Negative Space in Photography

March 17, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I love to use negative space in my photos. It's a compositional technique from classic art, and I have always embraced it to bring balance and equality to my images.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on a cliff top in low light.Low-Light PuffinAn Atlantic Puffin on a cliff top in low light.
Taken in the traditional low-key style, to retain focus on the subject and allow the background to fall into shadow.
Fine art nature photography. Taken on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, off the coast of mainland Wales.


What is Negative Space?


It's probably easiest to define Positive Space: That's the main subject and focus of the image.

Negative Space is a term used to refer to areas of an image which surround the subject. In my photos that's very often either black or white, but it doesn't have to be. In fact it doesn't even have to be empty space. The photo below uses negative space around the stag to give context to the subject, as well as provide breathing space and balance to the image.

Red Deer Sunrise LandscapeRed Deer Sunrise LandscapeI like wider views of wildlife as well as close-ups, and even though the mist hides much of this landscape, it leaves just enough to illustrate the environment.
Taken during the
2015 red deer rut.
Woburn Deer Park, Bedfordshire.



The Aesthetic Effect of Negative Space


Providing Balance

In the photo above, the subject (the deer) and the larger trees (to the right) hold the majority of the weight. So to balance the image graphically, there needs to be more space on the left. It's like balancing weights in physics lessons...

Weight and BalanceWeight and BalanceThe force of each weight is balanced if (weight*distance from centre) is the same for each side.
It's science.

Above: The weights are balanced when their (weight * distance-from-fulcrum) is equal.

In visual imagery, balance is achieved by equalising the weight of the image's components; positive and negative spaces. Most commonly by placing the visual weight (positive space) on one side, and allowing more room for the negative space (which is visually lightweight). The diagram above translates to a photograph by using the position of the weights as the edges of the photo, and the fulcrum would be where you would place your subject. This is also the basis of the popular Rule Of Thirds.

A pelican in black and white, shot low-key on a black backgroundPelican On BlackThis is a resident pelican, at St James's Park, London, underexposed using dramatic low-key light.

Fine Art Nature Photography, London, England.

Of course the alternative is to place the subject in the centre of the frame, with an equal amount of negative space each side.

An otter swimming head-on at the camera.Otter ApproachingA river otter, swimming head-on at the camera.

This was a shot I really wanted to have in my portfolio, and I'm very pleased with it. The dark background gives a very atmospheric mood to the shot, and the simplicity of the composition leads the eye straight to the subject.

Nature photography, in captive setting, UK.



Minimalism comes in many forms, from interior design to philosophical, but as a particularly visual person I especially value minimalism in imagery. To me minimalism is about achieving a satisfying result with as little additional material as possible.

Red squirrel, back-lit in low light.Red Squirrel Low-LightThe low sun illuminates the tail of this red squirrel.
I like to play with low light, and back-lit wildlife portraits, and I was relying on a few things to come together for this shot to happen. By catching the squirrel with the light behind it, and underexposing my shot, I was able to throw the background into shadow, and retain the sunlit highlights.
Taken at
Forest How, in The Lake District.
Fine Art Nature Photography, Cumbria, UK.


A Sense of Space

I like to afford a good amount of space around my portrait subjects. This photo needs just a small silhouette to tell it's story, leaving a huge negative space around the subject for an image that is visually clean and spacious.

Calling Deer on HorizonCalling Deer on HorizonA red deer, calling during the rut, as he traverses the ridge of a hill.

Red deer rut photography, Bedfordshire, UK.


Leading the Eye

Leading Lines are a classic compositional tool, but that's not an option for my style of portraiture. But with a lack of background, I'm able to use the subject itself to lead the eye. Surrounded by negative space, the curve of this Bengal tiger's profile leads the eye from the top left, over his head, down to his chin, and back up to his ear and eye.

Low-key side angle profile portrait of a Bengal tiger, on a black background.Bengal Tiger - ProfileAsia's greatest predator, the Bengal tiger.
I took this with the low-key processing treatment in mind, and I'm very happy with the result. The abstract quality of the stripes, and the fading amber-to-white are very effective on the dark background. This is a favourite of my recent portraits.

Nature Photography, captive, UK.


Lack of Distraction

Using negative space can allow the eye to rest on the subject with no distraction. This is a big one for me, and the main reason why I like plain backgrounds. In the photos above and below, the subject is the only visual interest in the image, and that leads us to explore the aesthetic detail and emotional cues in more detail.
Side-on portrait on a bald eagle in studio-lit conditions.Bald Eagle - Black, White, and YellowI think Bald Eagle's are such fantastic birds. They're so huge, you can really read a lot into their faces. They're particularly effective for this kind of abstract photography, and simplifying the colours here, help really emphasise the key features of the head.

Fine Art Nature Photography, captive, UK.


The Emotional Effect of Negative Space


It's OK, I'm not expecting to bring you to tears with the brilliance of my work. Nevertheless negative space can often be used to imply, represent, or induce emotion.

This is one of my favourite photos. Visually, it uses space for minimalism and balance. Emotionally, the negative space and the subject matter combine to imply loneliness and isolation. The dead trees tell a pessimistic story on their own, and the raven perched amongst them adds to that with folklore connotations.
Raven & Dead TreesRaven & Dead TreesI like a graphically simple photo, and this is about as simple as it gets. A raven sits atop an old dead tree, watching time pass around them. I chose to use the high-key style here in order to maximise the simplicity of the image, and create a more stark contrast between the subject and it's surroundings.
Fine art wildlife photography, from the edge of the Finnish taiga forest.


This reindeer portrait generates it's greatest emotional impact from the eye contact, but the placement of the subject within the space also adds to the effect. Clipping that trailing leg creates a sense of tension within the image, and a sense of implied action as we see that reindeer is in the move - in to the negative space to the right.

Reindeer on WhiteReindeer on WhitePhotographed in the snow of Finnish Lapland. He was a handsome beast, and a great subject. I was very happy to catch the eye contact here, which elevates this portrait, in my view. I also like the tension created from the trailing leg; clipped from view, as he walks into shot with apparent complicity.
Photographed in high-key portrait style, to maximise the graphical impact and retain a clean bright aesthetic.


This final photo is one of quiet contemplation and emotional connection. It's a calm and relaxing image, affording space to examine that remarkable horn as well and providing balance to the off-centre subject.

Half a Highland CattleHalf a Highland CattleThis highland cattle cow was a joy to work with. I don't think I've ever seen such wide horns, and they're a very photogenic element.
I chose a classic half-on composition here, to make the most of that horn as a feature.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.


So negative space can be used in all kinds of ways, for varying effects. My favourite among them are minimalism and a sense of space; two things I value in the décor I choose to surround myself with.


Post by George Wheelhouse, 2019.



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