Negative Space

What is negative space? How might you see it? How would you compose an image taking it into account?

Anyone who has been involved in commercial photography will be aware of the need sometimes to leave a designated space for text. This applies to magazines, brochures and leaflets. It is not an easy technique to master as it is natural to want to fill all the space when you are taking the image but you do get used to leaving space for advertising and selling.

Negative space, however, is far more than just space for text. It is simply the space left unoccupied around the subject of a photograph. This space helps the viewer to focus on the main image. For many people, if pictures are crowded on a wall for instance, it can feel too busy and confusing. This can detract from the viewer’s experience.

On one occasion when I was selling a photograph through a photographic studio, I persuaded the owner of the shop to allow a photograph to appear on its own on a wall with plenty of space around it. We made a deal that they would financially penalise me if it was not sold within the month as, normally, they would have used the space for more photos. Thankfully, it sold within 10 days! My reward was a Fish’n’Chips meal for 2 one Saturday night. The wall acted as a negative space and enhanced the image, making it more saleable.

Fine art and black and white photography often make particular use of negative space. See
Another photographer, Michael Kenna, took a series of black and white pictures of Ratcliffe power station in the 1980s, many with the grey skies of Northern England. See to see the masterly way he uses negative space. A more controversial figure, Robert Mapplethorpe, also used negative space to very good effect in his series of flower images, both in black and white and colour.

A feature of negative space in photography is that often a shallow depth of field and long exposures are used with a limited amount in focus. For instance, in a portrait session, the photographer would focus on the eyes of a person (not the tip of their nose or their glasses…), and the background is likely to be out of focus to emphasise the subject. This is much easier in a studio where you can control the elements of an image. Some people use Photoshop to ‘white out’ areas.

Next time you take a picture, think about negative space. If it is used creatively and in a constructive manner, it allows the viewer to really enjoy the subject and will make for a worthwhile image.

Words by Mark. Photographs by Colin.

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