Negative Spaces & Positive Spaces in Digital Photography

Today I would like to introduce you to something really important. It’s a term used in art and painting but for the purposes of artistic education I’m going to borrow it to teach you something important. Have you ever heard of negative and positive space? If you haven’t you’ll love this article. It will help you three fold in your photography.

In digital photography you’re dealing with aperture, shutter speed, lighting and focus every moment. It’s a lot to manoeuvre. And one thing you are also working with quite precisely, whether you are away of it or not, is ‘space.’ Lets have a look at what this means for you to enhance and develop your skills as a photographer.

Negative space is defined as…”the space around the subject of an image.”

It means the empty space around your main subject. This kind of space seems like unimportant background space but it’s this empty space adds an important aspect to the composition.
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<!–[endif]–>Positive space is defined as the focal point of a work of art or shape of the work of art. The primary subject matter in a work of art, as opposed to the background or unoccupied spaces.

Okay so those are the technical definitions. So how do we apply this practically?

To start with, negative space is a huge element in your composition. Your negative space is the space around your focal point and having too much or too little can completely ruin a potentially good digital photograph.

So to improve your photography always look at how much space is around your focal subject. Even the slightest bit too much or too little can completely put your composition out of kilter. Particularly when your subject has a distinct point of focus such as a persons eyes or defining lines coming to a point or even an aspect of sharp colour.

Let’s examine these two photos to show you what I mean.


This picture has a lot of really interesting negative space around it. For starters the negative space is blue, which is quite different to our main focal subject. The dobs of white, which are the colours, seem to glide nicely into the main subject without distraction or hesitation. The clouds do distract our eyes from the branches momentarily but not in an inconvenient way at all. The negative space in this picture works very well to support the positive space.

Look at the picture now without the support of the right amount of negative space. Let’s edit some of this space out of the picture and see what effect we get.



The focal point changes due to a 3cm crop from the right. Removal of the negative space changes everything. Now, the end of the tree trunk is the main focal point. Our eyes don’t follow the branches outward as much as they did before. This change does not make the picture drastically worse, it’s actually ok. But you see how this negative space alteration changes a lot about the picture artistically?

If you have been taking photos with your digital camera and everything is right technically but you feel something is missing, then it could well be your composition. Pay close attention to what you are taking and the negative space around your main subject. Changing the slightest thing can improve or reduce the quality of your photos.

Happy shooting,

Amy Renfrey


Photo copyright by Manu M



44 comments on “Negative Spaces & Positive Spaces in Digital Photography

  1. Hi … Thanks for you help. I’m 84 years old and the last three years enjoying digital photo taking. Live in El Sobrante, CA
    over the hill from S. F. saw Brisbane in 1944 only in the early evening bringing Aussies home from New Gueinea(?). Using your lessons. Thanks dickx 🙂

  2. I had just bought an eos 400D so I am still a novice in photography.Your negative and positive spaces in photography is very interesting, can you give me some tips on how to do it? Thank you.

  3. My dear friend, In my personal opinion the phrase “negative space” should not exist. How at all space could be negative, that too when it plays an important role in the composition of the picture?
    I am just wondering who had coined this phrase.

    • Good point. Space itself is not negative. It is infact filled with light, oxygen etc….plus other “supporting” components that makes up a photograph. I don’t know who created the term but I think it just means an area of a photo that is indescript or without anything specific to the eye. Thanks for your input. 🙂

  4. Just an editorial note on your second to the last paragraph:

    “This change does not make the picture drastically worse, it actually ok.”

    This sentence seems to be missing the verb “is” OR the contraction “it’s”, e.g. “it’s actually ok.”

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  6. your photographs are so very betiful. i am doing a project in my photography class and was unsure of definitions and what negative space looks like thanks to your gorgis phtographs i am sure on what to do. keep up your betiful works:)

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  9. hi Taylor,this is ‘kalyan’ from india, i’m working as firts asst.director, i have a question ,i think you may explain it well.
    Q: while shooting a scene for movie, why to move and when to move camera and what kind of effect it has on viewers mind?

    plz help me on this

  10. I was looking for an explanation of the term of negative space in photography and google directed me to this article.

    Thank you very much for your article! It’s very helpful! 🙂

  11. Great information. I belong to a photography club and at each meeting we have a demo/talk on a topic that a member researches. Yesterday the topic was negative space. A question was asked that we did not have an answer for and brought out several points of view. The question is “do all photographs have negative space?”. I would love to go to the next meeting with an answer or another point of view. Thanks.

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