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Landscape Composition – Part 3: Negative Space: Digital Photography Review


Negative space strongly enhances the drawing factor of this lone tree on a foggy background. Canon 5D3, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/60 sec, F8, ISO100 Weissbad, Switzerland

So far in this series, I’ve talked about the weights of compositional elements and how to use their properties to balance the composition. But there is much more to keeping an image appealing and balanced, and this time I’d like to discuss another important consideration: unoccupied space around the elements, or as it’s better known: negative space.

Just like the size, prominence and level of detail, the negative space around a compositional mass is intimately connected to its location and to how it interacts with other masses in an image. Negative space both accentuates an element and separates it from others, contributing to how much the viewer’s eye is drawn to a specific location in an image.

Space around one element doesn’t only affect that element, it also affects how much space we need around other elements, lest we lose compositional balance. But contrary to what determines weight, space has only one property: how much of it there is—or isn’t.

Determining how much space is needed

Too little space and too much space are both counterproductive to the appeal of a composition, so we need to understand how the properties of an element determine the amount of space it needs around it. This could be summed up very easily: the heavier the compositional weight of an element, the more space it needs between itself and other elements. You could look at it as though a heavy element has influence beyond its own borders, and forbids other information from competing for the viewer’s attention in that perimeter.

A double-headed lava dragon is a big, prominent and detailed mass, and thus needs a lot of space around it. Less space than this would make the framing too tight and render the image less appealing.

DJI Phantom 4 Pro, 1/13 sec, F8, ISO 400
Kilauea Volcano, Island of Hawai’i

Below is another example from Hawai’i:

The foreground element here is very large, but it’s not very prominent – most of it is just as bright as its surroundings, with only the outer lava being brighter. I thus chose to avoid adding too much negative around it and have it relatively close to the edges of the frame – do you agree with my choice?

Canon 5D2, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/200 sec, F4, ISO1600
Holuhraun, Iceland

In the image below, the two background masses have similar compositional weights, with the left mass being slightly more detailed and more prominent, and so the amount of space around it is a bit larger than that for the mass on the right. The foreground mass, however, is much larger and heavier than both of them, so in hindsight, perhaps I should have given it a bit more space. It could be argued, though, that the grey part on the left of the foreground also feels and acts like negative space.

Using Negative Space to Improve Balance

Negative space can be controlled in ways that maintain and improve compositional balance in a landscape image. My personal feeling is that maintaining a similar level of distance between masses of similar weight, and from the edges of some masses to borders of an image, causes the composition to be more pleasant. Let’s look at some examples:

A golden sunset in Lake Myvatn, Iceland

Sony A7R, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 8 sec, F16, ISO 50

When looking at the negative space between the two main masses, a symmetry arises: the distance from the right side of the tree to the right edge of the frame is similar to the distance from the left side of the rock to the left edge of the frame. Moreover, the distances from the tops of the masses to the top of the frame and from the bottom to the bottom of the frame are similar, but opposite.

Similarity in the space between the masses and between the masses and the borders of the image contributes to the sense of balance. It’s nice when the distances are oppositely symmetrical, like here.

Another example:

The chunks of ice are very similar to each other, thus the amount of negative space between them should be similar. The largest and most prominent of them—those in the bottom—need more space around them. But even here, the distances between the two foreground masses and the respective image borders are similar, and they are also similar to the distance of the main background mass from the top edge of the frame. Again: this is definitely not an exact science, but it just feels right.

Similarly-colored arrows are of equal length. Note how the amounts of negative space add another dimension of balance.

Another mountain example:

Can you spot some distances of similar length here? Note how the mountain’s reflection doesn’t require as much negative space as the mountain itself – why is that?

Sony A7R, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 30 sec, F11, ISO100
Torres Del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia

Dead Space

Negative space isn’t all fun and games – it has an ugly cousin: dead space, a lack of content where the eye wants to see that content, which is highly problematic. Recall this image from the previous article, where I mentioned how much I dislike the dead space on the top left:

Dead space often arises when negative spaces aren’t balanced. If the photographer determines a certain amount of negative space around an element of a given compositional weight, it can cause a serious problem if other masses of larger weight get less negative space around them, or the opposite: if masses of smaller weight receive more negative space. This type of problem can often cause a feeling of instability in the viewer’s eye. Let’s look at an example.

A beautiful cloud inversion with mountains peeking out – nice! But the composition isn’t perfectly balanced, due to inconsistent use of negative space.

Canon 5D3, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/200 sec, F8, ISO 200
Leuenfall, Switzerland

When looking at the background subjects In the image above, we can see an inconsistency: the heaviest background subject, the mountain on the left, receives very little negative space around it, while the barely-visible ones on the right receive lots of space. This imbalance causes the space on the right to become dead space, and the image feels left-heavy and tense.

The existence of dead space can also be viewed as there being a large section of an image that doesn’t have the same amount of information as the rest of the image. It’s a different way of looking at the same thing, but it’s easier to understand for some readers. The image below is a good example of this:

The bottom left of this image is almost completely devoid of information, whereas the rest is information-packed. This causes the bottom left section to become dead space, and hurts the composition.

Large amounts of negative space aren’t always detrimental. If the areas of negative space in an image are balanced in the same way that masses are, there is no reason an image won’t work. Remember the lone tree shot I opened this article with? I think it works very nicely, even though most of the image is white, negative space. Below are a collection of other photographs with minimal compositions with extensive amounts of negative space. For each image, I’ve provided a description for why I think these photographs work at a compositional level.

Both the eclipse and its reflection have a lot of negative space around them, but this negative space is both required (since the masses are so prominent and thus very heavy) and balanced (by the negative space on the right).

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/10 sec, F2.8, ISO 100 Lago Cuesta del Viento, San Juan province, Argentina

Negative space on the bottom helps enhance the ptarmigan trails in the foreground, and since it’s balanced with the space on top, doesn’t cause any unwanted tension.

Canon 5D3, Canon 16-35mm F4L IS, F14, 1/30 sec, ISO800

Lake Myvatn, Iceland

The main subject of this image, Arita Cone, has tons of negative space around it. But there’s no dead space here, only negative space which simply makes the image feel more airy. The amount of negative space on top counterbalances that on the bottom.

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/15 sec, F3.2, ISO 400
Coco Arita, Argentinean Puna

Another example:

A bird’s eye view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Can you implement what we learned in the last 3 articles to analyze this composition?

DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/40 sec, F8, ISO100, vertical pano stitch

I claim that part of the appeal of this composition comes from the fact that not only the masses, but the negative spaces are balanced in the above image. Indeed, there are many similar distances between the different elements and between the elements and the edges of the image.

Some of the distance comparisons might seem a bit contrived. By all means, ignore those—needless to say I wasn’t taking all the distances into account while flying my drone half asleep in the early morning. Still, you can’t ignore the fact that there is balance of negative space, and I hope you agree that it contributes to a better sense of compositional balance in the image as a whole.

Below is a series of images I’ve captured over the years. I think it would be a good exercise to analyze the balance of negative spaces in each of them on your own. For each image, ask yourself whether you agree with my compositions (especially with the selection of negative space) or if you think the image is unbalanced in some way, and try to explain to yourself why that is. Importantly, ask yourself how the compositional weights of the different elements and the amounts of negative space around them impact each other.

To finish this instalment, let’s look at one final image.

Lava pours to the Atlantic Ocean at the Kamokuna Ocean Entry, Island of Hawai’i

Canon 5D4, Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6, 1/250 sec, F5, ISO6400

Given what we’ve seen so far, why I chose to include much more negative space on the right? The two main masses are of similar compositional weight, so what’s going on here? This shows us that the discussion about negative space isn’t quite done. More on that in my next article.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.

If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia, Greenland, Colombia, The Lofoten Islands, Indonesia and the Argentinean Puna.

Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.

More in The Landscape Composition Series:

Selected Articles by Erez Marom:


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