Worldwide Photographic Journeys

Effective use of Negative Space

29th January 2019

Whether you’re using DSLR, mirrorless or point-and-shoot, today’s camera systems are jam-packed with incredible features to support photographers at all levels. Intelligent autofocus and tracking, high ISO image quality, super-smart metering and much more, greatly contribute to every photographer’s imaginative output.

In spite of this, there is one creative component in photography that’s beyond the reach of these highly sophisticated tools of the trade, and that’s artistic composition.

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) in its habitat Maasai Mara, Kenya (Image by Andrew Sproule)

As facilitators of photographic tours we at Wild Images have a responsibility to make sure that we are always on hand to assist our guests with advice that not only relates to camera settings but also to composition and framing and to recommend creative solutions to extract the best out of any given situation.

For example, in wildlife photography particularly, the space around a subject can be just as important as the subject itself and effective use of this ‘negative space’ can often transform a good shot into a great shot.

So, what do we actually mean by negative space?

Put simply, negative space is the effective area around the main subject in your frame that provides that subject with a sense of place allowing it to breathe. Typically in wildlife photography this space is often the subject’s natural environment, its habitat.

Skilful use of negative space can dramatically alter the mood of an image. As viewers, we instinctively know when something just doesn’t look right, so by allocating space for an animal to look, walk or run in to (or out of for that matter) translates in to imagery that we can identify, engage with and become emotionally attached to.

A male lion (Panthera leo) with no space to walk in to, Botswana (Image by Andrew Sproule)

A male lion (Panthera leo) with space to walk in to, Botswana (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Negative space not wasted space

Nature’s magical moments are often fleeting, so it’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment and focus solely on the subject, the element that you see as the most important component of the photograph. However, in doing so, you may end up ignoring the immediate environment completely.

Instead, and while looking through the lens, try momentarily switching your attention from your main subject to their habitat. Study the space and see if you are able to recompose your shot and achieve a more balanced image. Often, just the act of shifting one’s position by a few inches is all that’s necessary.

Similarly, pulling away from your main subject, with the use of a shorter lens or a zoom lens, will be all that’s required to provide you with the flexibility and control that’s needed to create a desirable result. Your main subject will understandably be smaller in the frame as a consequence of pulling back, so to make certain you compose a strong and well-balanced image, remember to position your subject based on the ‘rule of thirds’ where possible.

Red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) negative space and the rule of thirds (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Tips for negative space while looking through the lens

  • Aim for simple backgrounds
  • Decide what’s important to leave in and what to leave out
  • Avoid competing secondary elements or subjects
  • Pull away from your subject, try alternative lenses and different aspects
  • Remember the Rule of Thirds

Final thoughts

On the surface, the use of negative space diminishes a subject, makes it smaller, so learning to use negative space well will help you to discover alternative ways to tell your subject’s story which makes it an extremely effective and powerful tool for wildlife photography.

And, magazine editors will love you for it. Look through any publication, at any double page spread, and you will see just how frequently negative space is earmarked for catchy headlines and introductions.

A Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in its natural jungle habitat, India (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Editor and Photographer:  Wild Images Leader Andrew Sproule