Why and How it is important to manage the negative space in nature photography

In a photograph, the negative space is essential because it helps to highlight the points of interest of the photo. Good management and good mastery of the negative space improve not only the reading of a photograph but also the transmission of the message the photographer wants to send.

The negative space in this picture consists of the coral around the blenny. In this case, the negative space is the fish’s environment
The negative space in this picture consists of the coral around the blenny. In this case, the negative space is the fish’s environment.

Positive space and negative space

The positive space in a photograph is the space which contains the active elements of the photograph. Placed in relation to each other, all these elements will create a harmonious composition as we explained in this article.

The opposite of the positive space, the negative space is the space which contains all the non-active elements.

Creating harmonious coexistence between the two types of space can also define the framing more strongly, as we explained in a previous article.

Many photographers have trouble identifying the different spaces. To overcome this problem, they include all the elements they can find, and they make the scene totally incomprehensible. The message they want to convey cannot be heard.

Often, photographers think that a virtually empty photograph shows a lack of creativity. In reality, it is often the opposite because it takes years of practice and experience to master using the negative space. Personally, we judge the quality of a photographer based on the amount of negative space in his photographs.

How to identify the negative space in a photograph

Negative space may consist of empty areas. In that case, it merges with the background.

Negative space may be the emptiness around the photographic elements. For example, the gap between two trees is part of the negative space.

In general, the negative space can be identified by finding all the elements of the photo which are not active. For example, for a photograph of a deer, the negative space can be a wood or a meadow. For an underwater photo of a blenny, the negative space can be the sponge in which it lives.

In wildlife photography, underwater photography or landscape photography, the negative space is often what we call the animal's environment.

However, it is important to remember that the negative space does not in any way replace the foreground, if it is present, or the background. In some cases, it may be confused with these two photographic elements, but the foreground, the background, the points of interest, and the negative space are all always present.

The negative space in wildlife photography
The negative space in this picture consists of the frozen lake around the Canada goose. We chose to create a silhouette to isolate the subject and use large spaces to highlight the animal.

Negative space is an integral part of a photograph

When a photographer composes a photograph, he chooses his perspective first, as we described in this article. Then he chooses the elements that will appear in the scene, as we described in this article. Finally, he chooses his framing, as we described in this article.

A photograph is composed of the background, the foreground, the points of interest and the negative space. These four elements will combine into a harmonious whole and convey the message that the photographer wants to send. Someone who looks at a photograph never decides whether or not he is interested in it by looking at the details. The viewer’s first reaction is based on the combination of all the elements. This is how the human brain works. Once the overall message is understood, the brain will go back to look at the details and use them to refine its understanding.

For this reason, it is essential that the 4 elements that we have just mentioned be coherent and well-chosen.

The negative space is an important part of a photograph because a bad choice regarding it can cause an imbalance in the photo and destroy the message that the photographer wants to convey.

Strengthen the active elements of the photo

A nature photographer must use negative space to showcase the points of interest either by means of a contrasting light or color.

The negative space enables a photographer to highlight the shapes in a photo. For example, when a photographer takes a photo of an animal, its shape, its muscles, and all its attributes will be highlighted well if the photographer is able to create space around it. If the framing is too tight, the subject will not be highlighted.

A photographer who wants to use negative space to strengthen the elements of a photograph uses the space around them to supply the form and the meaning of the picture.

Create separations between elements of a photo

A photographer who has experience in managing negative space well can create separations between elements of a photo or even transitions between different lights. This is an essential technique for emphasizing the main subjects.

Separations and transitions enable the photographer to guide the viewer’s glance to the points of interest in a picture, so they ensure that the message will be delivered more clearly.

Let the essential elements breathe

The main goal of the negative space is to let the positive space breathe. The photographer must create ways of escape, or clearances, around the points of interest to highlight them better and to give life and vigor to the photograph. The more airy the scene is, the more identifiable the composition is and the more viewer will be interested in the photograph. Avoid putting points of interest into confined spaces that will obstruct the reading of the photo.

Do not hesitate to get rid of some of the positive space

If it becomes difficult to highlight the negative space in a photograph because the positive space with the active elements takes up too much room, do not hesitate to get rid of some of the positive space. Simply select the most important active elements and add room around them to let them breathe. The photograph will have more impact and be better balanced. As we pointed out earlier, many photographers think that a photograph is a suitcase in which they have to pack the maximum number of objects to save space. This is a fundamental error because the human brain needs to be able to identify the scene quickly. It unravels the scene by going back to the details after the first glance. If the first impression fails to interest him, the viewer will not go further.

Remember to get rid of some positive space if necessary.

The negative space in landscape photography
The negative space in this picture consists of the space that we have created on either side of the rock. This technique enables us to make the scene airy and let the composition breathe.


A nature photographer must understand what the negative space is. It is a separate element of the photograph. It is just as important as the foreground, the background, and the points of interest. Negative space enables the photographer to highlight the points of interest either by means of the empty space or of a contrasting light or color.

If a nature photograph seems inharmonious or unbalanced, it is because the negative space was mishandled.

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Article published on Friday, May 06, 2016 . Written by
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