The Positive Traits of Negative Space

Negative Space Surrounding a Stargazer Lily Bud  ©  F.M. Kearney
Negative Space Surrounding a Stargazer Lily Bud © F.M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

Simply put, “negative space” is the space around the subject in your photograph. Conversely, “positive space” is the area occupied by the subject itself. This is the most basic definition, but in theory, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Negative space should generally occupy the majority of the frame, but it should not be misconstrued with needless space (sometimes referred to as “empty space”) that was inadvertently added due to poor composition. It should be evident to the viewer that the extra space was deliberately included for artistic purposes – usually to denote feelings of loneliness, solitude, or even importance. It may sound odd that a subject’s importance would be emphasized if it’s not the predominant element in the frame, but when all other distractions are removed, the viewer will spend more time studying it. In essence, the smaller the subject is, the more noticeable it will become.

I purchased the stargazer lily above at a local florist and shot it in my home studio. The negative space created by the black background focuses your eye on the lily, and nothing but the lily. This is an obvious example since it’s the only thing visible in the frame, but negative space doesn’t always have to be completely devoid of color and detail.

The images below were shot outdoors under “real-world” conditions. In these cases, the negative spaces and subjects roughly occupy an equal amount of the frames, but the subjects still stand out. The background of the shrub rose is very dark with few details. Although more details are present behind the tea crabapples, they’re very inconsequential and don’t detract attention away from the main subject. These images also illustrate a common compositional technique whereby more space is added in the direction the subject is facing. You’ll see this all the time with the camera shots on the evening news. Unless your goal is to create an unorthodox, “artsy” type of image, you generally don’t want your subject to be kissing the edge of the frame. 

Here the tea crabapples are shown with minimal details in the negative space. © F.M. Kearney
Here the tea crabapples are shown with minimal details in the negative space. © F.M. Kearney
A shrub rose with an almost black negative space.
In contrast, here the shrub rose has an almost black negative space. © F.M. Kearney

Long exposures can help to create feelings of isolation in negative spaces. Using a neutral density filter, I exposed the pier below for 30 seconds – rendering the rough, crashing waves as a featureless blur. Combined with the dense fog, there’s absolutely nothing but the pier for the eye to lock onto.

The pier isolated due to  negative space created by blurred waves and dense fog. © F.M. Kearney
The pier isolated due to negative space created by blurred waves and dense fog. © F.M. Kearney

It’s important to keep that in mind because negative space can easily meld into the “positive” zone. I shot the scene below at sunrise in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s an interesting scene, but the space around the landscape can hardly be considered “negative.” Your eye immediately starts looking at a multitude of things: shapes in the clouds, relections on the lake, ducks swimming by, etc. There’s far too much going on here to be able to solely focus on the landscape.

Photo of a busy sky reflected in water. Negative space that’s too cluttered is no longer “negative.” © F.M. Kearney
Negative space that’s too cluttered is no longer “negative.” © F.M. Kearney
Photo of New York at sunset. Effective use of negative space can “tame” the Manhattan skyline. ©  F.M. Kearney
Effective use of negative space can “tame” the Manhattan skyline. © F.M. Kearney

The image above is sort of the urban counterpart to the Prospect Park photo. It’s ironic that a city scene would elicit feelings of solitude and relaxation far more than a nature scene. But when the power of negative space is properly employed, even the Manhattan skyline will appear serene.

Another benefit of negative space is that it provides the perfect spot for text. If you ever plan on submitting your work to greeting card publishers or editorial outlets, having room for copy space will make your images more marketable.

One of the rules for beginner photographers is to “fill the frame.” It’s a good rule that produces compelling images free of unnecessary distractions. But we all know what they say about rules. Breaking with tradition and effectively including some negative space can produce very positive results.

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).