Positive and Negative Space

Many photo books mention the idea that you don’t want telephone lines
coming out the ears of someone you are taking pictures of. While this is
true, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. By the way, have you ever wondered
what people mean when they use that phrase? When you look at an iceberg,
what you usually see is just the part that lies above the surface of the water.
No matter how huge it appears, you are only seeing 10% of the entire iceberg.
Imagine missing 90% of a movie, or 90% of a book. Would it still hold your interest?

Imagine if you will that no matter what you are shooting, no matter what it is,
the subject is only 10% of the problem. How is that even possible, you ask?
Well let’s think about what type of things can detract from a really good photo.
The background can detract. Lighting can detract. Shapes can distract. Color
can distract. Lines can detract. Texture can detract. I could go on, but I think
you get the general idea. No matter how wonderful the subject is, there are
many more factors that make up a great photograph besides the main subject.

I refer to this understanding as positive and negative space. Positive space
is the area of the photo you want your viewer to concentrate on. Negative
space is everything else. Negative space can actually be a positive thing as
long as it supports what you are shooting. Let’s say for example, you’ve taken
a shot of a small young lady reading a huge book. If the background has a big
picture window with a storm outside, it says one kind of story. If, on the other
hand, the background has rows and rows of books it tells a completely different
type of story. Obviously, if the book blocked part of another person, such as an
arm or a leg coming out one side, that would not be supportive.

When you think about positive and negative space in every shot, you soon become
more aware of other elements you might have easily ignored before. Have you ever
seen one of those optical illusions where if you look at a certain picture one way it’s
a young woman and if you look at it another it’s an old lady? What makes an optical
illusion work? Every person on the planet sees things his or her own way, based on
the experiences they have had up to that point in their life. Some people only see a
young girl or an old lady in the illusion. They may know that the other exist, but they
just can’t see it.

To become the best photographer you can be, you have to open your consciousness
to see multiple possibilities. I once shot a wedding where there were a lot of small
children. This made for some great candid shots. In one case, the bride bent over
while in the reception line to pick up a little girl. I was ready to take the shot, except
for one small detail. When the bride bent over, she revealed much more of herself
than she had planned. If I only noticed the child, I would have taken a shot that would
have embarrassed several people, myself included.

I encourage you to simplify the background when ever you can. But don’t close your
mind to the possibilities of images within images. If in the positive space has a young
couple kissing, and the negative space is a clear blue sky, that’s an OK shot. But if that
same shot has a little girl covering her eyes in the background (negative space) now all
of the sudden you have a great shot. We usually define positive space by what is dominate
or what is in the sharpest focus, but as you can see from that last example . . . there are times
when the negative space can actually be more interesting than the positive space. There
are some people who will never see past the tip of the iceberg. Just remember
the main subject often only represents 10% of the possibilities.