I have been experimenting with “negative space.” In photographic design, just like in music or in other visual arts, sometimes the most powerful design element is the power of nothing.
We look at pictures and try to find familiar shapes and patterns, like recognizing someone’s face, a well-known landmark, or a personal object that only we would know.
Negative space in photographic design (counterintuitively) sends you similar signals. When an empty space is interrupted by an element, (such as the bird in the picture above) your eye is drawn there.
When I was learning to play guitar and piano, my teachers taught me a musical concept called “phrasing.” And with phrasing comes the natural pause. That pause can be at a crescendo where the listener is taken to a cliff-hanger of sorts, or can simply be an anti-climactic breathing space.
In either event this negative space in music creates dynamics. An ebb and flow from loud to soft to hard/strong back to mild and soft. Often, filled with pauses that let the listener catch up and figure out which notes or phrases the composer wants to emphasize.
In a photograph the photographer can do the same thing. I could have easily cropped this image to be square, or a more traditional 4×5 or 5×7 format. But it’s more dramatic and impactful with all that negative space at the top of the image or as in the cover version top and right. It helps draw your eye to the bottom where I want you to look and where you’ll find the bird, which is the main subject of the image. Main subject you say? Isn’t it the only subject? NO! The negative space is part of the story too. It speaks to the calm and serene in the photograph and helps to set the contemplative mood (along with the high-key, low-contrast rendering) to make an entire story – not just a picture of a bird.
Negative space in a photograph makes the simple into the sublime. It helps to draw attention to your subject much the way a smooth, creamy background might. Whether you’re using negative space to simply balance positive space, draw attention to your subject, add context or convey a sense of scale, negative space is a powerful tool for photographers who want to design photos rather than just accidentally capture them.