According to mymodernmet.com, the definition of negative space is “the area around and between a subject." In photography, negative space usually refers to an area of the frame that doesn’t have much detail and doesn’t draw the eye away from the subject. In fact, negative space serves to emphasize the subject, as in this image of a fishing boat.
I’ve been drawn to the use of negative space, probably for at least two reasons: First, I grew up under the big skies of Alberta so I have a love of space, and second, I love minimalism in photography, and negative space is one of the key components that is commonly used in minimalist photography. (See my Youtube tutorial on Minimalist Photography.)
Not only can negative space emphasize the subject, the shape of the negative space itself can be interesting, as in these two examples:
Negative space can contribute feelings of spaciousness, peace, freedom, or loneliness to an image. This photo of a boat loses the peaceful feeling if you take away the negative space.
Different elements in an image have different “visual weight”. Bright areas, contrast, and people are examples of elements that have a lot of visual weight; they draw the eye. Often it can be helpful to have other elements in the frame that balance that visual weight. One of those elements can be negative space. In the following image, the brightness of the girl’s legs, and the fact of it being a human element, have visual weight, which is balanced by the negative space to the left.
Sky as Negative Space
Sky can sometimes be considered negative space if it doesn’t have too much detail that draws the eye. In this example, the contrast (visual weight) is in the island and low clouds, and the relatively undetailed sky balances that visual weight. If the sky had northern lights or dramatic clouds, it would be less effective as negative space. But here it contributes by balancing the visual weight at the bottom of the frame and creating a feeling of space and peace.
As you can see from these examples, negative space balances and
draws attention to the subject of an image, rather than competing with the subject. (Negative space can still have some detail, as in the shoreline behind the orcas below.) Negative space is particularly effective in minimalist images, and in creating a feeling of peace, spaciousness, and solitude, so if your subject evokes those feelings in you, try using this compositional element to convey that emotion to your viewer.