To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible.
From a simplistic perspective, images are composed of two main things – areas where there are objects in the image and areas where there are no objects in the image. That area where objects are present is called positive space and that area where there are no objects, is referred to as negative space. Think of a simple picture of a tall building against the sky. In this situation, the building is the positive space and the sky is the negative space.
Often we are preoccupied with “filling the frame” – a common imperative from writers on photographic composition. The problem is that if we attempt to fill up the image with objects, lines, shapes, etc., we can often produce an image that is so complicated that the viewer does not know where to focus their attention. Let me share a secret with you: negative space can be just as powerful a composition element as positive space.
Think of positive space as the focal point of the image, in fact, in any work of art, the main subject matter can be thought of as the positive space in the composition. You can change the focal point of your image simply by moving the elements of the image that make up the positive space. This ability to change the emphasis of your image can be a powerful tool in its composition.
Negative space, that part of your image where there are no objects of interest, plays a very important part in the composition of the image. Using negative space as a composition element can place a stronger emphasis on the positive space and possibly arouse emotion in the viewer. This is one rationale behind the rule of thirds in image composition. It gives you a guideline for the placement of objects in an image that allows the use of both positive and negative space to build a more pleasing image than one in which the subject is placed in the centre of the image – the so-called bull’s eye effect.
Placing an object in the middle of an image makes it very difficult for the viewer’s eye to move around the image, producing a very static composition.
It takes some time to fully understand and master the use of negative space in your images. As photographers, we are so used to putting the object of our interest in the middle of the picture, however, learning to make effective use of negative space will force us to consider the placement of the elements in our images a bit more consciously. Often, it is important to balance the positive space with the negative space. Try being a bit generous with the amount of negative space you leave in an image. You do not have to have every part of your picture filled with something – empty space can be a good thing and can provide a nice, compositional balance with the positive space in your image. Doing this can only lead to stronger compositions.
The next time you are editing an image, try different crops and see how the use of different amounts of negative space affects the your overall feeling about the shot.