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One of the key ingredients of successful photography, and one that still lies exclusively within the control of the photographer, is strong composition. In landscape and nature photography composition is more important than ever as technology makes capturing properly exposed images easier and easier. But how you frame a scene and decide what to include or exclude is still the domain of vision, creativity, and your unique perspective.

Composition is all about balance, and one of the tools we can use to achieve proper balance is negative space. By negative space I mean areas of the composition that are either relatively empty or devoid of any significant detail. The key word here is relative, meaning it depends on what else is in the frame and what the subject matter is. What may appear to be negative space in one image may not have the same effect in another. It all relies on context and overall balance, or what we often call visual weight.

Different parts of an image will add visual weight to the scene—essentially where the eye will slow down or even stop—where it feels it needs to rest. That weight needs to be in balance with the rest of the frame for the image to feel right. Negative space can act as a counter balance, as a way to bring more attention to the “positive”parts of the composition and control where the viewers eye moves. Of course, everyone sees differently, which is why simplicity is always a good place to start.

Seeing is believing, so here are a few examples for you to consider.

Catskill View, Mohonk Preserve
Canon 1DS Mk III, 19mm, f/16 @ 2.5 sec, ISO 400 (no filters)

In “Catskill View” above, I wouldn’t necessarily call the sky featureless, but in relation to the foreground, it is. In my mind I thought clouds would add to the image, but as I was composing the scene, I struggled with all of the detail and “weight” of the lower right side, which for me was the subject matter. I wanted to keep the viewer’s eye in the foreground, but not let the image feel out of balance, so the sky acts as a counterbalance, keeping the viewer returning to the details I thought were crucial to the image.

Bubble Rock, Acadia NP
Canon 5D, 17mm, f/11 @1/125 sec, ISO 400

In “Bubble Rock” I used the same concept, allowing the clear sky to become part of the composition and balance the details in the foreground. In post, I darkened the sky in order to accentuate the effect and again bring attention the rest of the image. This is easily done in Lightroom using the Blue Slider in the Black and White mix controls of the Develop Module (assuming your sky is mostly blue to begin with.)

Double Cairns
Canon 1DS Mk III, 73mm, f/5.6 @ 1/60 sec, ISO 400

Often negative space aids tremendously in achieving simplicity. The classic but all too important question “what is this image about” becomes much easier to answer when we make our images as simple as possible. “Breathing room” when used properly can become negative space, and that’s what I was thinking in order to make these cairns the focus of the image.

Seaforms, Quoddy Head, ME
Canon 1DS Mk III, 19mm, f/13 @ 20 sec, ISO 200

In “Seaforms” I actually created more negative space by using a 20 sec exposure which smoothed out the water to remove details and texture. This helped the composition by  taking advantage of the shapes and colors in a more effective way. The image is divided diagonally from bottom right to top left, and I tried to use the open spaces to highlight the interesting parts of the scene. Again, it’s all relative and a question of harmonious balance. There’s nothing going on in the bottom right, but that’s what pulls the eye into the left and up into the sky.

Winter Harbor, Maine
Canon 1DS Mk III, 27mm, f/11 @ 1/20 sec, ISO 200

Here I tried to use the empty spaces with the added variation of color in order to make an image that has lots of depth and a three-dimensional quality. But depending on how you look at it, it also looks layered from top to bottom – perhaps because of the very low perspective I used, no more than 4 inches above the ground – yes I got soaked. I’ll have more to say about using perspective in a future post.

I hope these examples give you some ideas of how useful and important negative space can be in your images. Often when you feel your image lacks balance or harmony, it can be attributed to lack of empty space. Let the subject breath, and you’ll have a much clearer and simpler message to convey. Feel free to experiment, don’t avoid empty skies, and learn from your mistakes – I certainly have.

Thanks for reading, and please do share your reactions, thoughts and comments below – your feedback is very important to me and helps to keep me creating the types of posts that are most helpful for you.

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Robert, just wanted to thank you for all the knowledge you have passed on through your blog. I’ve read many articles on negative space, but never has the concept and its potential been made as clear. Also, your examples demonstrate well the many possibilities for using this valuable technique.
    Now I’m off to rethink all those images where I cropped out an empty sky. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Rick – that’s great to hear since I was concerned that the concepts weren’t clear enough. It’s a tough thing to write about, much easier to teach in the field, but I hope the examples will help your own explorations. Any help whatsoever, just ask.


  2. Hi Robert, I was glad to read this and to see the concept so clearly explained AND illustrated. It seems that everyone these days is saying “Get in close! Up close!” and the concept of negative space is getting short shrift. Thank you for the reminder of how valuable it can be!

    1. Great feedback Nancy, really appreciate it. While I do agree with the overall approach of “getting in close”, good composition is always the final deciding factor. IF getting close makes a better composition, then get close. But if careful use of negative space makes for a better composition, then use that to its fullest potential. Whatever makes the simplest and most effective statement is what matters.


  3. A very useful post. The concept is explained simply, then illustrated with some good examples: a great way to share technique.

    1. Hi Stephen – great to see you here and thanks for the generous feedback. Yes I do try to make things as simple as possible since we need to let creativity flow when out in the field – the more we can let that happen, the better the images we’ll make. Simplicity is one big component of that.

      thanks again, RR

  4. Thanks for the clarity, and the examples we can relate to. I have wrestled with negative space, especially with diagonal subjects which leave relatively large portions open. You have articulated a helpful approach.

    1. Hi Bill – great to hear from you and thanks again for the wonderful feedback as usual. As I mentioned in the post, visual weight or balance is one of the essential keys to using negative space effectively. This is almost never about the amount of space on the frame (20%, 50%, etc) but rather about how the viewers eye moves through the image. A relatively small part of an an image can be very powerful in terms of visual attention, and so a larger portion of negative space can work. Think of a relatively small castle in a large landscape – it almost always will dominate the image even if it only occupies a small portion of the frame.

      I hope you’re having a great new year so far!


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