Negative Space

By Marty Snyderman

Recently one of my students, Jean C. of Littleton, CO, told me that she had heard another photographer talking about the importance of negative space. In response to this comment, Jean's three-part question to me was ''what is negative space, why is it important, and what should I know about it?''

Negative space is any object or element within a frame that is not the subject. Taken at face value this definition might make negative space seem of secondary importance, but I caution Jean and all underwater photographers not to underestimate its value. Highly-skilled underwater photographers know that the treatment of negative space is often the difference between a snapshot and a great U/W photograph.

If you stop and think about it for a moment, I think you will agree with this assessment. Surely you have seen more pictures than you can count of relatively common subjects such as French Angelfish, lobster, Flamingo Tongue Snails and Corynactis anemones. For most of us, a few of these photographs clearly stood above the crowd. Why? While the pose of the subject and the technical aspects, such as focus and exposure, were important factors in capturing our attention, in many cases the critical factor that made a particular image more compelling was not that the fish or anemone was any more noteworthy than all the rest, but that the other elements in the frame made the image seem special. Perhaps the angelfish was perfectly posed in front of a brilliant Orange Elephant Ear Sponge, or a group of bright red anemones "jumped out" of frame because they were contrasted against a background of deep black water.

A danger in writing a short article about negative space is giving the false impression that negative space must be colorful and filled with interesting things in order to turn an average shot into a great one. This is not the case. Poorly managed negative space can be too busy or too colorful, thus becoming a distraction. Negative space should not compete with or draw attention away from your subject. It should complement your subject. You might think of negative space as the straight man in a two-man comedy team. The straight man is not the drawing card and does not get the most attention or accolades, but he is often just as responsible as the star for the act's success or failure.

Great negative space might be blue water or black water on a night dive that allows a subject like a bright red sea fan or yellow crinoid to stand out in all its glory, or it could be green-gold kelp fronds that complement the bright orange color of a Garibaldi. In underwater photography, we have some of the world's most fantastic subjects. With nearly unlimited variety to all the negative space out there, our photographic possibilities are infinite.