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).


A difficulty of choice

27 12 2009

We had a fine winter week with couple of centimeters of snow and temperatures below -10°C followed by couple of days with rain and temperatures above 0°C and one day with 15°C! It seems that Mother Nature can’t decide if we should have winter or still autumn.

When I woke up today everything outside was covered by thick frost. Temperature was at -4°C and it was rising very slowly so I grabbed a camera and a tripod (for the first time oustide) and spent an hour looking for some interesting frosty themes. I focused on meadows around our house which are full of Golden Rods, Queen Ann’s Laces and other plants. I found following one.

1/25 sec. @ 100mm, f/8, ISO 100

This image mirrors the reality probably the best. In me it evokes the atmosphere of freezy morning as it should. Nevertheless, when I was post-processing this photo I tried another ways and got another 2 results which I like also for some reasons.

The conversion to black & white is a reasonable choice for me in this kind of photos and I like the result even though I think that someone may find the background a bit disturbing.

The third image has significantly higher contrast, warmer colours and dark vignette which makes it look more… live. I can’t come up with better word for this.

I like all 3 results and can’t really decide which I like the most so I decided to post them here and let you choose. I’d also like to hear if you have such difficulties of choice when processing your photos.

That’s all for today, enjoy the Season!

Technical information: the photo was taken with Canon EOS 450D camera and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM lens upon a tripod under natural conditions – overcast, thin fog.

Merry Christmas!

24 12 2009

Christmas Eve is knocking on the door and I would like to wish all of you who read this blog, either regularly or sporadically, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year with tons of new experience either related to photography or in general.

15 sec. @ 100mm, f/18, ISO 400
Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 100mm USM macro lens on a tripod, combination of natural and lamp light

Thank you all for visiting this blog and especially my followers, namely Ed Vatza, Barbara Kile, Anita Bower, Bernie Kasper and Mark Graf, for wonderful encouraging comments, constructive critique and kind words. You helped me a lot during past year and I hope that I’ll produce images good enough to keep you coming back from time to time in next year as well.

Enjoy Christmas, being with your families and having fun!

Christmas Cactus (A tripod test)

24 11 2009

It’s been a while since I posted information about my purchase for a tripod and you may already wondered when I will post some first experience and shots from a tripod testing. Well, the time is now 🙂

To start from the beginning, the very first test shooting was a disaster. I bought the tripod with intention to be able to take photos inside our house during upcoming short days so it’s obvious that I wanted to test it in these conditions. With the Christmas Cactus already blooming the subject for testing was clear. It was a nice sunny day (Saturday 2 weeks ago if I remember well) sun wasn’t shining directly to the room, yet, so I had a nice strong natural ambient light, cactus standing on the wooden dining table, camera upon the tripod and the testing started. I already found pleasing composition beforehand so I just started shooting. I decided to go to a Live View mode, 5x magnification and then I immediately noticed that whenever I touch the camera, it moves. I “pushed” it with every single push of any button. When I removed my hand the camera came back to its original position so it was not a problem at all. First I tried some shots with shutter speed around one second (with 2s delay which automatically shoots in mirror lockup mode) and was surprised when I saw that the images were blurred 😮 I immediately recognized what was the problem – it was the floor! In Live View mode I could see that my every move on the floor makes the image on LCD to move.

We have wooden floors in the house and they seem to be quite soft. Made of wooden planks, it often creaks (is it the right word?) on certain places and bends down when stepped on on others. You can also notice smaller things rattling on table, fridge and so on when you go over the room fast 🙂 So, I tried some different positions and places in the room and became almost desperate because the only thing I found out was that if I want sharp images I need enough light for shutter speed > 1/2 s. And before you ask, no, I couldn’t try any other room. Our kitchen is currently the only available room due to windows position and due to the fact that we (meaning me, my wife and son) share our house with my wife’s parents and grandparents and I don’t want to bother others with my hobbies.

As I said in the beginning, the first shooting was a disaster. I had 0, yes, ZERO, usable photos after maybe an hour of shooting.

I had another chance after a week during next weekend. Maybe I was more patient or what but I have found out that some planks are maybe less soft… :), anyway, this time I took some photos that I dare to present here even thought they are far from what I would proudly present. Still I find them appealing.

The first one is rather a test of post-processing skills as it consists of 6 stacked images automatically aligned but manually stacked in PS CS4. The background is our beech table with a bit enhanced colour. I’m a complete newbie in shooting against “blank” background so any tips are welcome 😉 See larger version, please.

6x 1/2 sec. @ 100 mm, f/10, ISO 100, stacked manually

For second image I was attracted by bright green colour of back-lit cactus “leaves” and I especially liked the contrast between a back-lit and not back-lit leaves.

1/5 sec. @ 100 mm, f/8, ISO 100

For the final image I looked for some see-throughs and even though I didn’t find any suitable, I really liked how a group of backlit blossoms was almost glowing with white, red and all the shades between them.

~ Red Vision ~
1/30 sec. @ 100 mm, f/5, ISO 100

I like how the small bud on the leave is “hidden” from the light and guarded by soft thorns. Several names for this image came to my mind and the one I like most is Red Vision. It’s like looking on the world through a window covered by a raspberry jam (think of anything YOU like instead of jam) 😀

Technical information: all images in this post were created with Canon EOS 450D camera and Canon EF 100 f/2.8 USM macro lens upon tripod, and under natural conditions.

I hope that you like it and am impatiently awaiting your comments.

It seems that Father Autumn don’t want the Lady Winter to rule the world yet, so enjoy every single warm rays of sun light you have, they’ll be cooler soon!

A tripod… ordered!

2 11 2009

When I started to focus on floral macro photography early this year I was very strongly AGAINST the idea of taking photos with a tripod. I was convinced that it would only slow me down and instead of taking 50 different photos I would be able to take only few  in the same time. Moreover I was convinced that a tripod is not necessary as I’m often shooting with low f-stops which allow me to have higher shutter speeds.

As time passed by and number of taken photos significantly rose I started to realize that sometimes a tripod could be handy such in cases with low light conditions or when  I had to be bent in a position which was painful or when small thing spoiled the composition and I noticed it only afterwards. In that time I started to consider work with a tripod for the first time and so I borrowed a tripod from my friend. Unfortunately it was a cheap one, nowhere near to sturdiness and reliability, and so I remained sceptical.

Sometimes in August a colleague of mine, also a photographer, bought a new tripod and I was happy being able to borrow it from him for a day. It was a Manfrotto brand (known as Bogen in USA) and it was completely different experience to shoot with it. I played with it a bit and was really excited! After this experience I started to consider buying a tripod for real.

Since that time I realized during almost every  shooting that a tripod would be very handy and so I finally decided to buy one. Just yesterday I ordered Manfrotto 055XPROB aluminum tripod with a Manfrotto midi ball head 488RC2 which is the same as I had borrowed from my colleague only with larger ball head.

I’m really looking forward using it and I will surely share my first experience here but until that time I would like to ask you for mentioning your shooting techniques with a tripod here. Do you look for a suitable composition without a tripod and after finding it you shoot it with a tripod or do you even look for a composition with a camera on tripod? Or do you always have the idea of image in your head and just go to the subject with a camera on a tripod, place it and shoot? I am really interested in your attitudes to this. Don’t hesitate and share it, please!

All images are linked to