When I first started on my photography journey I learned the importance of composition in a photograph. It didn’t take long for me to become obsessed with learning compositional techniques when I saw the impact they could have on my images. As I worked to define my style, I found that utilizing negative space was one of my favorite compositional tools.
Negative space, simply put, is an area of “empty” space around your main subject (or the positive space, if you will). It keeps a photograph simple and uncluttered while also having the potential to add drama and intensity. It is no wonder I fell in love with this technique.
As a stay at home mom of nine homeschooled children, keeping things uncluttered and spaces empty is nearly an impossible task. Though we are involved in various outside activities, the majority of the time we are at home and together. Like most families, our real life rarely lends itself to negative space.
As an artist, this quickly became a source of discouragement. I craved the simple and uncluttered look of negative space and yet my home was anything but uncluttered! Who can feel me here?! I am happy to tell you that you do not need to give up on negative space.
One of the joys of photography is that we can scenes with our cameras that show only what we want to see. Even in the most cluttered of spaces, you can create negative space. As with most things, practice makes perfect. So be sure to pick up your camera every day if to perfect this craft!
If I can create negative space in my home, ANYONE can! Let me be a source of encouragement as you set out to use this compositional technique. Honestly, there isn’t anything spectacular about what I am about to say, it’s actually pretty simple! However, it is sometimes the simple things that are the biggest game changers.
Ignore the mess
If I could only give you one bit of advice, this would be it. Basically it boils down to this: if you are passionate about photography, make up your mind that you will not let anything stop you from this art.
Blocks on the floor? Dust bunnies lurking under the sofa? Laundry piled on the bed? None of that should matter when you are creating behind the camera! A messy house should never keep you from picking-up your camera.
Remove the clutter
Do I sound like I just forgot everything I told you about ignoring the mess?! It might seem silly and contradictory to tell you to clean things up after I just told you to put those very messes in the back of your mind. However, tidying things up a bit can really make finding negative space so much easier.
You should never be discouraged if there is a mess or two that is unavoidable. I will always favor taking a picture with a visible mess over not taking a picture at all. That said, picking-up a few toys or dirty socks and tossing them out of the way is all you need sometimes a clean frame!
Find and compose
Even the most cluttered room has negative space; you just have to find it! Choose a room with beautiful light and then look all around. Chances are, there is a wall, floor, or ceiling that is free from distractions. Shoot in a way where THAT is your backdrop and you have negative space!
There are times where my kids are doing an activity in an area of a room that is cluttered and visually unpleasant. If I like the activity and not the setting, I will simply move them to an area where I know negative space exists and allow them to continue their activity there. They don’t seem to mind and my photos are much more in line with my personal style as a result.
Move up, down, or sideways. Go to wherever you need to go to block-out that unwanted clutter. You can often find photographers squatting, laying on the ground, climbing on furniture or doing any number of acrobatic poses to get the shot.
This isn’t because we are trying to multitask and get our workout in while taking pictures! Rather, moving around even just a little bit can make a BIG difference in your composition. Next time you find yourself frustrated with the setting in which you are shooting, try changing where you are in relation to your subject. You might find that you are pleasantly surprised by the results!
Utilize creative exposure
Creative exposure is a miracle worker in messy homes. When your subject is placed in a pocket of light that is drastically different than the light in the rest of the room, your camera’s settings will need to be adjusted in order not to blow out the highlights in the image. You will need a lower ISO, a fast shutter speed, and a smaller aperture than you would if you were exposing for the shadows.
When you do this, the resulting images will have everything in the pocket of light properly exposed while everything in the shadows will be quite underexposed. This is known as inverse square law. If a mess exists in those shadows? It instantly disappears!
Finish with processing magic
If all else fails or just to add the finishing touch, darken those shadows and blacks in the basic panel in LR and possibly even in the tone curve. You may also need to use the brush tool to burn or use the spot removal tool to get rid of unwanted clutter in an image.
For those of you who use Photoshop, the clone stamp tool can be a lifesaver when little bits of clutter are distractions in the frame. When you find yourself wishing there was just a little more space on the edges of the frame, you can use the content aware scale tool to make the room just a little larger and create the composition you desire.
More than anything, use your camera often and put in the work to be able to capture the kinds of photos and compositions you love. Rather than fight the mess, embrace your home! It is where life happens and it deserves to be captured. As you become a more confident photographer, you will be able to find and create negative space by utilizing different perspectives, kicking junk out of the way, exploring creative exposure, and finishing with some post processing magic. You will be amazed at the images you can create!