How and why to use negative space in photography

As you advance on your photographic journey, you will begin to explore concepts that go beyond pointing your camera at things that look good. Negative space is one of the most common concepts you’ll hear, and using it correctly can help you tell a powerful story.

If negative space is well known in photography, its mastery is far from easy. But what does this term mean and why should you use it? How can you use negative space in your photograph? Let’s find out.

What is negative space in photography?

Photo of a subject surrounded by water

In the images of many novice photographers, you will notice far too many “main” subjects that humans can follow. Negative space aims to solve this problem and refers to the area surrounding the main subject of your photos.

A lot of people generally think of negative space as a background of nothing. However, this is not the case. You can use multiple objects as negative space, including:

You can use negative space in a variety of types of photography. These include portraits, photographs of landscapes and captures of urban architecture.

Why should you use negative space?

Photo of a person taking pictures

Now that you know a little more about what negative space is, we can start to see why you should consider using it in your images. Below you will find three reasons.

Negative space brings out your main subject

Not having negative space in your image can work in some cases. If you are doing street photography in New York or Tokyo, you might be very interested in capturing the chaos you see.


In many cases, however, having too much stuff in your image makes it confusing for the viewer. As a result, you will dilute the story.

Negative space isolates your main subject and clarifies what you want people to look at in the image. Thanks to this, you will be able to convey the emotions you want with more ease.

Negative space expression scale

Have you ever stood on a cliff or a mountain and found yourself in awe of the small nature you feel? If you’re trying to capture a moment similar to this, you’ll want to represent those emotions in what you’re capturing.

Negative space is a great way to showcase the scale. You can use this technique when you have humans in your image, but it also works with wildlife, such as when a bird is flying alone in the sky.

Related: Essential Landscape Photography Tips All Photographers Should Know

Your images could be more memorable for viewers

A common misconception among beginners is that the most memorable photos should include the most beautiful scenery. But this is not necessarily true; Throughout history, the most striking images are those that successfully tell a story.

If you are wondering why people are not paying attention to your photography, having too much stuff in your photos could be the reason. Negative space isn’t guaranteed to make you more visible, but at the very least, it will help you show others what has caught your eye.

Negative space will make your images more distinct, which may help them stay in the minds of others for longer.

How to use negative space in your photograph

Photo of a modern looking structure

Okay, now we’ve discussed some of the top reasons why you should consider using negative space in your photography. Let’s move on to the next big question: How do you put this technique into practice?

Read on and you’ll discover four ways to use negative space in your images.

Use a wider angle lens

Whenever you take photos, it is essential to think in advance about the most appropriate lens for that particular photoshoot. And if you’re looking to incorporate negative space into your photos, you should consider using a wide-angle lens.

What is a wide angle camera lens, we hear you ask? Generally speaking, this is any one with a focal length of up to 35 millimeters. The range you have will depend on your camera manufacturer, but you should still find plenty of options.

Capturing negative space with a wide-angle lens is easy because it doesn’t get as close to your subject as, say, an 85mm would. As a result, you can get more of the background.

Related: What’s the Best Focal Length for Your First Primary Lens?

Use a larger F-Stop

Using negative space in your photograph requires both technical and conceptual thinking. Along with choosing the right lens, you also need to think about the settings you are going to use on your camera.

When making your main subject stand out, using a larger diaphragm on your camera can help you achieve this. This will bring the subject more into focus while doing the opposite for your background.

When changing your iris, keep in mind that you will need to compensate with your ISO sensitivity and aperture speed to adjust the exposure to what you want.

First decide what you don’t want in your image

Of course, knowing what you want in your photos is essential. However, it’s just as crucial to think about what you don’t want to include.

No matter where you are, you can guarantee that you will find at least one thing in your surroundings that you would like to keep out of your images. And while you can remove the things you don’t want during the post-production phase, it takes less time to do that when you take the actual photo.

Before you start to walk away, take a walk around and observe your surroundings. Once you’ve decided what you don’t want to include, you can start thinking about the ideal story and the framing needed to tell it.

Don’t ignore the background

Including less stuff in the background of your photo doesn’t mean you have to ignore it altogether. It will take up most of your photo, which means it will also be an important part of the message you’re trying to get across.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is color. The tones you use will suggest whether you want the image to be moody or cheerful, and it’s a good idea to think about color theories as well.

Related: How To Elevate Your Creative Projects With Color Theory

Also, remember that your negative space doesn’t have to be flat. For example, you can use trees and water if you think they will add to the story of your photo.

Negative space is a great way to share more powerful stories, and it’s also important to learn if you want to go for a more minimalist style. You can use negative space both indoors and outdoors, and it can work with other photography techniques as well, such as the rule of thirds.

After reading this guide, you should have a basic understanding of how to use negative space in your photography. All you have to do is grab your camera and practice!

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About the Author

Stewart C. Hartline