Understanding – Negative space

Understanding Negative space

You quite often hear artists or photographers talking about the Negative space in an image.   So this is what I’m thinking, “What is it?” and “Will it improve my photography?”  I guess that is why I am writing this article.

What is negative space?  When you look at a picture, you can divide the canvas into subject and background.  Actually it’s more complicated than that.  Sometimes the background is full of important details, like leading lines, or second and third subjects.   Think of the picture as comprising somethings and nothings.  The somethings are all of the objects in the picture that draw your eye.  The something is the positive space.  The rest of the picture is the negative space.  This might not really be nothing, it could be a blue sky or golden sand.  However my brain somehow removes them from the equation and  perceive them as not being of interest.  Often the negative space is uniform in colour tone or texture.

An example:

Duomo Negative space

This is a bridge over the Duomo river in Porto.  The positive elements in this picture are the bridge itself, the banks on either side, the boats in the river and the pylons in the water in the foreground.  The sea and the sky are the negative space.  Below I have mapped the positive (black) and negative (white) elements.

Duomo Negative space-1

This picture appears to have about 2/3 of the frame filled with negative space.  Is this good or bad?  I will come back to that later.

The concept of negative space comes from the graphic arts.  Black is the colour the pen makes on  paper and is by default considered the colour of positive space.  This is not always the case.  For instance white is the colour of positive space when you use chalk on a blackboard.

It was recognized in graphic art that sometimes an image is created in the negative space.


Graphic artists will often use the negative space to create a second image.  Look at the cover of the book on negative space by Norma Bar (left).  At first I am aware that there is a white dog with an open mouth.  However on second look I can see that the open mouth depicts a black cat with a collar.  This effect was used extensively by M.C. Escher when he developed his tile like designs and tessellationsIt is also used extensively in creating company logos and graphic designs,



This is also the basis of some interesting visual illusions.


Aource – Wikipedia

Rubin’s vase is an illusion in which the negative space around the vase forms the silhouettes of two faces in profile.  When the eye is drawn to look at the vase (left) the faces are not see,  However when you look at the negative space (right) the faces appear.  This is known as figure-ground reversal.

F&J and negative


Frances and I took a shot at figure ground reversal (above) where we tried to to recreate this effect.  Our profiles are dissimilar and so we did not really create a vase.  However the image is still striking.  The faces were taken in silhouette (right) minimizing the detail in the face.

Interestingly the negative space does not necessarily need to be devoid of detail.  In the following example the negative space is denoted by being lighter in tone and blurred.

Harley davidson Negative space 3

I guess the key concept is that negative space is not an innate characteristic of the image, but it is how the brain interprets the image.   It is those bits of the image that are not perceived as important.

So how can being aware of negative space improve my photography?  I guess the short answer is that it makes for better composition.   The negative space enhances the positive elements in the picture.  Having the appropriate amount of negative space, and placing it in balance with the subject improves the aesthetic appeal of the picture.

Being overly aware of the subject in the picture and minimizing the negative space  can lead to tightly cropped central compositions that has no room to breathe.

Balance is an important concept.  The term is often used when there are two opposing elements in a picture.  A main subject is often in balance with a second but less dominant subject.  A Yong and Yang effect.  However it is also possible to balance a positive element with an appropriate amount of negative space.  For example,

Obolisk Negative Space 3a

The Obelisk on the right is balanced by an expanse of empty sky on the left.  It creates a very different picture to a closely cropped central picture of the obelisk.  It gives the impression of a whole landscape containing the  obelisk,  It is more atmospheric.

Secondly, by analyzing a picture, and knowing what is positive and what is negative, I can enhance the effect.  I can choose better back grounds that complement and do not compete with the positive elements.  In post processing I can sharpen and improve contrast in the positive elements, while leaving negative elements alone.

So how much negative space do you need?  Have a look at the following two pictures.

Minor or major Negative space

Both pictures are effective images.  The first is predominately positive space, whilst the second is predominately negative space.  The second image would tick the boxes to be considered a minimalist landscape.  So the proportion of negative space is really just a question of style.  Many approaches are acceptable.

Knowing what is positive and negative space helps us in preparing the images in post processing.  It might be appropriate in increase contrast and detail in the foreground grass of the first picture.  This is regarded as positive space and adds to the overall concept.  However it would be wrong to do this in the second picture.  Here the grass is negative space.  It would distract from the tree and sheep on the horizon and the whole picture would loose it’s impact.

I vaguely remember being told that negative space was rare in art before the Italian Renaissance.  The development of empty spaces to reinforce other elements in the picture began around this time.

In summary negative space may look like nothing much, but it is in fact very important for the construction of balanced and pleasing pictures.  Look at the negative space and plan your pictures accordingly.