Using Positive and Negative Space for Composition in Photography

Using Positive and Negative Space for Composition in Photography

There are a lot of ways for a photographer to make a composition. Although some won’t like to accept it, the rule of third often fits quite nicely. But no matter what you use as a basis for composition, we always use negative space. Most of us just don’t realize it.

I wrote an article about the origin of the rule of third and the golden ratio for composition techniques. That article is not about right or wrong or if you should use one of these rules or the other. It’s for understanding how these popular rules came into existence. You can find the article by following this link.

There was an interesting comment about the use of negative space with these rules. Should all of the negative space be included when drawing a golden ratio or Fibonacci spiral over the composition? An answer followed shortly, mentioning how difficult it is for the negative space to be quantified or even used for applying the spiral, which was a perfect explanation.

The golden ratio and Fibonacci spiral. It doesn't fit the frame, but that doesn't matter. It's about the distribution of the elements in the frame.

But what is negative space, and how can it be used in a composition? When we take a closer look at negative space, it becomes clear that we use this in almost every composition we make, even if the frame is packed with elements. Negative space is not the same as a minimalistic image, although a minimalistic image does contain a lot of negative space. Confused? Don't be, the difference is not that difficult.

Positive Space and Negative Space

We have to realize one important thing. Negative space cannot exist without its opposite, positive space. It’s similar to black and white, light and dark. Although we always hear or read about negative space in an image, the positive space is not mentioned at all. It's forgotten or just taken for granted.

In fact, negative space and positive space are almost always present in a composition. It allows us to find balance in the image by placing a center of gravity. It also allows us to acquire symmetry or rhythm by the distribution of elements in the frame. In order to understand negative space, it’s important to know what positive space is and how it influences the image.

There is a clear positive space in this image, the tree and the land. All else is considered negative space.

A Closer Look at Positive Space

Everything that attracts attention in a composition is considered positive space. This is often the subject in the frame, perhaps together with additional elements. This positive space is placed according to one of the well-known composition rules or guidelines.

In other words, we use the rule of thirds, or golden ratio, or the nine basic shapes as mentioned in the composition theory. I also wrote an article about those nine basic shapes. Follow this link if you’re interested.

The tree is the subject. It attracts all attention, thus it is the positive space in this image. The other parts are negative space, even though they contain objects.

It is possible to fill the frame with one large subject, reducing the amount of space that is less important. In other words, most of the frame contains positive space. It is also possible to add a lot of different smaller elements to fill up the frame completely.

In the first case, the subject gets all the attention. In the second case, the image will become a busy place, perhaps even chaotic. On a lot of occasions, this won’t be eye-pleasing. It may even lack a proper composition completely.

This image contains a lot of elements that attract attention. The frame is filled with positive space and therefore feels crowded and full. This can be on purpose, to evoke a certain feeling in the image. In this case, we can recognize an overall composition.

An example of an image with lots of positive space and almost no negative space. Everything is screaming for attention. It is too busy and chaotic, in my opinion. Too much positive space.

A Closer Look at Negative Space

The opposite of positive space is negative space. To put it simply, that’s the part of the image that doesn’t attract a lot of attention or any at all. Negative space can be created by making a clear distinction between the subject and its surroundings or by removing all distracting elements in the frame. Often, this results in a photo that emphasizes emptiness, loneliness, isolation, and even a sense of scale.

By adding a lot of negative space, this rorbu in Norway feels isolated and lonely. 

Negative space doesn’t have to be completely empty, though. It can contain elements of all sorts. Even a frame covered with brown and red leaves is negative space when a single yellow leave is standing out, being the subject in the frame. Just remember, everything that doesn’t belong to the subject and additional elements is considered negative space.

The yellow leaf is the subject and attracts all the attention. The other leaves are the negative space in this composition.

Finding Balance Between Positive and Negative Space

The best way of using negative space in an image is finding its perfect balance with the positive space. You can use it to manipulate the amount of the attention a subject receives in the frame. It can be used to emphasize size, as previously mentioned, or to evoke a certain feeling or emotion.

Try to find balance between positive and negative space. Ironically, in this image, the open spot in the forest is the positive space, while the trees form the negative space.

Despite all that, it is still necessary to use some kind of composition rule or guideline in order to position the positive space within the boundaries of the frame and find the perfect balance between the two. That means negative space is not a separate composition rule that can be used. It is part of composition in general, describing the distinction between the subject and the rest of the frame.

The end of the path is the point of attention, and can be considered the positive space in this image. The forest itself is the negative space.


Negative space is often confused with minimalism. Although it looks quite similar at first, I believe these two things are completely different. Minimalism is, among others names, also described as minimal art, which is a better description. It can be achieved by showing a subject in the simplest way, without any abstractions. This can be done by placing a subject in a frame that doesn’t contain anything else. The frame will contain mostly negative space, with just one small subject.

A typical minimalistic photo, with a subject surrounded by emptiness.

There are three important characteristics that make a minimalistic image. First is the use of a lot of negative space, as mentioned. The second characteristic is the size of the subject. It has to take up a small part of the image, although there might be exceptions, as always. But overall, the larger it becomes, the less minimalistic it may be. Lastly, the absence of other elements in the frame is important, which distinguishes it from regular negative space.

Even with minimalism, it is wise to incorporate one of the composition rules. It allows an eye-pleasing placement of that one subject in an empty frame. But it might be easy to differ from these rules and push the limits of what’s acceptable. 

If a subject is small in the frame, with lots of negative space that has almost no elements whatsoever, the image can be considered minimalistic. Concerning composition, it's easy to find the limits of what's possible in subject placement.

If you have any addition to the use of negative space or minimalism or any other thoughts about this, please share in a comment down below. I’m looking forward to reading your opinion on the subject.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Thank you for such a well written article about such an important topic. I appreciate the time and effort that must have been expended to explain everything so articulately.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is the actual quality of the negative space, or the aesthetic characteristics of the negative space. Often, what makes or breaks a photo comes down to how appealing the negative space is, and how well it fits with the subject, from an aesthetic standpoint.

Characteristics of the negative space that are important to consider include texture, color temperature, tonal value, bokeh, tonal gradations, and absence of any distractions or incongruous elements. There are probably several other aspects of the negative space that just aren't coming to mind at the moment.

While shooting, I often spend so much time and mental energy assessing the negative space in the scene that I fail to capture the subject itself in the most optimal way, or I miss the crucial moment. But that negative space is so darn important, that I want to make sure I am doing everything possible to ensure that it is captured in the best way possible. And when processing photos on the computer, I usually spend very little time making adjustments to my subjects, and lots and lots of time tweaking the negative space in the frame, to make it look as good as possible. Yeah, it really is that freakin' important to get the negative space just right.

Thanks Tom Reichner Interesting how you find the quality of negative space important. Never thought of it that way.

Thank you Nando for yet another very insightful article. Composition is always a topic that initiates a lot of discussion during my photo club meetings.

Wonderful discussion. Composition, and in particular balance in my mind is the single most important element of a good image.
With regards to negative space vs minimalism (art), minimalism is a style where the objet d'art (positive space) is used to show the space around it, to cause one to experience the quality of the negative space. The "objet," is not the star, the space is. Under normal (non-minimalism) circumstances, the negative space is used to present the positive space...
Thanks again for a well-written piece!

Thank you for the comment and the way to describe a minimalistic image. Interesting to see it in that way. Feels like an eye-opener ;)

You write well and have helpful illustrations and I would be interested in your book when it is published but looking at your website it doesn't look like you have an English translation. I suspect that you would find a much larger audience if you did.

The Dutch language is indeed a limiting factor, as I encountered with my first book already. Perhaps it's interesting to see what's possible. A good suggestion, thanks