The word ‘space’ is used quite often to describe how a photo is composed. What is the definition of space and can it help you take better pictures?
Not necessary while at the same time, yes.
Positive and Negative Space
The fact is that every photograph you take has what is referred to as positive and negative space.
Positive space refers to the area of an image where your main subject or focal point lies.
Negative space is all the areas of your image that don’t have your main subject of interest.
Think of positive space as the area that attracts the most attention and negative space as the more empty areas.
Every time you point your camera at a subject, you are effectively framing an image with a certain amount of positive and negative space.
Here’s where a lot of beginners to composition struggle.
Naturally, our vision is shallow.
We look at a subject, lock our focus on a subject, and everything else around us is ignored.
Our eyes literally work like shallow depth of field machines, helping us to focus on one area and block out everything else.
This, of course, has a consequence if you don’t overcome it when taking pictures: you’ll end up composing images only thinking about the positive space.
As a result, little if any attention will go into the negative space.
This is where the ‘rule of space’ comes in handy.
The Rule of Space in Photography
The rule of space in photography is a composition guideline taught to help beginners improve their pictures.
Geared more towards portraits and photos of people, this rule states that you should leave ample space around where your subject is looking into.
Our eyes naturally follow the glances of others.
When you take a picture of someone looking to the left but leave little to no negative space on the left side, your picture cuts off the invisible lines the viewers wants to follow.
The great thing about this rule is that it can help you become more aware of positive and negative space.
The position of the subjects glance directly influences negative space. The negative space where the subject is facing becomes more active, requiring more attention when composing.
This rule, of course, is sometimes very interesting to break.
Personally, I would recommend not following it 100% of the time. Rather, there’s a better approach to space that can help you in the long run.
Identify and Observe Negative Space
When you see a subject or scene, ask yourself, what is the positive space here?
Is it the person? Or is it their eyes?
Is it the tree or is it several trees?
Once you get a feel for the positive space, you’ll know that everything else is negative space.
Negative space is what most beginners and amateurs ignore.
It’s also, in my opinion, one of the most important parts to your composition.
I like to think of it as a house.
You have a beautiful house with walls, windows, a foundation. And while all this can be great, what makes the house truly a house is the space between the walls.
Great architects design for this space, not just the look.
Now when you have identified the negative space in a scene, you’ve really hit the starting point.
How can this negative space accentuate the positive? How can it help bring out what you like the most about your positive space, while reducing what you don’t?
In my previous lesson on backgrounds, I cover a few quick tips on looking over your background when composing.
These recommendations apply here as well.
Colors: What colors are in your background? Do they match your subjects colors or create a contrast?
Light Tones: Is the background significantly brighter or darker than your subject? If so, is this a good thing or a bad thing? You can always adjust your point of view to get a different background (crouch down, get to a higher vantage point).
Details: Are you using a shallow or expansive depth of field? A shallow depth will help blur and conceal background details while a more expansive depth will make background details clear. Will this clarity compete with your positive space?
Try to really get a feel for what could potentially be used as negative space.
To illustrate, if you go to a park and see a tree you want to photograph, look behind the tree first. Note the background sky, other trees, park area, and viewpoints you can get.
Notice I didn’t say to just start taking pictures.
You’re getting an inventory in your mind of what you have to work with. This all feeds your perceptions and, ultimately, your knowledge.
All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.
Leonardo da Vinci
Assimilate with the Positive
Once you know your background, you can return to your subject.
What lines, shapes, tones, and colors does your subject have? Does your subject have strong lines that lead the viewer somewhere?
This question itself is what the ‘rule of space’ is built upon.
If your subject is a person with eyes and hands and a head, then you know that wherever those eyes, head, and hands are point is where strong lines will exist.
But what if your subject is a wooden box?
It doesn’t have eyes or a head. It does, however, have lines and shading and characteristics that lead the viewer as well.
Try becoming aware of these things.
Take what you know about the positive and negative areas and begin composing your picture.
Experiment. See what arrangements make for the most visually captivating image.
When you have a better idea of how positive and negative areas interact, you’ll find it so much easier to weave these parts together.