Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to Compose a Photograph: Positive and Negative Space


This is the second installment in a series of posts about how to compose a photograph. To read the introduction to the series and the initial topic, aspects of line, click here. When we take a photograph, it is natural to get fixated on the subject – whatever it is we’re pointing the camera at – and we often ignore or pay less attention to the rest of the image. The problem is, the rest of the image is there in the photograph just as much as the nominal subject.

Inattention to the relationship between subject and background often has the visually unfortunate effect of creating unwanted mergers. A merger is an overlapping of figure and ground that visually unites them. The most familiar type of merger is the tree or post growing out of someone’s head – something we’ve all seen or done. Normally we want to preserve the integrity of the shape of our subject; mergers tend to destroy that integrity. Of course, there are always exceptions, and some photographers enjoy making visual jokes.


Lee Friedlander

Beyond preserving the integrity of the subject, there is another reason to pay as much attention to the background as we usually pay to the subject: we want to utilize the negative space of the image in the strongest possible way. The more interesting our negative space shapes are, the more interesting the entire picture will be. Positive and negative space are simply the design terms to distinguish the figure or subject from the ground. In the diagram of this well-known photograph by W. Eugene Smith, the positive space is represented by black and the negative space, white.





Sometimes negative space can be created in the center of the frame.


Brett Weston

When we have a figure against a simple ground, the exact positive and negative space shapes are easy to identify. As the ground becomes more complex, we still can apply the concept, with some fluidity as to what counts as negative space. In the two images below, can you identify potentially competing sets of negative space shapes?


Robert Frank

Lee Friedlander

Below are some images chosen to show a variety of approaches to utilizing negative space:


Vivian Meier

Paolo Roversi

Garry Winogrand

Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu

Jan Groover

Stephen Shore

Henry Clarke

Boris Mikhailov

Paolo Roversi

Positive and negative space relations are created any time we frame a subject, whether that be through the camera’s viewfinder or at the edges of painter’s canvas. Not every photograph has a clear figure/ground relationship; some images are ground only. But in images that do make that distinction, a consideration of the shapes of the negative space can help make those images stronger. 

The key point is to consider the areas around or between what we identify as subject as shapes. We want those shapes to be as varied and specific as possible. Even in a relatively simple example as the Paolo Roversi close up just above, notice that the lower edge of the negative space shape on the left meets the upper edge of the negative space shape on the right, both aligned with lips of the model. There is balance left and right, but variation above and below. Notice also how the shape of the shapes vary, one being more rectangular and the other more triangular. This is an example of a photographer using negative space very precisely.

For a look at another aspect of figure/ground relationships, please see my earlier post on the portraits of Roland Fischer, in which the ground literally comes in front of the figure.

This is the second installment in a series of posts on composition. The entire series is archived on the "For Students" page, accessible at the top menu. Check there for the prior posts in the series, as well as for the following installments. Click this link for the next post, with some advice on the best ways learn about composition on your own. 

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