One of the fundamental rules of photography that we're all taught early in our learning curves is to 'fill the frame'. In fact, the first lesson in the Photocritic Photography School is all about getting closer to the subject and making sure that there's nothing extraneous in the frame. You don't want it to be a tiny, practically unidentifiable blob somewhere in the image that your eye has the hunt to locate. As a consequence, the idea of 'negative space'—or the presence of nothingness in an image—probably seems counter-intuitive. Instead of seeing them as polar opposites, it might help to think of 'getting closer' and 'negative space' as two sides of the same coin that complement each other. Sometimes, a little bit of nothing is just what your subject needs.
If you have a complex subject that’s detailed and busy, contrasting it against an area of nothing will bring some balance to the composition. It helps the eye to find a point of focus and to stop the image from feeling chaotic.
Even if you’ve done all the ‘right’ things compositionally—you’ve selected the appropriate frame orientation, you’ve used the rule of thirds or the Golden Ratio, the image is balanced, there are leading lines directing the eye to the subject—sometimes an image won’t look as good as it could. By putting some negative space around the subject you give everything ‘room to breathe’ and it somehow becomes better balanced.
A sense of space
If you fill your frame with a recurring pattern or repeating subject, like a mosaic or a pile of fruit, and not give it any boundaries, you can create a sense of the infinite in your photos. Surrounding a solitary subject with negative space creates a similar effect.
For example, you could photograph a sailboat on a lake and include the shoreline, which limits the feeling of space. By composing your image so that you capture just the sailboat on a negative space of water—perhaps by altering you vantage point slightly, maybe by getting in a little closer, or even shooting a touch wider—it is suddenly sailing on an infinite sea.
Negative space can contribute to the atmosphere that you want to create in your photographs. Dark negative space can imply brooding or foreboding. Negative space in particular colours can lend a certain feeling to an image; blue is calming, for example, whilst yellow is uplifting. Or there's the opposite of dark and foreboding with positive and airy negative space created by light colours.
Accentuating the subject
When there is nothing else to look at except the subject in an image, that’s exactly where the eye will go. Placing the subject in a sea of negative space will accentuate it. Obviously this is ideal for product photography, when you want the £50,000 diamond ring to be the centre of attention, but you can also use it to make dramatic or slightly surreal images that aren’t intended to sell something!
Achieving this sort of effect isn’t difficult. The first option is to photograph your subject on a plain background. If you don’t have a professional backdrop, a scarf or a sheet will work, too. However, you can also use lighting to surround your subject in negative space. You can either light your background so strongly that you ‘blow it out’, or over-expose it to the extent that the sensor cannot detect anything in that area; or you can light the subject significantly more strongly than the ambient light, so that it will look as if it is emerging from the darkness. Both techniques are highly effective and you can have a lot of fun experimenting with them.
Enhancing patterns and shapes
Our eyes and brains are constantly roving for patterns and shapes: think about gazing up at a bright blue sky, and how we look out for cloud formations that resemble faces, animals, and countries. The interaction of positive and negative space in a photograph, especially a minimalist black and white composition, creates similar opportunities to make and look for shapes. You just have to look out for the interplay between objects or between light and shadow.
So that's something for you to try this weekend: looking for the positives in negative space.