Seeing Pictures: Negative Space

Seeing Pictures: Negative Space

What’s Not There

by Jim Zuckerman

The concept of negative space has to do with compositional balance. Negative space simply means an area of an image that is largely devoid of subject matter. In other words, it’s a blank area like the sky, an expanse of plaster, the surface of a body of water, etc. The white sky behind the lilac-breasted roller (#1) is considered negative space as is the green and beige painted stonework on either side of the red door (#2).

All Photos © 2009, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved


The reason artists came up with this idea was to explain why certain types of compositions look good. Consider the landscape photo (#3). I shot this unique formation in the badlands near La Paz, Bolivia. There appears to be no balance here because the mountain is off-center and there is nothing on the left side of the photo that has enough “weight” to balance it. If we ascribe weight to the sky, however, we can then say that the “negative space” provides the required weight that would bring the image into balance. The out-of-focus background in the photo of the cheetah (#4) on the right does the same thing. It justifies composing the cat off-center because it provides the balance to make the image compositionally correct.



In a photo like the egret in flight (#5), the bird was placed in the center of the frame. In this case, I didn’t need anything to balance the subject. However, the sky is still considered negative space.


Negative space can also act as an area of an image that helps to force attention on a subject. The amusement park ride (#6) is not competing with anything in the background. There is nothing else to look at in this picture so the eye isn’t confused or distracted. This is one of the most powerful ways to compose a picture. I used the same technique in composing a formation of the US Air Force Thunderbirds (#7) during an air show performance.



The idea of using negative space to balance a subject can also work vertically. In the digital composite of a falcon and an aerial view of clouds (#8), the layer of clouds defines the negative space. The bird was placed mostly below the center line and the clouds and sky in the upper section of the image balance it.