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Written by Teagan Cunniffe

Negative space has been used as a compositional tool by artists, designers and photographers for centuries to draw attention to subjects and give stories depth. As photographers, we can use it to strengthen our own imagery and create graphic works of art.

 

"What’s important to me is that a place is empty and clean: no people at all, not many details or even an empty space can be too 'heavy'. Simple lines, nothing too complicated. "

- Emanuele A. Photographer, Milan/Shanghai

 

Images by Emanuele A.

Images by Emanuele A.

 

Simply put, negative space is the space surrounding an object in an image. If the space surrounding the object is negative, then the object itself is the positive space. Consider the image above [Left].. Negative space would be the white area surrounding the man. The man, the subject, is the positive space. In this way, negative space defines and contrast shapes more clearly, drawing attention to the subject itself.

 

"When you are in the forest and you are talking or have noise around, you can’t listen the nature sounds. However if you keep quiet, it seems like the birds start to sing, or you listen to a river never that you didn’t know about before. The negative space is the silence in a photograph to emphasize the center of attention."

- María Torralbo Castiñeira, Photographer, Spain

 

María Torralbo Castiñeira

Images by María Torralbo Castiñeira

 

"Most of the models in my photos don’t show much emotion. That makes the negative space become much far more lively. The people and the  surroundings in combination with the color tone of my photos always show a cold touch."

- Matthias Freissler, Photographer, Germany

 

Images by Matthias Freissler

- Images by Matthias Freissler

 

So, how do you go about finding and using negative space effectively?

 

1. Look for graphic shapes

Start simply- look for subjects with clearly defined lines, shadows and colors. Next, de-clutter your image to include just your subject and the negative space that surrounds it. Silhouettes work well here, or in an urban setting, buildings against a skyline. By contrasting your subject with the space around it, the viewer’s attention is focused on the aspects that we want them to see. Remember that negative space is most successful and obvious when it enhances shape.

 

"The use of Negative Space makes images much more interesting to me. It soothes the eye, letting the composition breathe. Negative Space is just as important as the actual subject."

- Kavine Goh, Photographer, Philippines 

 

Images by Kavine Goh

Images by Kavine Goh

 

2. Give your subject context

Negative space gives your subject context and scale, placing it in a surrounding that the viewer can understand and read meaning out of. For example, a zoomed in image of a dog does not tell the viewer anything about the scene- is it on the beach? In a park? By zooming out and allowing for more negative space around an object, we are able to tell more about the subject’s environment. Negative space creates mood and atmosphere in an image, setting the tone and environment in which your subject is placed.

 

"The water, the sky and a shadow could be your best friends to work this technique. A lake, sea or river it always is a good partner, because it can give you the “silence” that you need to your photograph with some texture. A “clean” sky is so good too because it works like a white sheet."

- María Torralbo Castiñeira, Photographer, Spain

 

Images by María Torralbo Castiñeira

Images by María Torralbo Castiñeira

 

3. Choose the ratio of positive to negative space

An image with a balanced amount of positive and negative space looks static and stable. To create visual interest, exaggerate either element in a scene. The larger element will have greater visual weight, demanding more of the viewer’s attention. For example, a small, minimalist subject surrounded by a lot of negative space – like a small human figure set against the side of a large building- will make your subject feel overwhelmed or inferior. Conversely, having a dominating positive shape will place less importance on the negative space around it. Deciding on the ratio between positive and negative space depends on what you want your image to say and what feeling you want it to convey.

 

"The best places for me are all places with big and clean walls and the best time is absolutely early afternoon but only in the week while all people are at work or school. I never go out for shooting in the weekend."

- Emanuele A. Photographer, Milan/Shanghai

 

Images by Emanuele A.

Images by Emanuele A.

 

"Mostly I am using walls, buildings, stairs which might look not very attractive or interesting in the first place. I like to challenge myself to make a grey boring wall look cool."

- Matthias Freissler, Photographer, Germany

 

Images by Matthias Freissler

- Images by Matthias Freissler

 

Mastering the use of negative space is a big step towards creating compelling images that focus attention on your subject. Images with a good amount of negative space have practical benefits too, as they can easily be used on websites, or in magazines where text must be placed in an image. Look at the elements around you and the shapes that they create. This is a fun way to train your eye, ultimately leading to stronger compositions and better photography overall.

 

Images by Kavine Goh

Images by Kavine Goh

 

 

 

 

Written by

 

Teagan Cunniffe is a travel and lifestyle photographer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her office is as frequently a desk as it is an airport or a mountain side, and is a firm believer in unscripted travel leading you to the best encounters and experiences. You can follow her on @tea_cunniffe or www.teagancunniffe.com.

Teagan Cunniffe

Images by

Emanuele A

Emanuele A.

Photographer, Milan/Shanghai

María Torralbo Castiñeira

María Torralbo Castiñeira.

Photographer, Spain

Kavine Goh

Kavine Goh.

Photographer, Philippines

Matthias Freissler

Matthias Freissler.

Photographer, Germany