Negative Space in Flower/Macro Photography *Updated*

14 06 2010

If you ever heard about Negative space you already know what I want to write about. If you never heart about it but you already have some experience with photography, I am pretty sure you know what Negative space is but you only don’t know it is called so.

Let’s begin with commonly used definition:

Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image”, says Wikipedia.

It is simple as this. The negative space is everything in the frame beside the main subject(s) which usually means that negative space is a background. You know how important the “right” composition is and that different compositions can significantly influence viewers perception of the photo. I will not write here how to compose a subject in an image, how to use a background to make the main subject pops up, how to mix various colours in the image aso.

I want to focus on something that I realized only recently and that is the use of negative space in flower and macro photography. In flower and macro photography you usually compose the photographed scene in 2 different ways:

  1. the main subject is wholly in the image,
  2. the main subject is only partially in the image.

Now I would like to present the role of negative space in both types of composition and how it influences viewers perception. Let’s look on the following photo:

~ 1/320 sec. @ 100 mm, f/4, ISO 100 ~

The flower on this photo is a Dwarf Tulip (Tulipa tarda), a tiny tulip variety that blooms in early spring in patches of 10+ bright white and yellow blossoms with a diameter around 2 centimetres. The flower blooms fully open only in direct sunlight and closes quickly in shadow thus I had to take the photo around noon and therefore the strong light in the centre of the flower. There were also other blossoms quite near to this one and other flowers resulting in a messy background so I opted to mount a close up filter to my macro lens for super shallow depth of field. Now the colours of the background were not pleasing at all so I yet converted the photo to BW and applied sepia toning and darkened the corners, leaving only the blossom and some nice diagonal blurred lines behind it. Note that this photo is not finished because it was intended only for use in this post; in finished photo the distracting petals entering the photo at the bottom were removed in post processing.

Now it is a great photo for illustrating what is negative space. It is everything around the main flower. The main subject is also called positive space. I could be happy with the photo if I removed those petals near the bottom – it was composed according to the rules of thirds and it looks good, in my opinion. After watching it for a while I realized that it doesn’t evoke the feelings I would like to be evoked. Even though I used macro lens with additional close up optics and even though the front lens of the macro lens was only couple of centimetres from the blossom, it still looks like a small flower and that’s exactly what negative space does in this case! Surrounding whole main subject it makes it look small in whole composition even though it would be printed on huge canvas. My eyes are dragged to the flower which is right but then they leave it and start wandering around the image searching for some other interesting subject and finally, finding nothing else, coming back to the flower. I, as a viewer, find it distracting.

So, what can I do with it? Crop it to eliminate the negative space!

If cropping I prefer either original 2:3 format or square format. I don’t like other aspect ratios much. So after a couple of tries of different crops here is one which I like. It is much better now, don’t you think? My eyes enter the photo in top left corner, follows the petals directly to the centre where they circle around the sharpest anther, sometimes leaving the central part, following the top petals right rim and coming back following its left rim and circling around the centre again. Hmm, I like it! After watching it for a while I got that feeling again. There is still too much background which is too dark and the flower still looks a bit small. There is still a bit more negative space than positive space and that’s what makes the difference.

Last try, crop it a bit more:

The ratio between negative and positive space is now near to 50% and it proves itself. My eyes go the same way as in previous case but now don’t have any reason nor intention to leave the flower  to wander above the rest of the image. The flower is all I see and watch and that is what I wanted. I wanted to show the flower to the viewer and there are no doubts that the flower is what this photo is about. Yes, there is that cropped left petal but it is not distracting in my opinion. I think that it creates a certain tension in the photo as it drags my attention and leads my eyes to the centre of the flower again. This is the result I am happy with and this is what helped me to understand the negative and positive space and how the amount of each and ratio between them can influence viewers perception of the photo and what is in it.

It does not mean that finding a balance between negative and positive spaces is the target. The target is to realize that there is something such as negative and positive space and to use it according to your vision. And I believe that even though I tried to explain it on example of flower and macro photography, it is fully applicable in every kind of photography.


After your comments here and on NSN forum where I post my photos I decided for a better crop on 3rd image:

Enjoy the early summer and I’ll be happy for your comments!

Technical information: the photo was taken with the Canon EOS 450D camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens and HOYA close up +4 filter under natural conditions with a help of tripod (the blossoms are only couple of cm above the ground so it was nice test for my tripod).




10 responses

14 06 2010

I like the second one, beautiful curves and color toning and the DOF gives it a romantic touch. In the last one you lost the tip of the petal on the left side and although I know you cropped this photo on purpose like this, it looks as if you accidentally lost the tip while framing the photo. Good article!

14 06 2010
Tomas Turecek

Thanks for your comment, Monique. I know that it looks like I accidentally cut the tip of the petal in last photo but I hope I wouldn’t make such a beginner’s fault 😉 Moreover I wanted to keep the square crop and avoid touching the tip at one time.

15 06 2010

What a great post, Tomas! I LOVE negative space and I also LOVE macro photography, so this is a win-win posting for me!

Right from the get-go, I thought the first image was beautiful. BUT, I did find the lower petals distracting and my eyes also wandered a bit.

I like the second image – distracting petals gone, nice lines with the flower. I might have cropped out more on the right.

As for the last image, it is a tough one. By only clipping that left petal a bit, it does appear to be accidental. I would clip it even more, just up to the point where the other petal begins. Now, it becomes intentional. To keep the crop ratio, you will lose more of the image on the right and bottom, and I think that will work beautifully.

All in all, beautiful flower, beautiful processing, beautiful shot! 🙂

15 06 2010
Tomas Turecek

Thank you very much Tracy! I’m glad you liked the post. I think I’m starting to be convinced that you are right with the 3rd photo and I will play with the crop a bit more today. Thank you and feel free to stop here more often if you like what you see.

19 06 2010
Anita Bower

This is a really interesting post, well written and illustrated. It makes me aware of negative space and the difference cropping can make. Thanks ever so much!!!

19 06 2010
Tomas Turecek

Anita, thank you very much! It is the best reward for me when I know that my posts have some value for others.

12 08 2010

Interesting post and great photos, for sure!
I have to think about it seriously and try to make at the first opportunity photos as good as yours. Thank you for inspiration…
Have a fun!

24 09 2010
Tomas Turecek

I am glad you like my photos and I really appreciate that you take my work as an inspiration. Feel free to drop in any time.

2 01 2011
2010 recapitulation « Close Nature

[…] You can read more about this photo as well as about role of negative space in photography in this post. […]

29 06 2011
Two years of blogging « Close Nature

[…] 3 most visited posts are: My free textures, Negative Space in Flower/Macro photography and Awakening […]

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