We’re used to thinking about the subjects in our photos: what they’re doing, and how and where they’re positioned. But all the space surrounding them is pretty important, too. All the “non-subject” area within the frame is referred to as “negative space.” For new and novice photographers, it’s often an afterthought (if it’s thought of at all). But it turns out that skillful use of negative space can have a profoundly positive effect on your compositions.

Far more than simply being “empty” space, negative space serves two very important functions: it both defines and draws attention to the positive space (your subject). For this reason, this “empty” space is sometimes referred to as “active white space”—because it’s actively serving to improve your composition.

It’s so effective, in fact, that in the print advertising world, where ad space is expensive and every square inch has to pull its weight, the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency invested heavily in negative space; in 1959 they launched a legendary campaign featuring vast amounts of empty (white) space surrounding a very tiny VW Beetle. The ad appeared in newspapers alongside crowded columns of text and other visually busy ads, so you can imagine its appeal. (Google it and you’ll see why it was such a success.)

Whether designing an ad or composing a photo, it can seem counterintuitive to fill a large portion of the frame with emptiness (negative space). But when it’s done effectively, the results can be striking.

With the focal point of the tightly wrapped center of the rose in the bottom-left third of the frame, the rest is left empty, letting the flower carry the scene without competition.
The tightly wrapped rose is framed by the green negative space.
One of my favorite backdrops is bright blue sky. Here, the emptiness of the sky balances the weight of thes hat.
The hat is the subject. The sky is the negative space.

Filling the Frame Versus Negative Space

If you’ve been following these compositional excerpts closely, you may be scratching your head at what seems like a paradox between the concepts of “filling the frame” (from an earlier post) and “utilizing negative space.”

The grass is the “active white space” framing the silhouette on the sidewalk.

They may sound like mutually exclusive ideas, but in a sense, they’re almost one and the same. Think of both concepts as a way to fill the frame. One refers to filling the frame only with items that strengthen your image (no clutter or erroneous objects) whereas the other suggests that visual emptiness (negative space) can be a skillful way to fill part of your frame, drawing emphasis to your subject. In other words, both concepts are about filling the frame; they just go about it differently.

In the end, they both involve making conscious choices about what you include in your composition.

Thanks to our partner, Rocky Nook, for this chapter, “Add to your image with negative space” from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition.” This title and many and more how-to educational books for photographers are right here.