NEGATIVE SPACE

Negative space is an intriguing concept, one that everybody has a basic grasp of in principle, but which is harder to use effectively to create a powerful image. It is also one that – at first glance – is one-dimensional: put the subject on one side and give it room. But, as is the case with all the compositional principles discussed so far, negative space provides a far greater depth when subjected to deeper analysis.

The basic

At its core, negative space is about giving the subject – usually, as mentioned, near one edge of the image – room to breathe. It is a balance between a primary, foreground, subject and a simpler background that needs to be anchored by the subject.

Road Side Delivery – No More.. by missnoma

Road Side Delivery - No More..
The base principle of negative space is well expressed here (and in a way combines multiple variants of the theme). The subject is the mailbox, but the expanse of emptiness sets the scene. It allows the subject room to breathe; there is space for anchoring of the primary subject (the shadow) and leading lines (the curve of the road). At the same time, the subject holds the panoramic scene in place.

Contextual emphasis

While the easiest examples of negative space rely on the simplicity of the background, the principle can also be embodied within more complex settings. The clear distinction between subject and surroundings, with appropriate placement, allows even the most convoluted setting to act as negative space. Balanced appropriately, this setting provides strong context for the subject, and can give a scene more meaning.

मानाचा हा पहिला मुजरा…by $aintVikas

मानाचा हा पहिला मुजरा...
The background here, the sunrise and storm, play a powerful part in giving meaning to the fluttering flag, which is subject. The same motion in the flag without the storm to support it would be lacking in meaning. A tighter crop would erode the sense of motion. The interaction between the two parts emphasises the effect; we can feel the weather, there is reason for the presented motion.

Mood

Most examples and mechanisms of negative space related to spatial ranges and limits – to direction. This need not always be the case; it can also play into the emotional mood of an image. This most often will be in the form of more darkness around an already sombre scene.

Desperation by Joker 74

Desperation
The dominant aspect of this image is clearly the play of filtered light and the way it picks out the woman’s silhouette. The power of that composition, though, relies on the scene set by the surrounding darkness. Remove the shroud of negative space, and the impact of the image is lessened.

A matter of scale

Negative space is interesting in how it can be used to emphasise scale, both large and small. Mighty mountains topped with an even greater expanse of sky will appear more majestic for the room afforded them, yet the judicious use of negative space can show how small and insignificant another subject is, as here:

One is the loneliest number by iamnotanumber8885

One is the loneliest number
Anyone who knows anything about composition will tell you that you do not place the subject in the centre of an image. And as with any base principle, there is an exception to be found, an edge case that justifies breaking the rule. While this image could be presented with the subject moving into the frame, that would provide a sense of dominance: that man is bigger than his world, in control. Here, there is a wake to be seen, the sense of direction, and an infinite expanse all around: much as man struggles, makes his way through this world, it will always be the bigger.

Room for other compositional elements

Within the examples above, and almost all those below, the negative space is a prerequisite of the image working well; many scenes require the balance it provides. Sometimes, though, a scene could work just as well without the space, but if used correctly, to allow another compositional element to enter the frame, it provides an extra sense of completeness.

flooded fences by ole’ Betsy

flooded fencesm
This image would work perfectly if only the upper half existed; a soothing panorama of delicate sky and reflection. The inclusion of the negative space does not in itself enhance the image. However, it does provide room for the leading line of the fence to anchor firmly in the bottom right corner. In this case, the negative space does not serve a direct compositional function, but instead allows another element to come into play, to strengthen the overall power of the scene.

Balance

One of the most common uses for negative space is to provide side-to-side (or bottom-to-top) balance within an image. This is of particular importance when the subject is tight up against the edge of the frame, or even half out of it: the emptiness is required as a counterweight to the missing part of the subject.

31/365 (An ode to my eyeballs…) by elise*marie

31/365
While the subject here is the model, and particularly her eye, the pivot is on the hand which frames from the left. Without the expanse of simple, plain negative space, the whole would be cramped because of the half-face approach taken. The negative space counters the missing part of her face, taking away that cramped feeling.

Space to move into

With any subject viewed in profile, that has a front and a back, the standard approach is to allow it space to move forward into: to give it a sense of motion. Negative space is a fundamental aspect of this; the emptiness that invites continuation of motion despite a static image.

On my way home by guerriere

On my way home
While negative space can generally help to provide space to move into, when the front and back of the subject are easily discernible, in this case, that principle is applied in reverse: the motion blur within the subject might leave some not entirely certain as to the direction of travel (I find it easy to discern, but am sure some will wonder). The negative space provides first a hint of the direction of travel, because we subconsciously are so familiar with the concept of space to move into, then fulfils its normal role once the motion is more clearly understood.

Support

While the concept of providing space to move into is well understood, the use of negative space as a support is not quite so intuitive. It is the same principle, but applied backwards, with the space behind the motion rather than in front of it.

He was in my fishing spot. by ben.pearson.007

He was in my fishing spot.
The classic take on this scene would be for the subject to be relatively tight against the left edge, with a large space in front, for him to fish in. The use of negative space behind instead of in front, and that said space is visibly impassable, serves to emphasise the fisherman’s presence, that he feels it is his place: his back is to the wall and he will defend it. This gives a more conflicted feel to the scene than the standard approach would, where the feel would be one of anticipation and exploration.

Foreground support

While the previous example was of directional support, negative space can also be used to provide foreground support, in a way similar to a combination of leading lines and foreground interest.

Late Afternoon on the White Sands by maclobster

Late Afternoon on the White Sands
The foreground in this image – almost half of its area – might contain a very fine texture of rippled sand, but it is not the subject; instead it provides the entry point into the rest of the image; it is the calm that can be followed up, into the distance where the subject itself is to be found.

Negative borders

The ideas above, of space to move into and support can be combined – in the right picture – to achieve borders through negative space. This is by no means a simple concept, and – perhaps – it is one that requires motion through the third dimension (depth) to work, as in this example.

Cutting Edge by sannesu

Cutting Edge
While the subject here is moving towards the camera, turning to our right, the pose fools the eye into seeing the motion as towards the left, and so as there being space on that side to move into, beyond the arc of spray. Meanwhile, on the right, the water in its own shadow has just enough empty body to work as supportive negative space. Between them, these two areas hold the subject in balance, much the same way that gravity and centripetal forces keep man on board.

Depth

The direction implied by negative space, as shown previously, is generally a forward/backwards thing. While foreground support negative space can lead one into an image, that is still along a shown surface. Depth is different in that it relates to negative space being used to imply straight-on distance, rather than oblique distance.

lola plots another shower curtain ambush kate mellersh

lola plots another shower curtain ambush
The combination of the subject being placed within the corner, interacting with the viewer so directly, and the wrap-around tube of the curtain allow the wider expanse of emptiness – of negative space – to be taken as a greater distance. Though we can focus on Lola, she is too far away, beyond reach.

… as subject

The examples of negative space given so far relate to the use of the space as an element to balance or interact with a main subject. It is, of course, quite reasonable to have the negative space itself as the subject, with other elements providing the compositional direction.

Rolling by Steve Marvell

Rolling
The negative space here is in two parts: sky and ocean – evenly balanced and serenely empty, despite the texture in the bottom half. And it is that emptiness which acts as subject here, for the foreground is dark (a good combination of foreground interest, leading line and anchor), while the hills on the edge are but silhouettes. Everything sends the eye to explore the expanse of emptiness.

Planar space

Had I not had an even better twist to finish this article with, I would have finished with this use of negative space. But as it is, I get to include it in the body: where other forms of directional space had to do with one side or another of the image, or even the gap between viewer and subject, planar space is about an implication of depth, similar to the way that foreground interest provides a sense of scale within a wider scene.

A for Apple by -Dhrubo-

A for Apple
By no means a conventional interpretation of negative space, the curve beneath the apple provides more than just a vertical support for a piece of fruit. By its shape, and the slight loss of focus near the edges, it implies a deeper surface on which the apple sits. The negative space here is not so much about the emptiness around the apple within the area of the image, but the large area we do not see behind it.

Gallery

While I originally thought I would have a big gallery – negative space is, after all, such a simple thing – it turns out I had to stop finding variants on the theme to allow a gallery to fill out the 18 images that make up this article. And so, here are some additional examples – images within the theme that caught my attention, revisiting the themes mentioned above.

playtime by Mauritius100

playtime
Taken normally, this would be a pretty simple image – a basic still life with a little colour. The use of a zoom during exposure adds a beautiful touch of depth. The layers of zoom in this particular case, due to irregularities in the zoom and the shape of the subject, provides various layers of image echo over itself: space in layers, a feel of depth that would not be in a straight image.

You walk with me by aftab.

You walk with me
An intriguing double instance of negative space here. The obvious one is the space in the top portion of the image, where emptiness provides a vertical balance to the action and truncated foreground. The second instance of negative space is the rock-strewn emptiness the man and boy are moving towards – the space for direction. This double space, with the subjects, create quite a serene image.

Roller-coaster Love by neelgolapi

Roller-coaster Love
This image is a perfect example of negative space used to enhance mood, in a light setting rather than a dark one. Given how delicate the rose is, it would not do to squeeze it within a tight frame. It needs the emptiness around it to breathe, to be light.

Sahara- Marokko 2008 by guerriere

Sahara- Marokko 2008
This is another classic example of negative space that provides the subject room to dominate. An old discarded can in the desert it might be, but it has interesting texture. The space helps to express the context, with the focus dwindling half way across: alone in such an expanse of harshness, it retains a brutally rugged beauty.

come up and see me, make me smile by kate mellersh

come up and see me, make me smile
Classic, simple still life – cherry and shadow – but within such a large, empty setting as to question (unsuccessfully) the dominant presence of that burst of bright redness anchoring its own shadow.

A special twist

As is now standard practice, we end the article with a rather twisted take on negative space. It’s there, you just need to understand where to look for it.

abacus by jenny downing

abacus
The moment I first saw this image, I knew it would be my twist on negative space. To see where negative space comes into this, view it not as a single image, but as a hexaptych: six individually bounded, simple images, each with its own subject(s) and placement of negative space. Each part has its own balance, together they are a musical flow.

  1. August 5th, 2011

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