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SCL Photo Podcast 18: Negative Space

SCL PodcastNegative space, or the area around your main subject, can make or break a good photograph.

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Show notes:

Featured Posts:

Nikons Range of dSLR cameras.

Canons Range of dSLR cameras.

Photowalk 44.

Photowalk 45 - Lee On Solent Shop Owners.

Using Positive and Negative Space

My Notes:

We can use the terms positive and negative space to describe the different parts of our photographs - positive space being the area of main focus or subject, and negative space being the area around it.

By varying the amount of negative space around our subjects, we can help guide our viewers eyes around our images, give the subjects context, maybe a sense of movement. and importantly help to tell a story about our subject and try to impart an emotion on our viewers.

Now remember that negative space doesn't have to be empty or blank, but sometime it helps to simplify the stuff in the negative space so that the viewer doesn't get confused about what the subject of the picture is.

Often well negative space is used to powerful effect the negative space becomes the subject of the picture - as a powerful counter-balance to the initial subject.

OK, lets talk about some real world examples.

A simple example could be a lone tree on a hill side, taken from a distance. We could zoom in (change our focal length) or physically get closer, but if we want to tell the story of this tree, maybe we could place it in context by including the surrounding negative space. To decide where to put the tree we can call of the rule of thirds. Maybe we place the tree on one of the two top intersections, showing how the tree is isolated on the hill, with the green grass being the majority of the negative space, or on one of the lower intersections, making the sky dominant in the negative space.

We're trying to impart a feeling in the viewer by choosing these different compositions, and we can amplify this by pushing the image further - have the tree and part of the hill right at the bottom of the frame , or perhaps right at the top. How about putting the tree at the top and maybe cropping the top of the tree- claustrophobia maybe?

Remember that we can also cut out most of the negative space, and maybe some of the subject too, to make it dominate and give a sense of limited space.

Lets think about how negative space can give a sense of context and size, especially to static man made objects, such as buildings and statues. Let's imagine we're taking a photo of a statue, maybe a memorial, by including negative space around it we can show the viewer how large or small it is. If we're worried about the negative space being too busy and distracting, perhaps we could use depth of field techniques or selective focus, using a large aperture, small f-stop, to blur what's behind and in front of the subject. Another technique would be to use a longer shutter speed (don't forget your tripod), so that if your static subject, say a statue, is surrounded by people walking around, by using a long shutter speed we can blur the people to make them less distracting, and give a feeling of timelessness or serenity - imagine a shot of the lions in Trafalgar square in London, or times square in NY.

When deciding where to place our negative space in relation to our subject, (or positive space), that can be really important if our subject is a living thing - like a person, animal or statue or either, if it's something that moves like a car or train, or any object that can be said to be "facing" one way or the other. Bear in mind that the way light falls on a subject can make it appear to have a direction - that tree we mentioned before, if lit from the side by a low Sun from the right, could be said to be facing right.

Lets start with animals. We know that we should be focusing on the eyes, and as the eyes are the main subject, they should be on one of the rule of thirds intersections, but if the animal is facing a particular way - imagine a cat walking left, it's often said that its best to place your negative space in front of the animal, giving them space to walk into - this makes us comfortable as viewers, not making us feel that the animal is trapped in anyway - but if we want to give our viewers that feeling, why not try it our?

There's some obvious instances of where you should place the negative space in relationship to your subject. With a moving object, such as a car or a running person, the negative space should be in front of them. But maybe you could also try to put the negative space behind them, and even crop the subject - imagine a shot of someone running past you, and you crop them so that only half their body, or maybe just a trailing foot are left in the scene, with all that space behind them? Or do the same with a car?

If we've got people as our subject, we can use the space around them to give an idea of context - where they work, where they are. You could make the negative space dominate - imagine a rock climber on the face of a mountain - to give a sense of scale and isolation, or say its a kid running in a tent, we could make the negative space small to give a sense of claustrophobia.

If we're doing portraits, the negative space around the person, and how it relates to the direction they're facing, is crucial. We can use the negative space to give our subject a context - home, office, the great outdoors, but where to put it? We can think about the rule of thirds, and symmetry when deciding. Maybe the person should be on the left, looking into the photo -giving them space to ponder, giving the viewer a calmer feeling. What happens if we put the negative space behind them, so they're looking out of the photograph. Does this unsettle us as viewers?

How about space above the person in our portrait - especially if there's interesting features in the background that could tell a story about our subject.

I don't do many portraits, but in the shots I took of local shop keepers I tried to use the negative space around the main subjects, the people, to give them context and tell a story about them. In the butchers shop shot, I wanted the lady to be surrounded by all the produce - trying to give an impression of a store packed full of goods. In the framing shop shot again I wanted to show where the subject worked, the beautiful paintings, giving Ken a place in time, and telling a bit of what he's all about.

The best thing to do when trying to figure out what emotion or feeling different compositions have on the viewer of the photograph is to look at lots and lots of portraits (and photos in general) and see what moves you, what reaction you have, and think about the composition the photographer has used. Get down to your local library and just browse through the photography section and borrow any books with portraits in, take 'em home, and look at them, wait a few days, and look again - deconstructing each image - where's the subject? where's the light? why has the photographer used that composition?

What I haven't really talked about is the colour or tones your negative space should have, and here its best to experiment. Bear in mind what feelings different colours have on us - the reds are warm and close or coming towards us, blues cold and further away or receding. In a portrait with a mainly dark back ground, that could be seen as somber and dramatic, whereas a high-key light background could be more light-hearted and happy. Remember that we tend to look at bright areas of a photograph first, so that can also guide you in your artistic decision making process.

The great thing about digital photography and post processing is how easy it is to crop our photographs after we've taken them, to radically alter the feel and story of our images. What we can't do easily is add in more negative space if it isn't there in the first place, so when you're out shooting, always to try to start with wide shots, getting lots of the surroundings in, then slowly get closer and closer, trying different combinations of subject size, negative space and composition.

Practical and technical considerations: When our subject is off centre, we've got to be careful with focusing and exposure, because the standard settings of our camera make it focus and expose for the centre of an image - so how can we get around that?

Starting with focusing - we can use the focus and recompose method. What you do is put your subject in the centre of the frame, half-press the shutter button to lock in the auto-focus, then recompose, then press the shutter all the way down to take the photo. This is a quick and easy method, but it can lead to incorrect exposures, especially if there's a big difference in light between the subject and the negative space. In this situation we can switch to area-point focusing, where we let the camera choose what to focus on, or for more control use multi point focusing, where we choose which focus point to use.

Some dSLRs have separate lock buttons for exposure and focus, so you can lock focus and recompose, independent of exposure - see your camera manual for details.

However if our composition is quite extreme, we may have to go to manual mode - expose for the negative space, then use focus and recompose for the main subject. If you want to stick with aperture priority mode, or the subject becomes too over or under exposed, use exposure compensation to nudge the overall expose of your photo up and down.

I've only really scratched the possibilities of negative space today, but perhaps after discussing some of the possibilities, you'll start to see negative space in a more positive light!

Technique challenges (No Time Limit):

No Sky Landscapes

Fill The Frame!

Dawn / Dusk shots

A Landscape Style Shot With Strong Foreground Interest

Remember to email me your photos if you'd like to me work on them for the Photo Workbench.

To contact me, just click on the link near the top of the page under the big picture.

Thanks for listening, see you on Flickr!

Join the Flickr Group!

Cheers, Rob.

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