Pay Attention to Negative Space

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What is Negative Space?

First of all, let’s clarify the definition of negative space. This refers to the area around your subject. For example, in the photograph below, the gecko is the subject and the area around the gecko is the negative space.

As photographers, we are trained to pay the utmost attention to our subject. But we sometimes forget to take into account the negative space when we’re shooting.

To further complicate things, sometimes our subject is a moving target… like this gecko. Because the subject is moving, the negative space also changes every so often. This makes it especially difficult to pay attention to the negative space AND correctly frame the subject.

Background Distractions

The first photo below is my initial attempt. This first attempt is plagued with a cluttered background of leaves and stems. With a photograph like this, you may be able to crop and dodge or crop and clone to get rid of the distractions in the negative space (such as in the second photo); but even with these techniques, distracting elements sometimes remain.

  • Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

    First Attempt: Cluttered Negative Space

  • Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

    First Attempt: After Cloning & Cropping

Competing Textures

The best thing to do? Take multiple shots… such as the next two shots. First, the gecko started moving and ended up on the tip of the leaf. The texture and the colors of the leaf were so intense that they competed with the colors and textures of the gecko and the subject lost its appeal.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Second Attempt: Competing Textures

Although the tree in the following photo has a uniform background, the gecko wasn’t positioned correctly. When I tried to move the camera to make the tree more of a straight background, the gecko would move… they’re very skittish that way.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Third Attempt: Position of Gecko no ideal

Finally I ended up finding the right gecko/subject and the right negative space. The following are some tips on how to pay attention and minimize distractions caused by negative space:

Use a narrow depth of field.

In the photo below, the negative space is completely blurred out. This allows the gecko to truly stand out as the subject.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Soft background using narrow DOF

Use a uniform background

In this final photo, the background isn’t blurred at all. You can clearly see its details. But, even with the same color and texture, the gecko stands out. The size of the gecko is different than the size of the leaf’s texture which allows the gecko to not get lost in its background.

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Uniform Background

Both of these techniques help to minimize the distractions caused by negative space. What other techniques do you use to control your negative space? Please feel free to leave comments below.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams

  • This is very informative. I like the variety of displays shared to make your point. I love you and Varina’s work.

  • Desi

    I love this series of shots to show how you arrived at a great composition. Seeing the 1st attempts and the progression as well as your description of each, do far more to teach me about negative space and composition than just simply seeing the final gorgeous shot. Thank you.

    • You are most welcome. Glad you like the post.

  • Erich

    Nice article, glad to have signed for your newsletter. What about landscapes, where the subject (can be) most of the times the full frame of the photo?


    • In this case you don’t have to worry about the negative space. 😉 What is most important is to make sure that your negative space does not compete with your subject for attention.

      • David Bruchmann

        Negative space for landscapes was used somehow in the renaissance.
        In that time / style there is a view on some motive surrounded by forest and the forested areas framed the images but got less towards the center. Mostly the landscape was in mountainous regions.
        Sometimes there wasn’t much more than nature on the images but often still villages or persons.
        I suppose the style of the renaissance is described somewhere else better perhaps, so feel free to search a bit around to get a feeling for it, even with example-pictures. And on photos this style has been realized too.

      • If you analyze the negative space as “Figure” vs “Background” then people in nature or man made structures can become figure and the rest of the landscape a negative space. I always find it easier to think in terms of figure/background method.