A Guide to Effective Use of Negative Space in Street Photography

Negative Space in Street Photography
Photo by: Arran James Carter-Cheetham

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Negative space is an extremely powerful compositional tool in photography! Yes, we are talking about quick and easy compositional rules and techniques in street photography again. This time, we take a look at how using large ‘empty’ areas of your frame can actually ‘add’ so much to the frame. I know it seems somewhat counterintuitive but trust me, this will really elevate your photography. 

What is Negative Space

Negative space, put very simply, is an area of your frame that has little to no detail. Okay, that’s super simplistic, let’s take it a little further. Sometimes you don’t need to include so much in one image. Like I spoke about in the previous article, Natural Frames, it can be refreshing to remove some unwanted details from an image. Negative space can allow you to do this. 

This could take the form of complete shadows or blown out highlights or you can even use a large wall as negative space. Pretty much anything that doesn’t add too much within your image. Minimal details or distractions are the key here. We don’t always ‘need’ to fill the frame and it can be beneficial to leave some empty or ‘negative’ space in your frames. Sometimes less is more.

One particular photographer, Fan Ho, is rather famous for his use of negative space in his images. He doesn’t use it in all of his work, but when he utilises it, the results are extremely powerful. I strongly suggest picking up some of Fan Ho’s work and looking at his amazing use of composition. 

How to use it

Using negative space can be very easy. Sometimes you’ll stumble across a large wall that acts perfectly as a huge canvas for a negative space composition, such as framing a subject small and in the bottom left or right corner. This would leave a large expanse of wall, negative space, within your image, that instantly draws attention to the subject in the frame. 

In other instances you have to pre-visualise negative space and use the light you have to your advantage. This application of negative space would be when you purposely underexpose the entire frame leaving only the well lit areas to catch the viewer’s eye. This may need a little further manipulation with editing, but can also be achieved at the time of taking the image if the conditions are in your favour. 

Shooting when it is dark can also be a great way of utilising negative space. Shop windows can often offer you the opportunity of exposing for that shop and then letting everything else fall into darkness. That darkness that occurs can be used as negative space.

One more example could be using the sky or something very bright and letting that go completely white. This area of an over-exposed frame would or could be negative space. The subject may be crossing a bridge or walkway with only the sky behind them. If you expose for the subject and allow the sky to go completely white, you could then use that white sky as negative space.

Improving your use of negative space

Now let’s talk about how to improve your use of negative space. There are a few things you can do, both technically and visually to help. It all comes from understanding how light can be used to create negative space and also understanding what surfaces you could use for negative space

Setting your camera’s metering system to highlight priority can help you create those really deep, almost black shadows that can give some beautiful negative space in your images. Once set to this setting, your camera will automatically expose the scene with an emphasis on the brightest part, the highlights. If you’re shooting in broad daylight, or harsh lighting conditions, then the shadows will often become completely black. This will work better if using one of your cameras automatic modes, such as aperture priority (my chosen mode), or shutter priority. If you shoot in manual mode then this can still work, but your camera’s exposure meter will guide you to what settings you need to dial in. Now if you’re shooting film, this can be a little more difficult, and you’ll need to really understand the film stock you’re using and know how that film exposes particular lighting.

When we think of surfaces that can work best for negative space, I instantly think of concrete. That’s because it often has very little texture which is exactly what we need to look for when working towards negative space. Painted walls also work well, coloured or black and white walls often work well. Brick walls can work occasionally, but certain types of brick wall actually hold a lot of detail and can be a little distracting for the use of negative space.

Final Words

I hope you have taken a little something from this article and as always would love to see your applications of negative space in your work. Be sure to use #visualcultmagazine on Instagram so we can see your awesome images. Thanks for reading and get out there to take some pictures.