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Negative Space in Photography

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.

An Atlantic Puffin on a cliff top in low light.
Low-Light Puffin

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 Landscape
Red Deer Sunrise Landscape

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...

The force of each weight is balanced if (weight*distance from centre) is the same for each side.
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.

This is a resident pelican, at St James's Park, London, underexposed using dramatic low-key light
Pelican On Black

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

A river otter, swimming head-on at the camera
Otter Approaching


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.

The low sun illuminates the tail of this red squirrel
Red Squirrel Low-Light

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.

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

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.

Bengal Tiger, side-on, against a black background
Bengal Tiger - Profile

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.

Bald Eagle - low-key portat - side-on.
Bald Eagle - Black, White, and Yellow

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.

 A raven sits atop an old dead tree, watching time pass around them.
Raven & Dead Trees

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 White, photographed in Finnish Lapland.
Reindeer on White

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.

I chose a classic half-on composition here, to make the most of that horn as a feature.
Half a Highland Cattle

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.




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Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white


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