The term negative space may sound problematic, but it’s actually an essential component of almost every great image. In fact, if you want to create gorgeous photos, you must master negative space; that way, you can take shots that feature balanced, harmonious, eye-catching arrangements. (You can also capture wonderfully minimalistic compositions, as I discuss down below.)

What is negative space?

Negative space refers to areas of a composition that are empty, bland, or otherwise uninteresting. That’s why negative space is also called white space; it’s where nothing is really happening.

In photography, negative space is often made up of certain elements:

  • Water
  • Sky
  • Walls
  • Sand

Note that all of these elements tend to fade easily into the background, and that’s why they make such great negative space. An empty sky does not draw the eye, any more than a blank white wall, a stretch of empty sand, and so on.

Positive space versus negative space

Positive space is the complete opposite of negative space. Negative space rejects the eye, while positive space steals the spotlight. You see, positive space is the area of a photo that includes elements of interest, the area that includes the main subject, the area where the viewer’s eye goes first.

In the photo below, there is plenty of positive space, but very little negative space. The flag, the buildings, and the trees all act as positive space. Even the clouds provide some positive space, thanks to their interesting arrangement and texture. The biggest patch of negative space is the sky, which takes up a tiny portion of the shot.

Now, positive space can be anything, but here are some common examples:

  • Faces
  • People
  • Buildings
  • Birds
  • Wildlife
  • Mountains
Let the scene dictate your negative space and positive space combination

Every scene has a different ratio of negative space to positive space.

And while you, as the photographer, can zoom in, change perspective, and crop to emphasize certain parts of the scene, you need to be flexible; you need to be able to embrace a scene that’s full of negative space, just the same as you embrace a scene filled with positive space.

Use negative space to balance out positive space

A key goal of photographic composition is to achieve visual balance. You want your images to feel whole, complete, satisfying.

And one way to achieve balance is by identifying your positive space, then countering it with negative space.

Experiment with minimalism

Minimalistic compositions use negative space to great effect. In fact, they’re all about negative space; they take lots of negative space, include a touch of positive space, and create an eye-catching result.

Here’s an example of a minimalist image, where the shadow acts as positive space, while the bricks provide some empty negative space:

Use negative space to convey emotion

Negative space tends to be bleak, even melancholy, especially in black and white images.

Use this fact. Tell a story with your composition – a story that’s laced with sadness, or loneliness, or quiet pleasure.

Of course, you should let the scene guide you, as I emphasized above. But you can also carefully add more negative space to your composition by zooming out, or by finding a uniquely empty background, etc.