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I see negative space as a fascinating concept— both photographically and philosophically.

Seek emptiness

Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

In Taoism/Zen, they say that emptiness is the most valuable thing.

For example, the value of a cup is the emptiness within the cup (which can be eventually filled).

The value of a house is the negative or the empty space within.

Less is more

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In photography, we start off with a blank slate. We start off with our viewfinder and frame. We decide what to include in the frame, and what to exclude from the frame.

The more emptiness and negative space we have in our frame, the more focus we can give to our subjects.

The portrait photographer Richard Avedon knew this well— in his “street portraits” of his project “In the American West” — he photographed people just against white backdrops. This allowed there to be no distractions. Only focus on the subjects.

I find it is beneficial to have negative space in the frame— which allows the viewer’s eyes to look around the frame. Not only that, but having some negative space allows the subject in your frame to move around as well.

A very simple example is if you have a photo of a subject walking, leave some negative space in front of them, so you will give your subject some room to breathe, and some room for them to walk into the frame.

How to photograph negative space effectively?

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Honestly, there is no science behind negative space in photography. For me, negative space is like poetry. You just need to follow your gut.

  1. My practical suggestion is when you’re shooting, start with a blank slate. Start off with a simple and clean background, then add your subjects.

  2. Or another way: start off with a busy scene, and try to subtract clutter from your frame.

  3. Also when you’re shooting, think of the #1 focus you want in your frame. Who is your primary subject? Are the other elements in the frame adding to the photo, or distracting from the photo?

Photography is like sculpture

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Be like a sculptor in your photography. Keep chipping away and chiseling away the superfluous stone, until you uncover the beautiful statue within.

Keep it simple,
Eric

Learn more: Composition Lessons >