One of the more forgotten components of photo composition is the concept of negative vs. positive space. Simply put, positive space comprises of the main subject, and all the area it occupies. Negative space, on the other hand, is everything else – the surroundings, the background, even supporting elements and things that interact with the subject itself. When taking a picture, we naturally focus our attention on what it is we want to shoot. We might not notice that our photo composition is defined just as much by the shapes and forms around it. With some practice, though, we can see this negative space and learn to use it more effectively.
Identify the Positive Space
What is your subject? Often, this will be obvious, like a face or a flower, but in the case of landscapes, cityscapes, and other scenes with many elements, it could be less clear – there might not even be a predetermined focal point at all. In this case, you should create one; whether it’s a human figure in the foreground or a silhouetted boat on the water, every photo composition needs something to center around – even a “big picture” photograph. Look around your scene for a defining object that you can incorporate into the frame.
Once you’ve determined your subject, imagine it masked in black (this is easy for a silhouette, but takes some imagination otherwise); this area is your positive space.
How to Use Negative Space
It follows, then, that the negative space is made up of every pixel that is not your subject. It can be blank white space or a busy background; either way, it should direct attention towards and/or visually strengthen the subject. When shooting, notice the borders between your positive and negative space, and the shapes they create.
In the black and white photo, triangles are formed in the negative space between the couple’s legs; in the colour image, the arch creates a strong compositional element out of what is essentially empty space. Notice how these forms define the subject as much as its own shape does.
A good photo composition will have balance between the positive and negative spaces, and how much of the frame they each take up. Like a yin and yang, they support and are supported by each other. This balance can be altered with changes in zoom, or by cropping, to achieve harmonious proportions.
There is no percentage rule about how much is enough; it depends on your subject and your scene. When composing, it’s important to try different things and go with your gut – the better it looks, the better it feels, the better it is. How would the pictures above change with more or less negative space?
Look for the Inverse
When creating an image, challenge yourself to look in terms of negative space. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take it one step further – use it, rather than the positive space, to compose your image. That means using the area around your subject to employ compositional elements like shapes, patterns, juxtaposition, etc. Compare the results to a positive-space-composition and take notice of what you did differently.
Directing the Eye
Composing a photo is always about directing the viewer’s eye, which negative space should do in two ways. First, it must not be distracting – that would be counter-productive. Ideally, it should assist our gaze towards the main subject, which can be done through curves, contrast, focus, and leading lines, among other things.
Above, the diagonal line in the background and the texture of the log in the foreground lead our eye inwards to the mushroom. Next to that, the clouds, the light, and the ripples in the water all point towards a lone figure on a boat. These are ways that the negative space can be composed to strengthen the main subject.
Once you bring your shot into PicsArt, tune your eye into positive or negative space by masking an effect over the former or the latter, or by masking different effects over each! Turn your image black and white, then use the brush tool to bring the colour back into the subject – the positive space. You can use the same technique with any number of effects in the PicsArt app, so don’t be afraid to try something new!