Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use negative space in the fifteenth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
The concept of negative space has to do with compositional balance. Negative space simply means an area of an image that is largely devoid of subject matter. In other words, it’s a blank area like the sky, an expanse of plaster, or the surface of a body of water. Photos 15.1 and 15.2 are good examples of negative space. The white sky behind the mountain lion is considered negative space, as is the cloudy sky above Bled Castle in Slovenia. To be negative space, the area obviously doesn’t have to be a solid color. As you can see from the large expanse of sky, the thick clouds have texture but are essentially without any form that we focus on.
The reason artists came up with this idea was to explain why certain types of compositions look good. Consider the photo of the castle in San Marino, photo 15.3. There appears to be no balance here because the architecture is off-center and there is nothing on the left side of the photo that has enough “weight” to balance it. The imaginary seesaw that I described in the “Balance” article in this series would be slanted down to the right. If we ascribe weight to the sky, however, we can then say that the “negative space” provides the required weight that brings the image into balance. In the photo of the topi, (15.4), the out-of-focus background on the left does the same thing. It justifies composing the animal off-center because it provides the balance to make the image compositionally correct.
In a photo like image 15.5, the roseate spoonbill was placed in the center of the frame. In this case, I didn’t need anything to balance the subject. However, the sky is still considered negative space.
Negative space can also act as an area of an image that helps to force attention on a subject. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina (15.6), for example, is not competing with anything in the background. The sky makes an attractive negative-space background that helps force all the attention on the subject, because there is nothing else to look at in this picture. The eye isn’t confused or distracted. This is one of the most powerful ways to compose a picture. I used the same technique in composing a photo of a crowned crane (15.7), in which the out-of-focus background balances the bird. I used a 500mm lens to fill the frame with the remarkable head of the bird, as well as to throw the background completely out of focus.
The idea of using negative space to balance a subject can also work with a surface texture that at first you wouldn’t identify as negative space. For example, the window I shot in Ireland (15.8) was placed off-center so that the rock façade could balance it, and the rocks are actually negative space.
Go to the next article in this series: Breaking the Rules
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules