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Using Negative Space

What is negative space? Isn’t that a contradictory term in itself? Well yes and no. Like many things in photography contrary situations often abound.

Negative space is the description of the area around the main subject of the image and can be just as important to the composition of a photograph as placing the eyeline of a portrait in a good spot, or utilising the so-called ‘Rule of Golden Thirds’.

What occurs in the space around your main subject can enhance or destroy the composition of the photograph very easily.  Yet in the effort to identify what is negative space in your view finder frame, you must first be very clear on what is your actual subject.

Lets use this as an example. You wish to take a photograph of the flower arrangements that you made at your friend’s birthday party. You want to use them for a portfolio shot to show other friends what you can do and maybe charge a small fee, so beginning your dream to be a florist.

The vase is impeccable and the arrangement is beautiful, but when you were shooting the flowers you didn’t notice that the background was filled with the remnants of packaging from all of the chips, dips and cheeses that were to be served at the party itself.

The packaging is cellophane and has reflected the light, and the angle of the photo causes the flash to drop off and it looks dark and muddy in the background. The whole thing looks messy and unprofessional and does no justice at all to your incredible flower arrangement.

Correcting all of these very fundamental mistakes is a very simple process. Observing that the area around your main subject, in this case the flowers, needs to be plain and uncluttered is essential. So move the flowers in front of a plain backdrop such as a white wall and shoot them from directly in front rather than above. This means that the space surrounding them, which is the negative space, does nothing to detract from the subject by adding shapes and textures that create opposing compositions within the frame. It will also allow the flash to hit a single surface that is not distant from the flash and reduce flash drop off.

Another example where it’s really important to use negative space well is in group photographs, where there are opposing things happening in the background, for instance a kid’s football match. Simply fill the frame and cut down on the amount of negative space around the group. The photo is about the group rather than the background, so it’s unnecessary to feature it in your photograph.

Perhaps the most classic example of negative space in photography is the silhouetted subject. The photograph is exposed correctly for the background and the subject in the foreground becomes black. Therefore the negative space around the subject is the thing that creates the subject.

So next time you take a photograph, think of the space around your subject and see if you can work with it to create a better picture.

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