Negative negative space

Earlier this week, it seemed that the planets were aligned to devote this week’s blog post to the subject of negative space. It was listed as one of the elements of composition in the class I’m taking, and coincidentally was this week’s topic in the Creatively Challenged group on Flickr.

Unfortunately, I am still grappling with the concept of negative space as it applies to photography.

A long time ago, probably about 10-12 years, I heard about the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, bought a copy, and worked my way through about half of it. Just that half was amazing, and I’ve kept the book with the intention of working through the whole thing some day. One of the topics in the book was, you guessed it, negative space – and I totally understood the concept as it was presented there: by drawing around the subject of the picture, you drew the picture. The example given was a chair with a slatted back: you draw the floor, the walls, the space between the slats, and voila – you get a chair.

I’m not getting it with the photography, though. Most of the examples that I’ve found online are blue sky with the top of a building, or a big blank wall with a little person in the bottom corner, or… . It’s just not the same, and as much as I’ve been trying to identify my style, I know that that’s not it. I spent this past week in search of something, anything, and ended up feeling as lost as when I started.

But that didn’t keep me from posting some pictures anyway. Here are the not-really-negative-space shots I came up with.

This first one was taken looking up at a skylight in the Clark Hall breezeway:

Partially Lit

I'm calling it Partially Lit, but I was tempted to call it Half Lit

After going through most of the week without finding much, I decided to pose a shot:


Negative mum

And finally, I wandered up the 161 steps to the top of the clock tower, and took this picture looking out through the clock. To do it right, I would have had to use HDR, but unfortunately I wasn’t thinking that far in advance… so I elected this shot that’s overexposed in the middle.

Behind the Clock

Does anyone really know what time it is?

Any help with photographic negative space would be welcome!



  1. Here’s how I think about negative space: We usually think of the “object” of a photo as just being the featured subject. Yet there’s another “subject”, which is the “not subject”, or the space surrounding “subject”. The negative space would be the object that’s left if you clipped out the subject.

    Perhaps calling it “negative space” is a bit of a misnomer (at least if you’re like me and can slip into a science/engineering view of the universe). There’s nothing “negative” about the space, really. It’s just all the “other space” not taken up by the featured subject. Perhaps “opposite” would have been a better word, as it seems to me the “negative” space is simply what the subject is not (I’d better stop here before it sounds too esoteric).

    I think about negative space a lot when I’m shooting something that might be nice on a greeting card, or for use in a commercial piece, because the designers need room to put words. But even if you don’t plan to have words, the “negative” space has a visual “gravitational pull” all its own, balancing the eye’s pull toward the more obvious subject. Together, they balance out the image (or create some dynamic tension).

    Let me know what you think of this (negative) definition of “negative space”!

    • By not thinking of negative space negatively, I’m positive that negative space will have a positive impact if I use it correctly. šŸ˜‰ The part about balance at the end was especially helpful. Thanks Jim!

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