Basic Composition - Negative Space

Compelling or pleasing nature images come in all varieties; however, nature scenes that draw me in the most are those that are simple and uncluttered. That is, they have lots of negative space. Negative space is not usually what a photographer thinks about when she points her camera at a bird or a tree; yet it is the space around the main subject that can make a huge difference in the image. For one, negative space can set the mood; this is especially the case when sky or water are involved, like the image above. But more importantly, negative space helps emphasize the main subject by isolating it from its surroundings.

When incorporating negative space, first think about the main subject(s) and how it can be emphasized. Look at the two images above where the main subjects are clearly isolated. The butterfly image relies on color contrast between background and subject, and the row of cormorants relies on a very bright background contrasted against a dark subject. Additionally, impact is added when the main subject has an interesting shape or form. This is especially true with silhouettes. The next image of the silhouetted grasses really makes the point.

Another way to place greater emphasis on the subject is with a small size. Typically, the smaller the subject, the greater the impact, such as the first image above showing the tree island with sky and water surrounding it. The image of the two dragonflies below is another example. Getting a close-up shot of either one of the dragonflies would not have had the same appeal in my opinion. As it is, incorporating the delicate plants against a solid background emphasized the dragonflies effectively.

Once you have a subject or subjects with considerable negative space to work with, consider the following ways in which you can apply negative space.

Breathing room. Placement of the main subject is key. I find the rule of thirds to work very well here. If it is an animal, I like to give it breathing room by placing more space in front of it, such as with the dark image of the little blue heron below. Likewise, when capturing a close-up of something, give it space between it and the frame, like the black vulture image below. In fact, a common criticism of close-up animal shots is being too tight within the frame. We all need space and so do the animals!

Sky and water. These are the two best natural negative spaces out there! Obviously, a cloudless sky provides more negative space, like in the lone mangrove image below. Water is my favorite negative space and there are two ways to make it work; first is to shoot in very calm waters, such as with the crocodile image below. 

The other way is to use very long exposures, such as 1 second or longer. The lone mangrove image above is an example of that, but also look at the image below here. The waters of Lake Superior were very rough, so to get that negative space effect, I used a 30-sec exposure to smooth out the water.

Fog. Fog is another natural element that can offer negative space and alter the feel of the scene dramatically, as with the image below shot in Iowa. Not only was the sky cloudless, the fog laying heavy over the farmland created additional negative space that adds an ethereal mood to the image.

Texture or patterns. Negative space does not have to be one solid tone, rather it can be multi-toned or have a pattern, like with the blue toned sky in the long exposure Lake Superior image above. As another example, negative space in the image directly below is the reflection from the mangrove trees that adds texture to the scene. These work well when there is continuity so as not to take away from the emphasis of the main subject.

Out-of-focus (OOF) background. The main subject can also be isolated by making the background OOF or blurry. This can be seen with the black vulture and butterfly images above. OOF backgrounds are achieved using a shallow depth of field (see previous blog) and placing the focus on the main subject.

Balance and leading lines. Negative space can complement the main subject by adding balance or leading lines, such as the two images directly below. Notice the lone tree image where the bottom portion or foreground of the image consists of several tones of blue. I used water movement to create this effect which adds a nice balance to the image without taking emphasis away from the tree. The next image is a scene from Biscayne Bay where I used the clouds and their reflections as leading lines toward the sunlit mangrove shoreline. Lots of negative space in that image, yet, it pulls you in.

Overexposure and underexposure. The two images below show an overexposure effect and an underexposure effect, respectively. To overexpose a scene and make the negative space appear white, the sun should be in front, thus allowing the main subjects to appear as silhouettes. For the underexposure, a light subject with darker surroundings works best, such as the great white egret in the water. By exposing the white feathers correctly, the darker surroundings are underexposed. 

Artificial background or digital processing. I shot the praying mantis below while visiting Costa Rica. My photography partner held a large leaf behind it so I could capture it with a solid background. The leaf appeared gray in the image, so with some post-processing, I added a blue-violet tone to complement the insect’s green color. And in the image of the two dragonflies above, the negative space was created by the side of a very large motor home. That’s a good example of how a solid color man-made structure can add nicely to a nature scene.

I might add that if wildlife photography is your interest, you may find that quite often, even a large telephoto lens is not enough to capture a close up. That’s when you can look for those opportunities to create an image with large negative space around a small subject. Sometimes, the surroundings can make a wildlife image much more striking than filling the frame. So, keep it positive by looking for the negative!

Thanks for looking on and if you are interested in receiving tutorials in Photoshop or individualized workshops in the field or are just interested in photographing scenes like these, please check out my website and feel free to contact me at