Negative Space

Our minds are wonderful. Whenever there is a discontinuity, our mind plays around with our perception to make the discontinuity look conventional. Things take a shape and meaning, which is otherwise missing from the scene. This blank area or discontinuity is called negative space. Painters have long used negative spaces to create beautiful images. When it comes to photography, negative spaces are used to provide support to the subject and to give partial information to our brains forcing them to think beyond what is visible on the print.


(Wide expanse of blue featureless sky enhances the fountain. Any clouds in the sky would have distracted attention from the fountain.)

Empty space around the subject

The background of the subjects is one use of the negative space in photography. How a subject is placed in the frame, in relation to this space, can impart strength to the composition. The various rules for compositions also try to distribute the negative space in a manner that it looks pleasing to the eye. Refer to – Composition Clichés – Part I. When the background is blurred and used as a negative space, it can emphasize the subject. It helps our minds to focus on the subject. It provides a contrasting and low attention grabbing support to the high impact subject. This could be a an area of low contrast, low texture, motion blur, underexposed area, overexposed area, subtle gradients or even a single hue.


(Flower placed towards one corner with blurred green leaves highlighting the flower and dark area beyond. Nikon D200 with Nikkor 50mm lens)

Negative space can drastically change the overall mood of the photograph especially when used in combination with color theory (Using colors effectively). They can evoke varying emotions. Depending on the setting, colors and brightness, these emotions can range from feelings of sadness to feelings of intense joy. Negative space is not just an empty space. Its color, composition and placement in the frame can make or break an image.

Minimalism is another concept quite frequently associated with negative spaces. Apart from the subject which is simple and easy on our minds, the remaining part of the image is kept free of clutter. As Ansel Adams had rightly said – anything that does not contribute anything to a photograph, takes something away from it.

Tree and Fog

(The empty sky with fog covering up the distant trees help to draw focus to the trees which are near – Nikon D200 with Nikkor 50mm)


Some practical pointers for negative space-

  • If there is any person in the image, try to leave more space in front of the person rather than behind.
  • Same is applicable to animals and birds too. If the person is facing towards right side of your frame, leave more space on the right side. Photographers call this ‘active’ and ‘dead’ space. The active space is the space in front of the subject. The dead space is the space behind the subject, where the action is over and done with. The person has turned to one side to the space on the back is dead whereas to the direction where he has turned becomes active.
  • If the person’s face is turned to one side but the body is facing some other direction, leave space in the direction of the eyes. The space in front of the eyes is ‘active’. The person should be looking towards the space.
  • Use shallow depth of field when the background is distracting and create a negative space there. This background blur also gives a feeling of depth.
  • Use silhouettes, dark frames or underexposed areas to create dark negative spaces.
  • Overexposed areas, fog, snow, motion blurs (especially of water) can create bright negative spaces.
  • Too strong a cropping can be counter-productive. It can reduce the breathing space that the image requires and make the image disturbing to our sub-conscious.


Lady with the lamps

(The face lit by the oil lamps is further empowered by the surrounding darkness and the barely visible dress in the lower part of the image area. Without the dark negative space, the image would have become weak. More about this image can be found here – Low and High Key)


Negative spaces can create a sense of mystery. Using these tactfully can enhance the image by forcing the brain to think beyond what is visible in the image.


On a lighter note, I read this somewhere on the internet sometime back – Artists use negative space as a powerful force to define the object of a painting. The greater the negative space, the more striking the definition. In music, the pause, or the absence of sound, parallels the negative space in art and intensifies the sound’s effect. The ‘silent treatment’ in marriage also parallels this concept. What can one do in the absence of response but eventually look at oneself?

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