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Positive and Negative (Spaces)

When you take a picture, the entire frame will have something in it. Or will it? Maybe it depends on how you look at it.

The standard "full frame" camera image measures about one by one and a half inches, a ratio of 2:3. If you found yourself photographing a subject with exactly that aspect ratio, you could conceivably take a picture that exactly fit that subject. Side to side and top to bottom, the entire frame would be filled by your subject without leaving anything out. Congratulations.

But more often than not, the photographic subjects you encounter will be more irregularly shaped, or at least differently shaped. If you want to photograph something that differs in shape from that of the frame, you've got only two choices. Either you zoom out so that your subject fits, allowing some space around its irregular edges, or you zoom in closer to fill the frame at the cost of leaving part of your subject out. I suppose you could employ both strategies simultaneously by going for an off-center framing, leaving room around some areas while still cropping other areas out. Whatever. But taking them one at a time or both together, that's it in terms of options.

It all depends on how you look at it of course, but if you do go for the gusto and zoom in, you may find that your subject will appear to change. Once part of what you were photographing becomes no longer visible, the tendency to see specific details as the subject will come to the fore, with the rest of what started out as subject now being seen as background. Thing shift mentally, and you're right back where you started. That newly defined subject fills only part of the frame, with space left around at least some of the margins.

What do you see: a vase, or two faces?When first starting out, some photographers come to consider negative space as something to be avoided. They view it as being synonymous with wasted space. But negative space will always be there in all but rarest of cases. It's simply unavoidable.

And negative space isn't really negative at all. Or it doesn't have to be.

There's a famous optical illusion that illustrates possibilities of negative space. When viewed in one way, it appears be the white shape of an ornately carved flower vase against a solid black background. But it can also be viewed as the shape of two black faces, nose to nose facing each other from opposite sides of a solid white frame. The same image can be viewed both ways. Someone looking at it can see it as a vase on moment, and as two faces the next. Nothing changed, but the relationship of positive to negative space becomes flipped upside down.

Negative space can be powerful indeed. It can serve a key role in creating compelling photograms.

Negative space can provide context. It can show the environment in which your subject exists. So long as it doesn't compete for attention, all that room around your subject can tell your viewer a great deal. What kind of ecosystem can your subject be found? What kind of a day was it? What time of day? An image cropped too tightly on a subject can't do a very good job of conveying such details. Not unless they are written out on a sign taped to its side that is.

Negative space can provide visual impact. Allowing for a degree of space around a subject will give that subject added weight. A modest sized subject will stand out in stark contrast when depicted against uniform field of black behind it. One bird in a flock looking to the right will stand out against background of similar but smaller scale birds looking left. The attention of a viewer would naturally be drawn to the subject in such an image. Consider the difference if such images had different backgrounds. All that wasted negative space wasn't really wasted after all, now was it.

Negative space can provide emotional impact. That same subject might feel rather lonely or perhaps downright scary depicted against a starkly black field. Think of the difference in impact that same subject would have against a sunny blue sky. Both skies would comprise just as much empty, negative space in the frame. But emotions conveyed by those two images would be entirely different. In other words, that space wasted really wasted after all. It's presence clearly serves as a positive influence, not a negative one.

Negative space can be an object in its own right. Every now and then, the shape of what would ordinarily be considered negative space can be so compelling as to become the subject in its own right. It can be fun to play with shadows. Since they tend to take on the shape of the object that casts them, shadows can become symbols, iconic shapes in a frame they themselves are cropped out of. You may not see a tree, but you can tell it's there based on the shape of the negative space shadow it casts across the frame. Such negative objects can serve as counterpoints to balance a primary subject, or they can be composed so as to become the primary subject. It's all up to you.

As I say, negative space can be powerful indeed. Take some time to look at how blocks of text are laid out in magazines and at least some websites. Graphic designers have long understood the importance of negative space. We photographers can learn a lot from their example.

Foreground and background. Positive and negative space. It's all part of the picture. What you do with both is up to you.

Date posted: July 31, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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