Using focal points in photography: how to get perfect composition every time

Using Focal Points in Photography: negative space

Using Focal Points in Photography: negative space

Using Focal Points in Photography: negative space

There are two subjects here – the positive space beyond the pier with walkers, and the negative shapes of the struts and stays of the pier.

High-contrast photographs can consist of both positive and negative space.

The positive space is what we’d normally think of as the subject, while the negative space is the deep shadow areas.

The use of the word negative is somewhat misleading, though, because these areas tend to have a very strong compositional impact through their shapes and outlines.

There’s a classic example, often seen in books describing visual illusions and conundrums.

It’s a black and white image, which at one moment appears to be of a white vase against a black background, but which can also be perceived as two white human faces in profile facing each other against a black background.

The Japanese have a word for this – ‘notan’ – which is used to describe the use of light and dark as contrasting elements in illustration. They complement each other to the extent that neither makes any visual sense on its own.

This principle can be applied broadly in photographic composition, in that the interplay of light and shade shouldn’t be thought of as just a spurious or accidental lighting effect.

Instead, it should be deliberately exploited and worked into the composition itself.

Traditionally, pictorial photographers would insist that your photos should never have shadows that are so black that no detail is visible.

It was once a measure of your printing and photographic skill that visible picture information should still be retained, both in the darkest shadow areas and the brightest highlights.

Pursuing that retention of picture information is all very well as a technical exercise, but it doesn’t necessarily produce exciting pictures.

Instead, why not leave the shadows dense in your shots and use them to introduce interesting shapes to complement or even frame your subject.

Shadows can be very evocative, like the striped sunlight cast by Venetian blinds across a desk or table, or the long, mysterious shadows cast on a wall by street lamps at night.

Shadows lose their impact when they stop being shadows and return to the positive image, simply as darker-toned regions through over-zealous image correction or exposure technique.

The examples on these pages offer some ideas for using this negative space.

The shapes and lines of shadows can be used to control the viewer’s eye movements, acting as a frame for your subject or as a counterpoint to an object or focal point elsewhere in the image.

It’s not always easy to judge the effects of positive and negative space with the human eye because it’s a supremely adaptable organ, and can make out detail even in the densest shadows.

It can help to squint at the scene through half-closed eyes, although the digital revolution provides the ultimate solution in that you can take a shot, study it on the LCD and immediately re-shoot if you need to make adjustments to the exposure or composition.

The ultimate negative space

A silhouette is the classic example of negative space and produces very strong shapes.

The ultimate negative space
Silhouettes are the perfect example of negative space, in that they don’t contain any picture information at all – they represent an absence of picture information.

Nevertheless they make for very effective photos. They’re defined, in fact, by their surroundings rather than any properties of their own.

This illustrates the complementary, yin-and-yang relationship of tones you get in high-contrast photographs.

You can use this to produce dramatic and striking compositions, a fact well-known to black-and-white photographers, who are used to manipulating tones and shapes.

It’s a bit of a lost art in colour photography, in the same way that cinematic lighting in the colour age has lost much of the drama and impact of the old Hollywood black-and-white classics.

PAGE 1 – Using Focal Points in Photography: focal position
PAGE 2 – Using Focal Points in Photography: movement
PAGE 3 – Using Focal Points in Photography: breaking the rules
PAGE 4 – Using Focal Points in Photography: leading the eye
PAGE 5 – Using Focal Points in Photography: negative space
PAGE 6 – Using Focal Points in Photography: exposure issues


Photography composition: 3 killer ways you can master perspective
Color Theory: best color combinations for photography (and how to take it further)
Forced Perspective: fun photography effects you can achieve with any camera
10 common camera mistakes every photographer makes