Back in the 1990s, the hit television sitcom “Seinfeld” championed itself as a show about nothing. It turns out that nothing proved to be very popular. Well, nothing can be an important part of your photography as well.
When is nothing something in photography? When it’s properly used. If it’s not, then it is truly nothing. Confused yet? You should be at this point. Photography and art instructors and other teaching aids, like books or videos, never actually use the word nothing. The official turn is “negative space,” but it’s just a fancy word for nothing. Designers will call it “white space,” although it could be any color they like. Take a good look at most corporate logos; most are great examples of the use of negative space. Architects are always looking for creative ways to utilize negative space in their structures, and artists have been successfully using it for centuries. You may have heard the expression “less is more.”
What are we actually talking about when we say “nothing” or “negative space”? Nothing is defined for our purposes as the space in which the subject does not occupy. Think of a small rowboat seemly floating in mid-air on a misty morning where you cannot tell where the lake ends and the land begins. Place the rowboat in the dead center of the image, and the surrounding parts of the image really become nothing and the image can be static. However, if you place that rowboat more carefully in the frame, someplace with more eye appeal, then the surrounding space will complement the entire image. The surrounding blank space becomes the environment in which the small boat lives. Quite often these images, when done properly, will invoke a strong emotional response from the viewer. It is not uncommon for these types of images to be popular with greeting card manufacturers.
Often we like to try and fill up the frame when we are taking a photograph. That can often lead to your image looking like a large jumble of objects, lines and shapes that can often confuse viewers. They like someplace to park their eyes and take in the scene. Our brains are crammed with preconceived notions of what objects should look like, and the proper use of negative space can challenge that perception. With the proper use of negative space, the viewer’s main focus is on the pure composition of the entire image.
Until now I have not mentioned “positive space,” however positive space is defined simply as the subject or the focal point of your image. In the example above, the positive space is the rowboat.
There needs to be proper balance between the negative space and positive space. We are so used to focusing in on our main subject that we often lose sight of its surroundings or minimize its impact on the entire image. The proper use of negative space places it as an equal partner with the subject – a perfect symmetry of subject and surroundings in which neither is dominant of the other. In most other aspects of life, we are used to negatives and positives canceling each other out. In the art world, when used properly, they complement each other and create something together that is more than just the addition of two elements.
Controlling these elements are the basics of composition, which is the first and most important element of a strong image. We understand the focal point of the photo – it’s our subject (positive space) and it has lines and shape, making it easily recognizable. It is equally important to understand that the negative space has shape also. The shape of negative space is defined as the outside the boundaries of our subject up to the edges of our frame. If we could make our subject all white and all of the negative space black, you would be able to more easily see the shapes of each.
Photographers have a natural tendency to over-emphasize the technical attributes of a photo. So if you have been using your camera and taking photos that are technically correct, but you feel they are still missing some emotional appeal, you may need to pay closer attention to your composition. Consider the negative space around your subject. Even small changes can have a big effect on a photo’s impact.