How to use negative space in photography - 10 top tips

First published:
June 17, 2022
July 28, 2023

How to use negative space in photography - 10 top tips

First published:
June 17, 2022
July 28, 2023

Cover photo by Shaun Mills

Sometimes the empty spaces in your photos can be just as vital to the composition as the point of interest

When we compose a photo it can be useful to think in terms of positive and negative space, and how the relationship between the two can impact on the image. Let’s look at 10 tips, tricks and techniques for effective use of negative space in your photos…

1 What is negative space?

Negative space refers to the parts of a photo (or painting) that are empty, lacking in detail or otherwise formless. By contrast, the ‘positive space’ is the areas that contain detail, objects, people, or other noteworthy features. Positive space may be the more distinct of the two, but that doesn’t mean negative space can’t have an impact of its own. By considering the relationship between the positive and negative space and experimenting with the balance between the two, you can create dynamic compositions and unique images.

Placing the subject in the bottom corner of the frame emphasises the vastness of sky and sea. Photo by Karen Morgan

2 Accentuate the negative

Most photos will feature at least some small areas of negative space, as there will be parts here and there that lack detail or are blurred. But when we talk about making use of negative space, we usually mean over-emphasising the space so that it becomes integral to the image. Think about photographing a person. We could zoom in very tight on the face, or go for a head-and-shoulders shot, or a full length portrait. Each of these conventional approaches will have some areas of negative space, simply because we’re fitting a person into a rectangular box. But if we think ‘outside the box’ and intentionally accentuate the negative space - perhaps by framing them in the corner, or pulling back so they are very small in the frame - then we can create a completely different dynamic.

Try pulling back to include negative space around the subject. Photo by Matthew Mallett

3 Exploring space

When we approach photographing a scene we often tend to rely on familiar compositional tricks - like including foreground interest or aligning elements on the rule of thirds. But thinking in terms of negative space can force you to explore more unusual compositions, so it can be a great way to kick-start your creativity. In any scene there will be opportunities to include detail-less areas. Perhaps it’s an expanse of blue sky, a plain wall, a quiet street or an empty table. Try placing the subject to the extreme side, or in one corner, or even dead-centre and include space around them.

Framing the top of the building to include the negative space of blue sky creates a bold composition with two contrasting colours. Photo by Matthew Higgins - f/6.3 | 1/125s | ISO 100

4 When to use negative space?

What’s the difference between a photo that successfully uses negative space, and one that is just loosely or carelessly composed? There are no rules, but you tend to know it when you see it. For negative space to be successful, the photographer has to make a conscious decision to include it, perhaps with the intention of creating a mood or atmosphere. Often it can create a feeling of melancholy, as the negative space makes it seem as if the subject is lonely or isolated. Used to this effect, negative space can have a positive impact on the atmosphere of the photo.

The negative space around the lighthouse creates a strong sense of isolation. Photo by Lloyd Austin - f/11 | 175s | ISO 100

5 Use blur

Blurry, out-of-focus areas can be used to create negative space. The less detail in the blur the better. If you use a long lens (or step back and zoom in) and a wide aperture like f/2.8, then anything in front or behind the point of focus will be soft. Positioning can play an important role too, as the further the subject is from the background the stronger the background blur. As such, if you want to emphasise the blur, step back, zoom in and move your subject further from the background. By contrast, if you want stronger foreground blur, frame up with the blurred areas very close to the lens.

Blurring the foreground grass here creates an expanse of negative space that draws the eye towards the puffin. Photo by Alain Poirot - f/4.0 | 1/400s | ISO 100

6 Make a dynamic crop

Sometimes a bold crop can result in a strikingly unbalanced composition. Try, for example, framing half a building, or half a face and include negative space in the other half of the frame. It’s a technique to use sparingly, but on the right subject it can create eye-catching results.

A bold crop leaves the half the frame as negative space. Photo by Duc Truc Nguyen - 1/400s | ISO 200

7 Use a long exposure

The surface of the sea, with its churning water and rolling waves - can often look rather untidy. But if we use a long exposure we can transform the movement of the water into silky smooth blur and create an expanse of negative space. For this you’ll need to use a shutter speed of several seconds or more, which in daytime will usually require a tripod and a neutral density filter. A six-stop or ten-stop ND filter is ideal for transforming choppy water into beautiful blur.

Long exposures can be great for transforming bodies of water into smooth negative space. Photo by Shaun Mills - f/5.6 | 422s | ISO 100

8 Leave space for copy

Negative space isn’t just useful for creating atmosphere or an unusual composition, it can also be a practical decision on the part of the photographer. If you’re intending to submit images to stock libraries then negative space can be a useful asset, as it gives art editors and website designers space to include text, logos or other graphic elements. Experienced stock library photographers will often capture the same scene several times with slightly different framing so that there’s a choice of negative space to work with.

Negative space on the left here will be useful for adding text or other design elements. Photo by Olga - 1/200s | f/1.6 | ISO 100

9 Control your exposure

The key feature of negative space is that it is featureless, an expanse of nothing. But even a very cluttered scene can be reduced to a featureless expanse. The trick is to underexpose or overexpose so that parts come out very dark or very bright. For this to work you need a scene with lots of contrast between the brightest and darkest areas, like a shaft of sunlight on a dark city street. If you expose for the highlights then the shadows will be near-black, while exposing for the shadows will blow out the highlights to white. You can use your camera’s exposure compensation feature to make the scene brighter or darker.

Exposing for the bright beam of sunlight here plunges the rest of the scene into deep shadow. Photo by Maksr - f/2.8 | 1/800s | ISO 100

10 Create negative space in Photoshop

If a background looks cluttered or distracting then there are Photoshop tricks you can use to transform it into negative space after-the-fact. It might only need a bit of dodging and burning to selectively darken or lighten the area. But for more extreme edits, you could use the Remove Background button (hit Cmd/Ctrl+F > Quick Actions > Remove Background) and then drop in a new image to replace the original backdrop. There’s also the brilliant Depth Blur filter (Filter > Neural Filters > Depth Blur) which can be used to throw a busy backdrop out-of-focus.

Photoshop’s Depth Blur filter can be used to blur out busy backdrops into detail-less negative space

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