The Positives Of Negative Space

As photographers, we often get so involved in selecting, positioning and composing for the subject that we can forget the unrelated factors that have just as much of an impact on the composition as the main subject itself. In many cases, the often forgotten element is the negative space.

Negative space is the area of a composition that doesn’t contain the subject. You often see the definition of negative space given as "the space that surrounds the subject," but this isn’t necessarily an accurate assessment. Usually, negative space surrounds the subject, but in some cases, the subject can surround the negative space, and in rarer cases, the negative space actually can become the subject.

This on-location portrait of musician Britt Daniel was taken at a huge festival with more than 150,000 people. In order to create negative space and minimize distraction from the chaotic surroundings, I shot from a lower angle to use the cloudy sky as the background.

So what makes negative space so important to an image? Well, negative space has a number of useful aspects when it comes to photographic composition. First of all, negative space can add a sense of balance to a composition by providing a counterweight to the subject. Negative space typically should have little intricate detail so that it not only provides balance to the image, but also can be effectively used to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject. By default, the subject becomes the most important part of the composition because therein lie the details that provide the point of interest in the composition. In product photography, a photographer often creates ample negative space within the composition to allow the designers a place to add copy without infringing on the actual subject matter.

Negative space creates a dynamic tension between the subject and the background by creating a point/counterpoint element that makes the image more dramatic, therefore attracting and holding the eye of the viewer.


Obviously, the positive space is the primary defining factor of the negative space, but the negative space is also defined by something that may not be quite so obvious to the casual observer: the edges or borders of the frame. In retrospect, this may seem evident, but when actively composing, it’s easy to fixate on the subject and dismiss the edges of the frame as irrelevant. This is typical of the way a normal human brain functions and is why casual "snapshooters" often place the subject smack-dab in the middle of the photograph—they aren’t conscious of the edges of the composition because the brain simply doesn’t let them see it. As a photographer, you must train yourself to see and use the borders of your image to frame and contain the negative space, thus further defining it and giving it shape within the confines of the composition.

In this semi-abstract cityscape, the buildings act as the bounding area of the negative space in the middle of the image. The buildings framing the negative space create a figure-ground effect that allows you to see either the buildings or the negative space as the main subject.

As previously mentioned, there are times when the subject surrounds and defines the negative space and the same guidelines apply.

Negative space isn’t always a solid, featureless area surrounding the subject. It can be divided and segmented by other elements of the composition such as leading lines, tonal variations and color differentials. Furthermore, the positive space of an image contains the subject, but also can contain other elements that aren’t part of the subject, but elements that support the subject, and these supporting elements are also used to subdivide negative space.

Using a neutral background like gray, white or black can easily define the subject, but using colored elements in the negative space can add an interesting effect. For example, using a contrasting color, also known as a complementary color, allows you to create a more dramatic separation between the subject and the background. Furthermore, using complementary colors also creates a visual sensation in which the subject appears to be advancing or receding. Using a cool-colored negative space with a warm-colored subject makes the subject appear to be "popping" off the page, whereas the opposite is true when using a warm background and a cool-colored subject, which makes the subject appear to be receding. You also have the option of using analogous colors for the negative space. This gives the composition a much more harmonious presence.

I often incorporate negative space around performers in my live music photography to make the subject stand out—in this case, rocker Billy Idol—as well as to provide an asymmetrical balance that makes the image more interesting as a composition.


Composing an image to take advantage of negative space is accomplished in many different ways. First and foremost, you must actively visualize the negative space as you’re composing. This means not only looking at the subject in the viewfinder, but also observing the background as well as the edges of the frame, and considering how all of these combine to make a complete image.

Using negative space in a product photo allows graphic designers to add text and graphics to the photo without impinging on the actual subject. Most often, these backgrounds are black or white so the negative space can easily be expanded, if needed.

For this shot, the negative space was divided into two separate areas to create dynamic tension by adding an element of asymmetrical balance to the composition. Although the negative space is a dominating element of the composition, it still allows the viewer to easily discern the main subject.

Negative space doesn’t always exist organically in a scene. Often, negative space needs to be sought out. There are a number of techniques that photographers employ to create negative space within their images. Here are a few of the best ways:

Subject Placement. Placing your subject in an area that has a relatively uncluttered background is important to creating an area of negative space. You can accomplish this by actively moving the subject to a different area, by planning ahead and choosing an appropriate scene, or even by simply using a plain background of seamless paper or another similar backdrop.

Photographer Placement. There may be times when you’re photographing an event that you have no control over. In cases like this, you may have to scout shooting locations that provide less visually distracting backgrounds.

Shooting Angle. Sometimes the surroundings aren’t very conducive to an uncluttered background and changing locations isn’t an option. In this case, get crea
tive with your angles. Compose from down low to use the sky as negative space, or conversely, elevate yourself, aiming down at the subject and use the floor or ground as negative space background.

Use A Wide Aperture. Many photographers already know that using a wide aperture creates shallow depth of field, which blurs the background. Shooting wide open can transform the background into negative space. You still need to pay attention, though, as even out-of-focus backgrounds can be busy with indistinct blobs of colors that can distract the viewer from the main subject.

As you can see, negative space can have a positive impact on your images. Make a concerted effort to see the space around your subject and utilize it as a compositional element, too.

J. Dennis Thomas is a freelance photographer and an author based in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Wiley Publishing’s Nikon Digital Field Guide Series, as well as Concert and Live Music Photography and Urban and Rural Decay Photography published by Focal Press. Find him at and @JDennisThomas on Twitter.

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