Wide Open Spaces: How Negative Space Can Improve Your Photos

Image: Lee via Flickr

As an ESL teacher thousands of miles away from home, I have learned there are times when silence isn’t so golden. Mostly, it hits me when I try and explain a new language concept to a room full of elementary schoolers, only to be met with 20 blank stares.

Luckily though, noise isn’t always a good thing, either.

Take your photos, for example. Sometimes, you’ll want to squeeze all you can into a single photo (I am improving my iPhone panorama technique for this very purpose). However, there are other times when a simpler composition creates more impact.


Image: Vikram via Flickr

In fact, one of the best ways to draw eyes to your intended photo subject is to surround it with as much negative space (aka “empty space”) as possible. Empty space can mean anything, from blue sky, to open field, to pavement that is momentarily free of pedestrians or traffic. The point is that it provides a neutral canvas for the star of your photo.


Image: Jon DeBoer

I decided to experiment with this technique on a recent Christmas trip to Paris. After two days of gray and rainy skies, the day after Christmas was bright, sunny, and clear. It almost felt like Santa was delivering me a belated gift.

My travel buddy and I spent the day strolling around the City of Love, taking in the sights that had looked so gloomy previously. As we strolled along the Seine, I was taken by the Pont Alexandre III, an extremely extravagant bridge built between 1896 and 1900. Here’s one of the photos I snapped as we moved closer to what’s considered the most ornate bridge in all of Paris:



Image: Andrea Marchiano

I soon realized that my snaps didn’t do any justice to my favorite part of the bridge: the blingy gold accents. As I got closer, I realized I had to take matters into my own hands. The bright-blue backdrop provided me with the perfect canvas for an empty-space shot.



Image: Andrea Marchiano

As you can see, empty space draws your eye right to the gold horse that’s bucking alongside the Pont Alexandre; it shines brightly against the backdrop of the blue sky. It even allows the detailing on the column to stand out — I hadn’t noticed the carved face until I took the second picture. I loved the way it turned out so much that I decided to make negative space shots a part of my permanent photo-composition repertoire.

Here are some tips that will help you as they’ve helped me improve this skill:

  • Temporarily forget the basics you’ve learned. It may seem counterproductive to care more about the background than your intended photo subject. However, spending the time to consider all elements of your photo equally will result in a stronger photograph.
  • Keep contrasting colors in mind. A dark-colored subject on a light-colored background will have more oomph.

    Image: Digital Photography School via Flickr


  • No need to center your subject. With empty space, the eye will be automatically drawn to whatever you shoot. This means you can play with interesting photo compositions with less fear of your focal point being lost.

Image: Digital Photography School via Omar Eduardo


  • Make sure to find a good balance. This is something you’ll have to feel out, as each photo and subject is different. However, play with your shot until you find an artistic balance between action and emptiness—too much or too little will swallow your subject.

Image: Panache Imagery via Dee Jarvis


  • Befriend your crop tool. To that end, the amount of empty space you include can be perfected after you take your shot, thanks to Photoshop and other editing software. It can also be used to clip out any unintended noise, like, for example, a stray pedestrian.
  • Be patient. This might be the most important tip when it comes to empty space. There are simply some places and some subjects that will require you to to wait if you want to get your shot. With the right amount of patience, you’ll be able to grab the noise-free frame that you’re envisioning.

How have you incorporated the concept of negative space into your personal photographs? Share in the comment section below!

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Andrea graduated from the University of North Carolina, where she studied journalism and once saw Michael Jordan at a bar. She's currently teaching English in Spain, writing about her experiences, and snapping as many photos of her travels as she possibly can.

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