5 Negative Space Photography Composition Tips

Hanoi, 2017

To make better street photos, integrate more negative space.


Why negative space?

Abstract walking woman with umbrella. Seoul. 2009

Negative space gives room for your photo to breathe. By having more negative space, you give more attention and focus to your subjects in the frame.

This also works well when photographing objects. See how much darkness and shadows you can integrate into your frame.

Abstract of the ‘figure to ground’ relationship of the picture.

Negative space in street photography tips:

Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM
  1. Use -1 or -2 exposure compensation when shooting street photography, to darken the background, to integrate more negative space.
  2. Leave a little bit of negative space in front of your subjects to move into. This is a good technique for leading lines, and the “fishing technique” in street photography.
  3. Use a flash to darken the background.
  4. When you’re shooting a scene, seek to subtract, not to add to the frame.
  5. When you’re shooting try to make sure the background is simple and clean.
  6. Start off with a black background, and wait for your subjects to enter the frame.
Chiaroscuro. DYNAMIC LIGHT AND SHADOW. Made with iPad Pro and Procreate app.Hanoi, 2016 by ERIC KIM

More ideas:

1. Use negative space to your benefit

Negative space on bottom of man. Silhouette, Sapa Vietnam 2016

When you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens like a 28mm in street photography, and can’t get any closer to your subject, put negative space below or above them — and fill the frame with negative space.

For example, this is how this composition looks when abstracted:

2. Negative space around your subject

Negative white space around black hand. Hanoi, 2017

In this photo of a mans hand, see how I integrated the Golden rectangle composition (drawn in red lines).

Also, note the negative space around his hands (with red blocks), and the negative space on the right and left (yellow, blue):

3. Make the eyes of your subject direct the eyes of your viewer

Cindy looking up in the elevator with circles. Hanoi, 2017

To lead the eyes of your subject to different parts of the frame, have them track the eyes of your subject in the frame.

For example, look at this picture of Cindy looking up. It makes the viewer of the picture also look up (the same direction as Cindy):

4. Negative space and flash

Examples of photos with flash, to add negative space in the background:

Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017. Shot with flash.
Face mask. Hanoi, 2017. Shoot with a flash, see negative black space in background.

5. Allow your subject to exit the frame

Hanoi, 2017 #cindyproject. Silhouette, see the negative space to the left of her, which allows her to exit the frame.

Cindy is walking left, and you can see it outlined in red.

This adds more dynamic tension to your photo —there is the anticipation of Cindy going to leave the frame.

Gestalt theory: we want to see “continuance”— we want to see the movement of the subject to continue and finish.


Negative space around woman. Kyoto zen temple, 2017

Negative space applies not just to photography, but life.

In photography and life, seek to subtract, not add.

When in doubt, subtract.

EMPTY YOURSELF to fill yourself up.