Negative = Positive
Nordic Vision newsletter, March 2014
While shooting, we spend a lot of time on the subject we want to capture. We deal with all kinds of things such as lighting, composition, the moment of printing. What I regularly see happening, however, is that people are so focused on the (main) topic that hardly any attention is paid to the background. Correct imaging of the subject seems to be a first priority. Nevertheless, careful viewing and 'fitting' the background into the image is an equally important activity. It makes the difference between a reasonable and an excellent photo.
It is not only about what you DO photograph but is just as important, what should NOT be on it.
Almost everyone knows images of the ancient Chinese landscape painters. Often made hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago with Indian inks, pens and brushes. It is striking that in many of these paintings a carefully chosen simplicity has been chosen. In other words, many things have been left out. These artists were masters at portraying the essentials with just a few strokes.
Note: Even today you will find beautiful examples of that 'stripping to the essence'. Although of completely different character, but a good example are the Miffy drawings by artist Dick Bruna. Bruna is able to change from Miffy with a single stroke of the pen from laughing to crying or from angry to surprised.
Back to photography!
As mentioned earlier, when shooting we can quickly get caught up in trying to fill every part of the image with something 'interesting'. The result may be that although your main subject is neatly arranged, the overall picture becomes too complicated and full. The viewer no longer has any place in the image where he or she can rest his eyes. That is unfortunate because a good photo is a photo that has something that the viewer can look at and 'hang on' for a while.
There are countless composition rules. Everyone knows a few. For example, we have the golden section, the balance rule, repetitions and much more. However, in my opinion, rules are there to use if you're comfortable with it and to break with if you want. Although no law of Medes and Persians, the fact remains that those rules do have a ground. They arose from countless experiences and that for (sometimes very) many years of paintings and more recent photography. A perhaps less well-known rule that I would like to discuss a little further here is that of the negative and positive spaces. This rule has everything to do with the principle of 'stripping to the bare minimum' described above. I personally think it is one of the basic rules to arrive at a beautiful and balanced image.
Positive and negative space are integral parts of any visual composition. When you, as a photographer, are able to distinguish between positive and negative spaces, this will help you to achieve a stronger image. In order to arrive at this distinction, you have to look especially closely. View your subject and the context (the environment in which the subject is located), view the possible dynamics of the environment, in short observe! Being able to visualize the intended image in advance can greatly help you to distinguish these different parts and in this way make a choice of your composition. By working in this way you can prevent the final image from containing a lot of information, but nevertheless creating a confusing chaos for the viewer.
What is negative space?
The negative space of an image is actually nothing more than the space around the (main) subject. You can use the negative space to draw more attention to your subject. A negative space does not have to be filled with anything and everything. In fact, negative space is also called the white space and sometimes also called the 'empty space'. This does not mean that the negative space must be white or 'empty'. Empty spaces can also have a color, structure or even a representation. When used properly, negative spaces can be as interesting in a photo as any other object or subject. How do you recognize that negative space? The answer has been given before and is to look, look and look again. In any case, there is one thing you can say: if there is an object in the image that seriously demands or needs to draw attention, it is NEVER negative space.
And what is that positive space?
We can be even shorter about this. The positive space contains the (main) subject. It is precisely that part of the image that may have triggered you to take the photo. In other words, by taking the picture you primarily aim to focus on the positive space.
The above all sounds very simple. It may seem like the well-known 'open doors' and in fact they are. The key word is careful observation, and this before you press the shutter button. By carefully examining and analyzing the situation beforehand, you can recognize the essence and background of your image in thought. Incidentally, many photographers may already do this to a greater or lesser degree intuitively. However, the more explicit this action is made, the better the result. The composition technique described here lends itself extremely well to landscape photography but can be used much more widely. Furthermore, it will be clear that just applying this technique is not the only key to making a good picture. For a topper, everything will have to be right, the technique, the total composition and the moment of printing.
During the trips that I accompany for Nordic Vision to China, we discuss this and other forms of composition in more detail. Especially in the Yellow Mountains trip you can practice a lot with these negative and positive spaces. An additional stimulus is also that this happens directly in the environment where the ancient Chinese masters also made their paintings and drawings thousands of years ago. A unique and challenging environment that may have been the cradle of negative and positive spaces. I cordially invite you to experiment a lot with the use of this technique.
Below I have put some examples to illustrate this.
This is, of course, about the mountains of Yellow Mountains (the positive space). The clouds that hang between the mountains add depth to the picture. Considerable attention has been paid to the moment (the clouds move continuously) that the clouds had shifted in such a way that the different mountains became 'detached' from each other. Half an minute later, this effect disappeared again, so that it seemed as if they were all together. The negative space here is therefore clearly in the clouds that largely determine the composition.
The frost covered this wooden platform with beautiful ice flowers. Shortly before this photo was taken, there was a lot more ice, but after a few thaws the shapes became much nicer, so waiting was rewarded. The ratio of positive versus negative space sometimes changes over time and this can therefore influence the final image. (See also in the photo above)
Although only a minimal part of the image is occupied by the small 'tree' including its shadow, this does form the positive space in the image. The background, however beautiful, is only intended as a context to let the tree shine to its best advantage.
Much more clearly than with these snowy slopes with snow gates and lift (positive space) you can not label the negative spaces as “white” or “empty” space.
This example shows that you can easily get a different image by taking a slightly different camera position. In the left photo it is the negative space (the enveloping water) that actually makes the pelican the main subject. On the right, on the other hand, the negative space, not very well chosen here, gives a less strong picture.