Two figures stand in a dark alleyway, lit by purple light

What is negative space in photography?

By BBC Maestro

Of all the tools and techniques you can learn as a budding photographer, negative space is undoubtedly one of the most powerful, helping to transform photographs into incredible pieces of art. 

But what exactly is negative space in photography? And how can you use it to its full potential? Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about this composition technique.

What is negative space?

Negative space refers to the area surrounding the main subject of a photograph; that is, the empty or unoccupied space that surrounds it. It’s usually deliberately devoid of details so it doesn’t detract attention from the main subject too.

Think of a photograph of a vast, expansive sky, with a single bird soaring through it. The sky doesn’t jump out immediately at the viewer – instead, their attention goes to the majestic bird. The sky acts as negative space here.

Another example could be a beach scene, with a couple holding hands and gazing out to sea. The sea and sand have texture but they’re not overloaded with details, meaning that viewers don’t get distracted by them – and they help to create a sense of scale. The background creates a striking image in which the couple is the main focus.

When photographers use negative space, they emphasise the subject, naturally drawing the viewer’s eye towards it. That can make for an impactful image that leaves a lasting impression.

Sometimes, when images have no negative space, or very little of it, they can look busy and overwhelming. Negative space can give your subject some breathing room, letting the subject speak for itself.

A bird flies in the sky

What’s the difference between negative space and positive space?

Positive space is, essentially, the opposite of negative space. It’s the area of a photograph that’s occupied by the main subject, and usually contains lots of details that attract the viewer’s attention.

The balance between positive and negative space is key to achieving a well-balanced composition. Together, these two elements work to create a striking image with a clear focal point.

Some photos have lots of negative space and no distracting elements, while others have lots of positive space, with several different things to focus on. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to space in your photography. It all depends on the effect you’re trying to create.

A busy street

When to use negative space

You can use negative space whenever you like, depending on your desired effect. It can emphasise your subject, evoke emotions or create a strong visual impact. Some common ways to use negative space include:

Portrait photography: When shooting portrait photography, you can use negative space to create a powerful image. By leaving space around the subject, you’ll draw attention to their expression or features.

Architecture photos: Want to highlight the grandeur and scale of buildings? Consider framing them with an expansive sky to create an impactful image.

Still life: There is usually a lot of detail in still life photography, and you run the risk of images becoming cluttered if there’s a busy background. Leaving empty space around the objects allows you to emphasise their textures, details and colours.

Wildlife photography: From dolphins leaping out of the ocean to giraffes roaming on the plains, negative space lets the incredible animal kingdom speak for itself. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn towards the subject, allowing them to take in all the animal’s features and unique details.

Street photography: Street photography records everyday life in public places – meaning that, by its very nature, it can sometimes be busy and full of details. Negative space can be used to create more stark, striking, and emotional street images – think of a large expanse of wall with a person walking past in the bottom corner, or a skateboarder surrounded by a concrete skate park.

How to master negative space

Want to create beautiful images that make the most of negative space? Here are some tips and tricks:

Keep it simple

Choose a strong subject that you want to emphasise within the image, with a background that’s uncluttered. It’s fine for your background to have texture, such as in the sky or a field of grass, but lots of busy elements will be distracting – turning your negative space into positive space.

Play around with positioning

Your subject doesn’t always have to be right in the centre of your image – in fact, if you work to the ‘rule of thirds’, then you’ll know that it’s recommended that your subject is slightly off-centre to create a more balanced photograph. This works particularly well when you have lots of negative space, to create a more striking image.

However, through trial and error, you’ll also learn when to break the rules. Positioning your subject in an unexpected part of the image, like the bottom left corner, can be surprising and make for a more striking image.

Use a shallow depth of field

Shooting your photo with a wide aperture allows you to reduce the depth of field and bring your subject into sharper focus. It will slightly blur the background, creating even more distinction between the main subject and its surroundings.

Experiment with light and darkness

Negative space doesn’t have to be black and white, but playing around with light and darkness can create an evocative image. Try experimenting with light and shadow in your photographs to create different atmospheres. You could even use silhouettes, with your subject appearing as a dark shape against the negative space.

Alternatively, a pop of colour can make your subject stand out against the background. Photography is a creative medium and experimenting with the use of light, darkness and colours can help you to tell a story through your art.

A vase of flowers on a table

Play with proportions

Consider what ratio you want of negative space versus the main subject. Do you want to have a small subject, surrounded by negative space? That may be a good choice if you’re trying to evoke a sense of wonder and awe. Or do you want a smaller amount of negative space, creating a more balanced image?

Experiment with negative space

Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to negative space. It’s a powerful composition technique that can be used to create incredible, awe-inspiring photographs – but how you use it is up to you. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break the rules, to develop your own artistic instinct. Over time, you’ll find out what you like (and don’t like) when working with negative space.

Ready to find out more about other photography tools and techniques? Learn from one of the very best in the business with Rankin’s BBC Maestro course

You’ll learn everything you need to know about photography, with insights into everything from how to choose a camera to how to network with others in the industry.

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