Sometimes It's Okay To Be Negative
Negative space. No, it’s not the place you go when you’re depressed or a physics term like antimatter (though why anyone should be against matter is beyond me). It’s a term used in photographic and painting composition that refers to the space around your subject (and the space(s) between them if there is more than one subject).
In some kinds of pictures, negative space is what you DON’T want your viewers to spend too much time looking at. You want them to look at your subject(s), and subjects are called positive space – a nice place for all of us to be. The negative space serves mainly as an unobtrusive (but pleasant) background. That’s why formal portraits, fashion and advertising photos, and the like are often made against backdrops. They don’t interfere with the face, the clothes, or whatever. Used this way, negative space is a sort of neutral setting in which to show off your subject. One of the reasons that depth of field is such a great tool is that we can use it to throw even busy backgrounds so far out of focus that they don’t compete with that nice positive subject. (See the “Sharp or Fuzzy” Tips Flick and Actual Info for more about depth of field.)
But don’t confuse negative space with wasted space, which is just that—a waste of pixels, empty, devoid of meaning. Anything and everything that is within the frame of your photograph matters and should contribute. If it doesn’t, move closer or to a different angle, change lenses, try a different depth of field—something that will help your subject stand out and minimize unwanted and distracting elements. We’ve all made pictures in which there is a lot of wasted space at the top, bottom, left and right. If you cropped way in on these it wouldn’t matter—in fact it would probably make them better. Better to do the cropping in the camera.
In other pictures, the space around you subject or subjects is an integral part of the image, a sort of secondary subject—like the room in which someone works or the landscape they are in. The space around your subject contributes to the feeling and meaning of the image. In these cases, there really is no negative space, only lots of positive.
And then there are images in which the negative space is really as much or more of a subject than the purported subject itself, and the negative space therefore becomes positive (which oddly does not make it neutral). The negative space in these pictures tends to be pretty homogeneous, and its mass and tone carry meaning. Think of a boat emerging from a big bank of fog—the image is a sum of those two parts. Or like this picture of two guys paddling their canoes across the Congo River. In this shot, the amount of space within the frame taken up by the water conveys a sense of how big the river is, how small people are compared to it, and how much work it is to get across.
A closer image of just the guys paddling is okay, but a very different kind of picture. A shot of just the negative space, the water, is REALLY boring.
The point is that the two elements, negative and positive, need each other in order to make a successful photograph. And notice too that in the large image I placed the paddlers off center and near the top of the frame. This accentuates the mass of the water and reinforces the feeling I was after. (Well, and if I had tilted the camera up the riverbank forest would have crept into the frame.)
And there are times when adding just a little more negative space adds a feeling to the picture that might not be there if you were in tighter. Like in this portrait. All the black negative space in the horizontal image lends it a very different feeling from the closer-cropped one, even though the face is exactly the same.
Or below, where a tighter shot would not convey anything like the same feeling. In this image, there are two bits of negative space—the bright clouds, mountains, and sky and the dark silhouette of the ridge the women are walking down. Each of these two areas has weight, and though they are greatly different in area, they balance the picture. The bottom is so dark and dense that its mass balances the much larger brighter area. It's helpful sometimes to think of negative spaces as having weight, and looking for ways to use them to give balance to your images.
So, if you feel that the space around your subject contributes to the mood or idea of the photograph you want to make, or if you can use it as a compositional element to lend balance (or off-balance if that's what you're after) don’t be afraid to use it. Sometimes you can turn negative into positive.
Actual Info: Text © 2010 Robert Caputo
Photos © 2010 Cary Wolinsky, © 2010 Robert Caputo