Composition: A primer on Positive and negative space. Part 2

Composition, A primer on Positive and negative space, Part 2

Written by Michael Fulks | Reprinted with permission.
©1996 Apogee Photo Magazine. All Rights Reserved.


Continued from Part 1…

Let’s look at Joe McDonald’s picture of a tree frog. It is an excellent example of what we have been talking about. First let’s identify the positive space. If you guessed the frog, you were partially right. I have masked the positive space in white in figure 1. Do you see that the positive space encompasses not only the frog but the branches as well? OK, what about the negative space? This is easy, it is the areas in black.

Please notice something. Do you see the negative space is actually shapes? These shapes have substance or mass. This is important to remember. Negative space is not just the absence of something. It has weight and mass, and plays an important role in defining your subject.

Let’s consider the positive space again. Notice how the positive space travels across and intersects with the frame. See how it provides the eye several gates or roadways into the picture. And where do they all lead? To the frog! They also provide a way out of the picture and back in through another gate, so the eye will not get stuck on the frog with no place to go, but can go in and out of the picture always coming back to the frog. Because the branches are part of the positive space and we must travel along them to get to the frog, we also get to see the relationship of the branches and the frog, texture, color, form and function. So the photographer has shown us more than just the frog but taught us a little about its environment.

“Tree Frog” © Joe McDonald. All Rights Reserved
Fig.1 The positive space is in white, the negative in black.
Fig. 2 Notice how much easier it is to see the shapes of the negative space when the picture is upside down.


Branches, of course, are easy to make intersect with our frame. It is not so easy with other subjects, but how you accomplish the positive space’s intersection with the frame, and how many times you do it, can provide interest and meaning to the photograph.

In my Fine Art Class, I often show up to 100 slides of a variety of photographer’s work taken from magazines, books and other sources. As each slide is shown we evaluate each picture’s use of positive and negative space, and discuss alternative cropping (frames) that might change the photograph. What students find is that photographs can often be dramatically improved by some subtle adjustment, mostly because the new cropping allows the eye to move more freely through the photograph revealing more of the subject than before. And they also find that the meaning or intent of a photograph can be altered just the same way.

This is something you can do yourself, by going through magazines and seeing how some of the ad photographs are put together. Is the ad about clothing? Does the cropping cause the eye to move to the model’s face or the clothes? What gateways and roads in and out of the picture encourage this? Look how many head and shoulder shots have the top of the head touching the frame. How does this affect what the eyes do and see first? Why do you think this happens?

Now apply it to your own photography. Here’s a tip. When it’s your photograph, and when you are emotionally involved with some element of the process, subject, etc., it is hard to turn off your analyzing mind and see the negative and positive space. Your tendency is to see “the frog,” “the branch,” “Aunt Edna.” You are processing the information that comes from them being things, not elements of the picture. So try this. Turn your picture upside down. Positive and negative space when balanced stay balanced no matter what the orientation of the picture. By turning the picture upside down, you will inhibit that part of your brain that tries to categorize and give things names. It will then be easier to see shapes and the spaces between your frame and the subject. I often set a picture on a coffee table for a few days, so that I can see it over a period of time, sometimes looking at it sideways or upside down. Those that survive this kind of scrutiny go into my portfolio.

Where can you go from here? Consider taking a drawing class at your local adult education center. I firmly believe that doing so will have as much or more impact on your photography than any other class you can take. Can’t draw, you say. Just wait. You have no idea what you can do until you start. You will begin to see photography in a whole new light. And you will see things you never saw before.

For more information pick up Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, published by Jeremy P Tharcher, Inc.

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