Negative Space vs. Dead Space in Nature Photography

What is Negative Space?

Negative space is the area around the subject in an artwork. And to me, it is just as important as the subject itself. Maybe even more important. Negative space can make or break a work of art. It is critical to building an appealing photograph. It defines the mood… provides a sense of place… enhances or competes with the subject. When I shoot, negative space is always on my mind.

In my photo below, the sky can be considered negative space. It is not the subject of the photo… but it’s important nonetheless.

new zealand_1416c copy

Negative space can make or break an image. In this case, the sky enhances the subject.

What is Dead Space?

Unlike negative space, dead space does nothing to enhance the subject or the mood of the photograph. More often then not, dead space distracts the viewers from the subject. Other times dead space can be made up of elements that are unappealing or irrelevant to the subject you are trying to photograph. The best photographers have learned to make the most of negative space – and to avoid “dead” space.

In the photo below – taken from the same spot – there’s a lot of dead space. Does the open field on the lower left add to the photo? Does the clear blue sky add anything? Do they help define the subject? I’d answer “no” to all these questions. The photo is ineffective at best… and that’s because it’s mostly dead space. What is my subject? Perhaps the blue mountain in the distance. The leading line on the right draws me toward that element… but the open field and the empty sky do nothing to highlight it.

Example of Dead Space - Mt. Cook, New Zealand

Empty patches of sky and the uninteresting field take up too much space, and add little to the photo.

Here is another example of dead space from New Zealand. In the landscape photo below, the water in the foreground is uninteresting and dull. The uninteresting water takes away from the image.

Example of Dead Space - Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Example of Dead Space – Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

The water in the foreground is uninteresting and dull. This is a perfect example of dead space. The uninteresting water takes away from the image.

Importance of Negative Space

I am a firm believer in the importance of negative space. I think it is just as important as the subject of a photograph. How you use negative space helps to define your image – it effects impact and mood, and can make or break an image. Dead space can kill a photo, but negative space can enhance it.

When you are planning your composition, think about which detail is most important – this is your subject. Then, consider the surrounding details that should be included but are less critical – these become part of your negative space. And consider the information that is unimportant – and look for ways to eliminate it from your photograph. Here are a few tips to create effective negative space around your nature photos.

Secondary Point of Interest: When used effectively, secondary point of interest can be used to create an effective negative space around your subject. But if I’m using secondary point of interest, I want to be sure I’m using the background in a subtle way that doesn’t take away from the subject itself. In Image #1, the blurred flower in the background adds a secondary point of interest in the negative space. It’s a soft compliment to the subject. However the secondary point of interest can also be color or mood. In this Image #2, I have used fresh green color in the background to give the viewers a sense of time.

  • Example of effective Negative Space with a secondary point of interest

    Image #1: Blurred Flower creates a secondary point of interest

  • Secondary Point of Interest: Fresh Greens of Spring Season

    Image #2: Secondary point of interest is fresh greens of spring season

Depth of Field: Depth of field is a highly-effective camera setting to define the look and feel of the negative space in your nature photos. Take a look at the comparison below. I took Image #2 with a wide aperture and used a much narrower one for Image #1. The subject looks nice either way… but the background is another story. The negative space is a bit of a mess in Image #2 – there’s a lot of clutter that pulls your eye away from the point of interest. Image #1, on the other hand, is much more appealing. The smooth background lets the flower stand out and I’ve included just enough detail to give you a sense of place.

  • Shallow DOF to create clean negative space - Tom McCall Preserve, Oregon

    Image #1: Shallow DOF to create clean negative space – Tom McCall Preserve, Oregon

  • Wide DOF creates dead space - Tom McCall Preserve, Oregon

    Image #2: Wide DOF creates dead space – Tom McCall Preserve, Oregon

Shutter Speed: Just like DOF, shutter speed can be used to eliminate distraction and create pleasing negative space around your subject. In Image #1 below, Jay used a super-slow shutter speed (53 sec) to eliminate all distracting elements, including the textures in the water as well as dark floating seaweed. The slow shutter speed also blurred the details in the clouds. The smooth texture-less nature of the negative space allows me to draw the viewer’s attention to the sharp rocks as well as create a calming mood in the image. Compare this with Image #2 which was taken with a much faster shutter speed. The smooth negative space in the first image now turns into dead space with prominent textures and dark seaweed that does not add to the overall mood of the image.

  • Using slow shutter speed to create pleasing negative space, Bahia Honda State Park, Florida

    Image #1: Using slow shutter speed to create pleasing negative space, Bahia Honda State Park, Florida

  • Faster shutter speed turns the negative space into dead space, Bahia Honda State Park, Florida

    Image #2: Faster shutter speed turns the negative space into dead space, Bahia Honda State Park, Florida

When you are shooting, do you think about negative space? If you have tips to share with our readers, please feel free to comment below. We always appreciate your input!

 

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About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.