Negative Space: A Primer

Photography Education Comments (4)

Ah, space! The final frontier.  These are the voyages of many an amateur photographer.  And before I get sued for copyright infringement, let me stop there.

Okay, I’m a bit of a purist.  My heart still lies in classical art.  Call me old fashioned, but elements of composition such as line, shape, balance, movement still matter to me.  Look, I’m not saying I always get them right, but I think I know enough to know when I get them wrong.

Which brings me to a pet peeve of mine:  terminology.  I think it was Mark Twain who said calling things by their correct name is half the road to wisdom.  And considering how many times I say “thingy” I am very dumb indeed, but I’m going to attempt today to explain one of the most commonly mis-named notions in photography, and indeed, all visual arts.

Negative Space.

I sat in many a photography club night whereby a judge would comment on a picture and say “I love the negative space” or on a Facebook forum where people would  go “too much negative space” and I want to tear my remaining hair out because there is not bloody negative space in the picture.

Then I become my mild-mannered self again and realise that not everyone was as fortunate as I to have had a whole 18 months of shitty tertiary education in fine art, so they don’t know they are making a mistake.

Hold onto your hats, people, I’m going to rectify that.  Time for Gerry’s primer on three spaces:  empty space, dead space, and… dun dun dun! Negative space!

Empty Space

We start off with “empty space”.  For an example, take a look at my bank balance.  Now, “dead space” and… uh… same applies.

Okay, seriously.  Let’s start off with empty space.  And let me point out the obvious: empty space is NOT negative space.  Empty space can be defined as a uniform area of pixels around a subject.  And let me say this right off the bat:  it can be either good or bad, depending on the strength of composition.  Let’s take this picture by Dan Hecho (the picture that started the conversation).

See all that white-ish pixels around the image?  That is empty space.  Nothing but a uniform off-white surrounding a wonderfully lit, strongly styled subject.  This works.  This is a textbook illustration of what using empty space should be.  So, why use empty space?  Well, it gives a sense of context, of place.  In Hecho’s pic, we don’t just see the model, we see her in a vast, cavernous space, from which she rises majestically.  Ironically, the space does not make the model feel small, it makes the model feel colossal.

Example, one of my pictures.  This is the picture, cropped to just the model.  (Yeah yeah, a bondage pic with a butt, deal with it)

It means nothing.  All non-model pixels are cropped out, and we have the model.  There is no sense of “place”.  So, let’s add some pixels then.

Now it becomes a bit more interesting.  We’ve confined the poor model to the corner.  There is now space around her, and we make the model feel isolated, abandoned.

Other way round:  now she is not isolated, but walking towards something.  Danger? Freedom?  Who knows – but simply by changing the empty space around her, we have two distinct different ways the photo “feels”.

Of course, one can go to absurd lengths….

The key here is that all those white pixels around Hecho’s photos and all those black pixels around mine are NOT negative space.  It’s empty space.  If used wisely, it can add a great deal to your photography.  If not…  it will make a right royal mess of it.

Next:  Dead space.

…and like the name implies: there is nothing good about it.  Dead space is not (necessarily) empty space, but there is an overlap.  Dead space is just wasted pixels.  A meaningless area of a photo that does nothing for the image.  Learn to recognise dead space, and kill it.  Pun not intended.  Dead space manifests in two ways, firstly, like this.

See that? All those pixels on top of the models head?  Yeah, rookie mistake number one.  This is what happens when you shoot at eye level.  Go lower, and position your model in the frame.  You waste a third of your camera’s megapixels when you shoot like that, and it’s arguably the most common thing I crap on my students for during my workshops.  On repeat offenders, I literally duct-tape up the top third of their LCD screens – they aren’t using it anyway, why should they have access to it?

There you go!  Dead pixels eliminated.  And yeah, I cover this in my book as well.

But what I don’t cover in my book, is the second, most sinful way people create dead space, and that comes with close up portraiture.

Question: where is the most interesting part of a face?  Answer: form the brows down.  Brows, eyes, cheekbones, nose, mouth… a lot of things happen down there.  Above the brow, all you have is forehead and hair, nothing to see here folks.

But people still insist on making portrait compositions like this.  It’s terrible.  Everything above the brow line means squat.  It’s dead, it’s wasted.  Nothing of interest there.  All the interesting bits are all squashed into the lower half of the image, making it crowded!

Like the above.  Don’t you think this is a much stronger composition?  I’m not saying it’s the best photo I’ve ever taken, but if we compare the two versions of it, we can clearly see where one has “dead pixels”, wasted pixels, and the other does not.

And now, finally, what you’ve been waiting for: negative space.

How to describe this, is that negative space is when you take a picture of something that is not there!  And in photography, it is very, insanely, difficult to achieve, but it is a very common design principle.  So, let me explain.

See the lower-case g in the image above?  No you don’t.  There isn’t a lower-case g there. What there is, are some black markings that makes you think you’re seeing a lower case g.  That is negative space.

The master-class of this, is a form of art/design called “Gestalt“, and if the ubiquitous “rule of thirds” is first year, first day, art school, “Gestalt” is an honours degree in visual arts.  I want to present to you two examples of Gestalt that shows the use of negative space beautifully:

Do you see the triangle?  You know the answer by now: there is no triangle.  Only three black Pac-Mans (Pac-Men? I dunno, I’m just a writer.) looking at each other, making you think about a triangle.

But this one is my all time favorite…

Wow.  You can actually see the 3-D ball there, despite there not even being a circle, never mind a ball.  Just some triangle shapes…  Cool, huh?

So, now in a lower-case g, a triangle and a ball, all of which aren’t there, I’ve demonstrated to you what negative space is.

So, how do you do it photographically?  As said: with extreme difficulty, and personally I’ve managed it maybe once in my entire professional career.

But I have some examples.

Bloody hell, how brilliant is this.  A black photo with some white somethings in it, and those white somethings makes you see a racing car.  There’s no detail, no mid-tone. Only black, and very carefully chosen highlights.  The car is in total negative space.  This photo always makes my jaw drop. Sorry, no idea who the photographer is here, but, respect.

Example number two, ironically, also a racing car, Kimi Raikkonen, to be specific.

There’s this black foreground with this black shape coming out of the foreground, which is meaningless.  But two little red-and-white fins and BAM! there is the shape of the car.  Negative space.  (And a fair bit of brilliant usage of empty space as well!)  BGenius. Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Lotus F1 Team.

And then there is this, an ad campaign for an animal charity. The best use of negative space I’ve ever seen.

And herewith endeth the lesson.  Never confuse negative space with dead space with empty space again, okay?

» Photography Education » Negative Space: A Primer
On Tuesday July 18 2017
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4 Responses to Negative Space: A Primer

  1. Perry Gresham says:

    That answers the question quite well Gerry. Thank you very much for the lesson. It will be kept for years to come. lol, Can’t wait till that question comes up in one of my groups. Thanks again!

  2. Rudi says:

    I think I have an enormous amount to learn and humbly shall peruse more of your blogs. This has given me a different idea on how this much bandied about term negative space is handled. Thank you.

  3. bernyce hollingworth says:

    Thanks Gerry. Much better understanding of it now.

  4. Wendy says:

    Read this a few times and I will create with practice. Thanks 😉

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