Snap Tutorial - 'Negative Space'

A quick look at a photographic theme

By Heie in Articles and Tips on Nov 11, 2013
Snap Tutorial - 'Negative Space'

As photographers, we spend quite a bit of time finding image-worthy subjects and composing them in such a manner as to highlight them. Some might argue that that would be the crux of photography, and at the end of the day, that's why whatever it is happens to be the subject, after all. And whether we do it purposefully or subconsciously, the void around the subject is (hopefully) carefully considered as part of that overall composition, given the same amount of deliberation as the subject itself. In fact, it can be the deciding factor between a so-so snapshot and a gallery worthy photograph!

In the above image, it's clear that there are only two distinct 'things' in the photograph - the lonely dancer on the edge of a chair and her world of grey. Read on to discover what the interaction between the two of them really means from a photographic point of view!

Editorial Note: In conjunction with the recently announced November Monthly Photography Contest, we thought it would be the perfect time to debut the Pentax Forums Snap Tutorials! Aptly named (at least we think so), because the name is in fact a double entendre. In a photographic context, 'snap' is obvious. The other meaning refers to simplicity, brevity, etc., and that's just what these are - quick informative little guides to introduce you to a topic of photography that you may not have been previously aware of.

If you were to break down the components of a photograph to its two most basic elements, think of your subject as 'positive space' and the space surrounding it (foreground + background) as your 'negative space.' Yes, we realize that while this seems simple, it is rather abstract and not so easy to objectively define. So, in order to help illustrate the concept, take the below stock images, all of which were downloaded from the free stock image site, Stockvault.net. Clicking on any of the below images will enlarge them.

Example 1: Sepia Astronaut

For our first example, the subject of the photograph is clearly and effectively isolated because the background (sky) is cloudless and acts as a solid backdrop. The 'positive space' would obviously be the astronaut in its entirety while the 'negative space' would be the void around him.

Example 2: Bonsai Tree

Here, in a similar photograph to the first example, the background of the image is clean and one color. The only difference is that this shot was taken in a studio using a white backdrop. Regardless of the implementation, the positive and negative spaces are clearly defined, with the latter highlighting the subject by removing all clutter and distractions.

Example 3: Girl in the Flower Field

In this third example, the background is not a solid 'backdrop' as in the first two. Instead it is a field of yellow flowers. (For those curious, it's the flower 'Rapeseed', or more commonly known as, 'Canola') The positive space is the one object that clearly stands out from the sea of yellow - the girl bathing in sunlight. Because of the ubiquitous yellow flowers, they in effect act as a very effective 'negative space,' bringing your attention immediately to the subject.

Example 4: Hand Print in Snow

While not all of us may have stopped to photograph such a simple (and to some, bland) photograph, surely the below is an impression that we've all created, especially as kids. In this image you can clearly see the subject, which is the handprint. If that is the positive space, then conversely the opposite would apply to the rest of the untouched snow. In the context of this image especially, the negative space is what literally defines the subject.

Example 5: Reef Above the Wake

Here a small reef/rock protrudes out of the water in a long exposure shot. Due to the processing and conditions of the shot, the water and the sky are of almost identical colors, with only a very light band across the horizon line being the differentiator between the two. In this example the positive space would be the rock and the negative space would be the surrounding (almost monotone) environment.

Example 6: Grass

Here's another example, but a different implementation than we've explored thus far. In the aforementioned examples, the juxtaposition between positive and negative was, for the most part, a dichotomy of colors. For this particular example, however, the positive is separated from its antithesis merely by focus - the 'positive space' is in sharp focus while everything else forms the bokeh and background of the image. (Yes we realize that the grass isn't uber sharp, you pixel peepers.)

Example 7: Pianist's Hands

For all of the above images, we've examined different ways to achieve and identify 'negative' and 'positive space.' Our penultimate example achieves this polarity in a much more dynamic manner. What makes this interesting, is that of all the examples, this is the only one that is open to one's interpretation. Clearly one of the 'spaces' (positive or negative) is the piano and its keys, and the other 'space' is the hands. We will let you decide which is positive or negative to you, but it is clear that they are very distinct. Most importantly, they balance each other.

Example 8: Car Panning

Our last example is similar to the one above in that it incorporates motion, however it is a very different application and method of capturing said motion. For those unaware, this photo was captured using a technique called "panning," which requires a relatively slow shutter speed (by relative we mean it changes depending on the speed of the subject, i.e. a person walking versus the car below, but regardless is slow enough to not freeze all motion in the image) and involves physically moving the camera. The movement of the camera is what causes the background to blur in the manner it does below. Because of that motion, the car's front bumper stands out like the way bokeh makes your in-focus subject 'pop' out of it. Here, the 'positive space' would be the car, particularly the very front of it, as its motion is frozen. The 'negative space'? The blur behind, in front, and around it.

As you can see, all of the above images are not very complex. Of course they may have been difficult to produce and have complex photographic setups during the actual capture process, but the final image is not complex - they all incorporate only two dominant components. And like we identified in Example 7 above, those two components balance each. Balance, the underlying theme throughout all of the examples, much like the well-known symbol of Toaism: the Yin-Yang.

The ancient Chinese forces of Yin and Yang, rather than opposing, can and should be thought of as complementary, a relationship thus combining in such a manner where the whole is greater than its individual parts. One could argue that everything has both a Yin and Yang. A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so to speak. In the context of our craft, light is the perfect metaphor. For without it, there can be no shadow. In other words, the more harmoniously you can achieve that balance between 'positive' and 'negative space' in your final composition, the stronger your image. This is because an effective negative space highlights your subject, emphasizing it with added interest.

There are many different interpretations and applications of what is arguably the most fundamental way to analyze and categorize the different elements within a photograph. Now that you understand how to identify and differentiate between the two, you can strengthen your photography by carefully considering how 'the void' is not to be neglected during your image's composition and ultimate execution.


Hopefully you found this initial Snap Tutorial helpful! Stay tuned for more like articles to make their way on the Pentax Forums front page, and if you have any suggestions for topics to be quickly covered for any future Pentax Forums Snap Tutorials, please submit them in the Site Suggestions and Help Forum.

Ready to put what you've learned to the test?  Enter in our November "Negative Space" Photo Contest for a shot at some great prizes, or share your photos in our Post Your Photos section!

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