Monthly theme: Negative space around photography subject stirs emotion

Every composition style in an artist’s bag of tricks lends itself to the art of storytelling.

At Inland Outlook Photo Club, we’re very focused on the rule of thirds. Honestly, it’s a good rule. It’s gives your image an anchor, a place the looker’s eye is trained to appreciate.

The rule of thirds often comes naturally. We don’t even realize we’re weighting our images this way.

Negative space, one of two themes for next week’s member submissions for IOPC, doesn’t necessarily break the rule of thirds. But it can flirt with challenging your ability to move beyond the tried and true composition.

What is negative space?

In my old newspaper days, we called negative space “white space.”

We’d put white space around our images or words to give them room to breathe, thereby drawing your eye in.

Negative space is the area between and around objects in a design – and in our case, a photograph. By filling our image with negative space, we can effectively draw attention to our subject.

Many photographers choose to fill the space around the subject with pure white or pure black, aiming for a visual emptiness. John Suler — a writer, photographer and professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey — says, however, that even that nothingness can contain some kind of texture, form or detail, no matter how faint or blurry.

“All negative space, even an area of total white or black, has weight and mass that help define the subject,” Suler writes. “Besides, the human mind, which cannot fathom absolute emptiness, will perceive even pure white or black as something – like a wall, or a dark sky, or an empty room …”

So, you can achieve negative space with:

  • Empty space, or minimalism
  • Shallow depth of field
  • Textures or patterns
  • Color or lack of it

Take a look at the lack of color and breadth of empty space in Mike Busby’s heron photo.

The negative space not only gives the majestic bird room to fly but it also conjures a feeling of calm. For me, it’s a powerful image demonstrating the heron’s intention.

He has somewhere to go. Right now.

How negative space affects us

Think of an image that has a lot of different things going on. It might stir you into a state of chaos and stress.

Negative space builds a sense of airiness, space to breathe. On the converse side, depending on the subject, it can cause you to feel loneliness, maybe even despair.

While negative space can lack detail, it can add a significant amount of weight to your image.

Practice makes perfect

Negative space is often considered an advanced form of composition.

Once you start to learn how to use it as a style of composition, though, you’ll also learn how to consider each element in your photo.

You’ll give your subject more weight by giving it more space.

And you’ll have a powerful trick in your artist’s bag.

MEMBER SUBMISSIONS: The March theme is complemented by “silhouettes.” Please submit your images for judging at the March meeting by Thursday, February 22. They must be 1080 px in height. Email them to

This entry was posted in Monthly Theme and tagged , , .