Positive and Negative Space in Photography

A look at the meaning and role of “Positive Space,” “Negative Space” and “Copy Space” in photography

Those photographing for publications, ad campaigns, or doing stock or any kind of promotional photography might be familiar with the term (or keyword) #copyspace or #spaceforcopy. It simply refers to the negative space in an image.

Here’s an example from the publishing world, for starters:

Carlos Idibouo cover story and photo shoot published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. ©Alina Oswald.

A few years ago I photographed and interviewed international LGBTQ+ activist Carlos Idibouo for A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. The cover photograph and at least some of the photographs published with the article had, and have, in general, to allow space for copy. More on the below.

Cover story interview and photo shoot with international LGBTQ+ activist Carlos Idibouo originally published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. ©Alina Oswald.

In more details:

Positive Space generally refers to the subject captured in an image or the important part of a photograph. For example:

  • in portrait photography, the person captured in the image represents the positive space and the subject, obviously;
Interview and photo shoot with advocate Omar Garcia originally published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. ©Alina Oswald.
  • in product photography, the product (the subject) becomes the positive space; the same goes for still life

…and so on.

Negative Space surrounds the positive space in a photograph; it’s otherwise known as copy space or space for copy.

In general, negative space in a photograph is everything that is not the subject. Negative space is important, though, because it helps emphasize the subject. Also, in album design or ad design, for example, negative space allows for a brief break, offers a temporary pause, so that the viewer doesn’t get overwhelmed, visually. Oftentimes negative space is also known as the background, which generally is out of focus, includes plain colors, and is overall free of any distractions. (Also, bokeh can be part of the background, too.)

Interview and photo shoot with Daniel Szymczyk, advocate and founder of The HIV League, originally published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. ©Alina Oswald.

In publishing and/or in advertising, oftentimes negative space is necessary and used as copy space, or image real estate that editors or art directors use to add copy, such as the logo of a publication, the title of an article, featured quotes from an interview, and so on. (see my first example in this post)

When photographing for publications, ad campaigns, and even weddings/engagements/etc. as photographers, we need to photograph with that negative space in mind. Think of the wedding albums and/or promo books and other material that might end up being designed using photographs from those events. So, in a way, deciding what photographs and how many photographs should include more or less copy space, if at all, helps tell or it’s part of telling the (visual) story.

Interview and photo shoot with LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS advocate, actor and celebrity host Ron B originally published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. ©Alina Oswald. (use the right arrow to p2, p3 of the article, for copy space examples)

For more examples, feel free to browse through my Portfolio page.

Hope this finds you well and, as always, thank you for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

2 thoughts on “Positive and Negative Space in Photography

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