive and negative space.

What is Negative Space in Photography?

In photography, negative space provides the eye breathing room. When a photograph is very cluttered and busy with objects, the impact of the main subject can get lost. By leaving negative space around a subject, you can draw more attention to it.

So, negative space in a composition is actually more positive for the image than it is negative.

Young woman standing in an open field.
Young woman standing in an open field © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Negative Space Must be Intentional

Lots of snapshot photos include empty areas. The photographer who pays attention to their subject and not the background does not create a strong composition. There may be too much space that does not relate to the subject. This is often distracting and is not truly using negative space. Unintentional space around a subject tends to create the opposite effect of well-crafted negative space in photos.

Negative space is intentionally used to bring life to the subject matter of compositions. Photographs well composed with a balance of positive space and negative space result in the viewer being more captivated by the image.

A well-composed image can consist mostly of negative space. Subjects only need to take up a very small area of a photograph negative space is well used. A small island surrounded by sea and sky makes a pleasant balance. Even though the subject is very small, the viewer can’t help but notice it in the photo.

Island surrounded by negative space in a photograph.
Single tropical island off the coast of southern Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Understanding how to balance positive and negative space well in your compositions can help make more interesting photographs of dull subjects. This technique can also be used to make more powerful and meaningful photos of strong subjects. 

Key Lesson

A good subject does not make a good photograph; a good photographer does. Regardless of the camera gear you use, making a good photograph of any subject is reliant on the choices you make. This applies more broadly than to only composition. Other factors also weigh in to make people pay attention to your photos. Exposure, timing, light, tone, and relationship of elements in your composition must also be taken into account.

How To Balance Positive and Negative Space

The size of your positive space and your subject in relation to the negative space is important. There are no fixed rules on how to use this technique. I can’t tell you how much space in your composition your subject must fill in order for it to balance with the negative space. This is a matter of feeling and creative expression.

I often like to include a lot of negative space to help invoke a sense of scale. Sometimes my intention is to create an illusion of scale. The tension between the positive space and the negative space can defy logic. Using a long or wide focal length lens and composing an element to make it look larger or smaller than it is can be fun.

Tips for Using Empty Space as Negative Space

Plane, empty areas in a scene can be most easily used to create negative space in compositions. You can include:

  • Big sky
  • Wide oceans
  • Empty fields
  • Blank walls
  • White space

When you have empty space to work with you don’t really need to include any other composition or exposure technique to make it into negative space. The space is there already, you just need to frame your positive space within it.

boy with negative space that's blurred.
Boy with negative space behind his head. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Using a Shallow Depth of Field

Isolating a subject using a shallow depth of field is a popular composition technique. Combine it with negative space, and you can draw a viewer’s eye more directly to your subject. 

You need the subject you focus on to be clear of any other element in the composition. Anything else that’s in focus will act as a distraction from your positive space. The negative space will not have so much impact.

If you can move your subject, place it, or them, away from the background and anything else that may intrude into the depth of field. Then, you have more flexibility to make your composition with as much negative space as you like.

Here is a short and informative video for you to watch:

Control Your Exposure to Create Negative Space

Managing the lighting and exposure in an image well can help you make effective use of negative space. You can control this, and it occurs naturally. You need to be aware of contrast levels to make the most of it. 

Our eyes see a wider tone range than our cameras do. We will see detail in shadows and highlights in a scene, but our cameras may not be able to record them. Or, you can set your exposure intentionally to exploit the contrast. This can turn a background darker or brighter and render it as negative space, rather than as detail. I love using this technique.

For this photograph of a red rose, I used natural light. I made sure my background had significantly less light on it than my subject. Exposing for the rose renders the background black. My composition creates negative space.

single red rose in negative space photography illustration.
Red rose isolated on black © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

This is an example of controlled photography where I managed my subject, the light, and the background to make the image I wanted. You can also use this technique when you don’t have this level of control. You need to look for when the balance of light and subject against a contrasting background is right.

Look for shapes, people, trees, and anything you can see where there’s reasonable contrast between the subject and the background. Using negative space and this technique together makes for a great way to compose a photo.

stacked rocks with negative space.
Stacked rocks silhouetted against a moody sky © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Using it with other Composition Rules

Images that combine negative space photography with other composition rules can be more powerful in my opinion.

Think of composition that includes techniques like leading lines or a frame within a frame. How can you include these when you design images with negative space as a technique? The rule of thirds is cries out for you to include negative space.

Use of Horizontal Lines: Example

In this example picture of the woman sitting on the steps, the strong horizontal lines add impact to the negative space.

Young woman sitting on steps outdoors.
Lines add strength to the negative space © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Use of Converging Lines: Example

In another example, the converging lines in this image make it more interesting because they help guide the eye of the viewer.

Mannequin on the space at the side of an empty road.
A harmless mannequin was found on the side of the highway, hoping to hitch a ride. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Use of the Rule of Thirds: Example

In this image, I have combined the use of negative space with the rule of thirds. The way I have framed my subjects and positioned the horizon makes the composition stronger.

negative space photography example.

Top Tip

Photographers who can successfully combine the use of negative space with other techniques make more interesting images.

Camera Orientation

Creating negative space photography compositions you will often have the flexibility to make photos in both horizontal and vertical orientations. Experimentation is key. If you only always hold your camera horizontally you can miss so many opportunities to make alternative compositions of whatever object you photograph. These can end up being stronger images.

It’s a good photography habit to get into of taking more than the first angle you think of. This includes experimenting with camera orientation. The first angle you think you should take a photo from is usually the most obvious. It is not always the most interesting. Move around. Tilt your camera. Hold it at an angle. Looking through your lens as you do this will show you more clearly the type of composition you can make from a scene.

negative space illustrating scale with two people in a field.
Negative space helps give a sense of scale © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Photography in wide open spaces tends to lend itself to including negative space and testing out different compositions and camera orientation. Don’t limit yourself to one or two photos when you have an interesting scene and subject to photography. Work with it. Challenge yourself to come up with a good variety of pictures that show the elements and the negative space in interesting, creative ways.

couple in an open space.
Negative space in the foreground © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

You can get a sense from the examples I have included in this section that there can be many different ways to photograph the same subject and the negative space. Using negative space can challenge you to focus on your photography in ways you may not normally try.

Make the Best Use of Negative Space in Photography

Look for inspiration in photos, sculpture, design, and anywhere else you can. Consider how objects in the art relate to the negative space. Has using negative space made the composition stronger? In what way does the negative space enhance the photo? Does the image combine spaces in a way that supports and frames one subject? Is emotion evoked in the way negative space is made use of?

As your eyes move around a photo and consider each part of it, you will begin to notice the relationships. You will see how objects relate to the space in the photo. Looking at how other artists you negative space will give you a sense of how you can make it part of your own photography compositions.

This style of photography composition can result in more interesting images. Think about it next time you are making a photo. How can you use this method to make your photo more interesting and creative?

More Examples

Buddhist monk in a field illustrating negative space photography example.
A Buddhist monk walks in the dry lake bed in Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.
Sheep grazing with lost of space around them.
Sheep grazing in the South Island of New Zealand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.
example image of a man paddles a traditional canoe on a lake at sunset.
A man paddles a traditional canoe on a lake at sunset in north Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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