negative space photographyEveryone knows a great picture when they see one. Whether it’s a portrait or landscape, a still life or an action shot, a great photo can take a viewer’s breath away. It can conjure up thoughts and memories, or even compel the viewer to astounding new ideas. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So what do you need to do to snap equally awesome pictures? Inspiration is only part of the secret. Like all art, photography is a skill – one that you can learn more about in Udemy’s Fundamentals of Photography course. Those skills apply to the equipment being used, but also to the way you train yourself to see the world through the lens. By learning to see negative space when you are taking photos you can begin to understand the dynamics of sight and presentation that can turn a so-so picture into a truly stunning work of art.

So, What is Negative Space?

At its most basic, negative space is the space around the subject – or positive space – of a picture. Let’s think about it in terms of photos. Think about the last selfie you took. When you snapped that self-portrait you were the subject. But were you the only thing in the photo? No, there was most likely an entire world behind and around you.

This area – whether in focus or out of focus, whether detailed or blank – is the negative space. Another example is wildlife photography, specifically insect macro photography. The Internet is full of these amazing photos. Imagine a macro photo of a ladybug crawling along a long reed. The bug is bright red and its black spots are shining. Most often macro photography has a large amount of negative space, however that negative space is out of focus. Let’s assume that the reed is on the edge of pond. Behind the ladybug, and the reed is a wide blue area, not too defined, a little out of focus. The blue is the pond. And that pond makes up the negative space of the photography.

But, so what? How does that make a picture better? Glad you asked.

Negative Space: A Photographer’s Best Friend

When you take a picture its because you saw something specific you want to capture. However, when there is a lot of activity in a picture it becomes very hard for a viewer to know where to look. Negative space is a way not just to define the main subject but also emphasize it. When you use negative space in your photography there is no doubt about where a viewer should look, and if you used it right then how they look at it will be enhanced. Think of our friend the ladybug. If it is the only thing in the picture, drawn forward by being in focus, we know exactly where to look. And by creating negative space out of the blue background we emphasize the ladybug. Its red shell with black spots stands out magnificently against the azure backdrop. Certainly, a photographer will need equipment skills to make this effect perfect, but just by seeing and using the negative space you’ll be closer to shooting pictures like a pro, something this course can help you with as well.

It Takes Practice to Change the Way You See The World

You don’t need the world’s best equipment to begin shooting negative space photography. Of course, great gear can make for a better picture but if you can’t see the world the way you want to shoot it, then all the fancy cameras in the world won’t help you master the art of taking fantastic photographs. Using negative space in your photography is about manipulating perception. To manipulate your viewer’s perception you have to start by manipulating your own.

The first step for negative space is to start looking beyond the objects you look at. Think about a soccer match. When you are in the stands watching the game you are keeping your eye on the ball. You are following it as it is passed from player to player. This intense focus on the objects (ball and players) on the field limits the scope of what you’re seeing. A soccer field is very large and the players are very spread out. Try seeing the whole field. You won’t lose sight of the ball, but you’ll have a keen understanding of the scope of the event.

When it comes to objects in your sight-line start to pay attention to the world around them as well. Spend the day looking at signs around your town or city. Signs are great to practice with because they come in a wide range of sizes, colors, and shapes. Begin to look at the space around the static shape and see how it accentuates the shape itself.

Lastly begin to look for patterns. The human brain loves patterns, and we spend most of our time (without even knowing) connecting the dots to create them in our experiences and what we see around us. When you encounter a set of objects that you want to take a picture of, look for the patterns. Are they similar in shape? Do they cast similar shadows? And what about the area surrounding them? An example would be to think about a brick wall with two large bricks sticking out from it, casting two diagonal shadows across the wall behind them. The different directions of the lines, the relationship of the bricks to each other and to the wall, all come together to make an engaging photo. If you only focused on the two bricks you’d miss out on so much that was happening in the negative space.

Black and White or Color?

Negative space can exist in whichever format you choose to shoot, black and white or color. Udemy’s black and white photography course is a great place to start if you’re going to experiment with negative space. This is because the contrast of black and white is so heightened it becomes much easier to establish which is positive space and which is negative space. For a famous example of negative space you can have a look at Rubin’s Vase. This is an optical illusion that shows just how often we do not perceive what is happening in negative space. Negative space in photography can have a reverse form as well. When you darken the subject and highlight it’s shape by having a light background you get a silhouette, which is in essence an experiment in negative space.

Generally, when experimenting in negative space you have to remember that objects in the same focal plane are not considered negative space. Think about Diane Arbus’ famous picture of identical twins. The two girls are on the same focal plane, so both are in the positive space. The negative space is the focal plane behind them, shown here by the simple white wall and a bit of floor. When shooting in color, emphasizing the different focal planes is very common. This is achieved by sharpening your focus on the subject in the positive space and allowing the negative space to become blurred and out of focus. This particular skill will take practice with your equipment, but that is part of the fun!

Painting With Your Camera

As you begin to get more comfortable with this style of photography you can start to experiment. Try taking pictures with large amounts of negative space and then take the same picture again reducing the amount. The joy of modern digital cameras is that you will be able to view your picture instantaneously. This will allow you to see your work and immediately begin to hone your understanding of the effects of this style.

One thing you may notice if you begin to look at negative space photography is how different they feel than ‘normal’ photographs. Many negative space photos really accentuate the feeling of the picture as a canvas. This has to do with framing. Learning how to frame is the final step when it comes to taking great negative space photography.

How to Frame Negative Space

Framing refers to the composition of your photograph. Think of the edges of your photo like the edges of a canvas. If you were painting on that canvas you would not be able to paint beyond the edges. Instead you’d have to utilize the space you had. The same goes with photography. Generally photographic canvasses are broken into three planes: left, right, and center. Start by taking a picture of a single object – let’s say a single screw in a purple wall. Notice where the screw is, and how much negative space surrounds it. You could easily change the feel of the photography without moving the nail. By repositioning your camera so that the screw is in the left or right third of the picture will change the negative space. Try adjusting so that the screw is in the bottom right corner, or the top left. You never move the nail – instead you move the negative space around it.

Framing for negative space doesn’t have to be limited to just one object against a solid backdrop. A lot of fantastic negative space photos utilize the land around them, the light, or even a lack of space. When you frame correctly you allow the entire picture to do some of the work for you. You are putting into practice the elements you learned including observation of the whole and pattern recognition.

Negative Space is Storytelling 

Part of the wonder of great photography is its ability to tell a story. We look at a picture of a man jumping off a grassy hill and it’s hard not to wonder why he’s jumping, what has happened, and most of all to feel something from the image. Negative space helps you to do more than just isolate the image – it also conveys a tale within it that hopefully inspires emotions in your viewers. Whether it’s something joyful and silly, something scary, or something simple, negative space is the tool to help you convey it at its best.

Don’t get frustrated if your first few attempts working with negative space don’t go exactly as planned, especially if you’re attempting to try night photography. Mastering the art of negative space will take practice, but if you put in the time and effort to explore you might be taking fantastic photographs before you know it. If you’re feeling ready, check out Udemy’s course on great landscape photography, a particular style that is well suited to your talents as a negative space photographer

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