8 Tips to Make the Most Out of Negative Space
Anyone can photograph an object – what makes a photo truly interesting is how you compose the shot around that object.
What I’m talking about, of course, is negative space. What’s that? Simply put, negative space is the area around the subject or subjects in an image.
Say you have a photo of a brown dog running through a green field. The dog is the subject and the field behind him is the negative space. Make sense?
By properly using negative space in your photographs, you can create beautiful, lasting images that enhance the design and really draw people in. Negative space can encourage viewers to focus on the subject, create balance, imbue still photos with a sense of direction, and in some instances even create the illusion of two competing images. To help you achieve these goals utilizing negative space, here are some tips and tricks you can use.
Create contrast. If you photograph a red fire engine against a red brick building, chances are the foreground and background will bleed together, and it may all end up looking muddled. Your goal with negative space should be to find colors and even textures different enough that they contrast with each other. This way, you will be creating a clear and distinct foreground and background.
In the picture below, the white buildings contrast with the blue sky – not to mention the bird flying between them! – to really draw your focus.
Frame the photo. Another thing the above photo does nicely is use the buildings to frame the image. This imbues a certain symmetry to the picture that is pleasing to the eye and even begins to just barely touch upon the “illusion” images that some artists are so good at creating.
Draw attention. A favorite technique for many photographers is to place a single subject on the very bottom or either side of a composition that is otherwise “blank” negative space. Quite often this means using a white or black backdrop and a subject of contrasting colors. This immediately draws the eye to the subject.
Give the eye a resting place. As humans, our eyes naturally seek out things to focus on. Negative space can assist in this in photos that include only a single focal object. No matter how plain or boring in a normal setting, our eyes will drift to it naturally so that they can “relax into focus.”
Evoke emotions. Putting a small, solitary figure against a huge, empty background of negative space is a great way to evoke feelings of isolation and loneliness. Often, the best composition for this type of photo is to place the figure at the bottom of the frame or one of the corners, facing out to the vast expanse.
Remove clutter, and bring out detail. If you take a shot of a bunch of kids playing in a fire hydrant in a busy neighborhood, it will likely be a great, fun picture. But if there’s a lot going on, chances are your focus will be split and you may miss some details. If, however, you shoot this same fire hydrant game with an empty street and a background that contrasts, quite often small things become clearer and more vibrant, like the splashing of the water or designs on the children’s clothing.
Imply direction. The amazing photo below not only immediately draws your eye to the ball in the upper left corner, it makes you wonder which way it’s going. Are we witnessing the beginning of its flight from left to right? Or is it just about to sail out of our view?
Make optical illusions. This one is more common in drawn pictures than photographs, but with the right object and framing, it’s possible to create optical illusions like Rubin’s Vase, where the negative space around the vase looks like two people facing each other. In this instance, you need to look at the “negative space” as its own separate subject and be doubly careful in setting up the composition to create, essentially, two different pictures in one image. These are quite difficult, but can also be extremely rewarding.
Ferina Santos is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia’s provider of graphic design courses and web design courses. A feisty nerd at heart with an obsession for media and vanity, she captures all her random musings with daily photographs in her blog, A Pink Banana.