Music Is the Space Between the Notes
(Yes this is applies to photography too)
French composer Claude Debussy famously said, “Music is the space between the notes.” It’s a reminder that art sometimes relies on the space around it to shine.
Without that space, there is only noise, clutter, and chaos. Photographers who ascend to the heights of their craft intuitively know this, even if they cannot articulate why.
The negative space above and to the right of the owl helps focus the viewer on the bird's face...
As we learn composition, we begin to understand the role of negative (also known as white) space in photographs.
When I first started out, I tried to put as much information into a scene as possible. The result was that virtually nobody looking at those pictures had any idea what I was trying to express.
In music, the space between notes allows each note to resonate, reverberate, and reach its full measure of expression. In other words, sometimes the pauses in music bring the listener to a blissful state.
There is negative space to the right and below this bird to help draw the eye to the subject...
In photography, the use of negative space allows the viewer of the picture to zero in on the subject. It gives the eye a place to rest. It frames the subject rather than competes with it.
Some of my favorite photographs are simple images, shot on clean backgrounds, using negative space to push the viewer’s eye around the image.
The decision to center the bird was conscious because the negative space around him made for drama...
Negative space in any art form can be used to express emotion. It can be used to create harmony or dissonance. It can be an anchor, and it can give visual clues to the viewer what the subject was doing or thinking at the time you made the image.
When you compose an image, spend a moment pretending that you are composing a symphony instead. Think of every single thing that you might (or might not) include in your photograph. Carefully choose what is pleasing and important. Just as carefully, choose what you don’t want to include and discard it.
Leaving negative space on the right side of this image gives the bird somewhere to fly to...
Create Your Symphony
Start by exercising some creative restraint. As photographers, we are curators of all we see, and what we leave out of our pictures is as significant as what we include. In fact, I often say the difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is knowing what NOT to include in the photograph. When it doubt, leave it out.
When we declutter the image, we put what’s truly special to us in the spotlight. As photographers, we need to treat what’s important to us with with the utmost respect. If you have to explain why something is in your photograph, it’s probably not necessary.
The negative space to the right of the bird helps balance the composition and give a sense of peacefulness...
Make Space Between Your Notes
Every single thing we allow in the foreground, middle, and background of an image crowds something else OUT of the picture. What’s truly important? What elements really tell the story that you want told? Is there room to breathe in the photo? Does it feel too busy? Does the background distract? If you’re trying to create harmony with your pictures does the subject’s direction allow their gaze to flow safely and easily out of the frame? If you’re trying to create tension, does it feel right to push the subject to one side, crowding the edge of the frame? It’s all up to you. It’s your story. Tell it any way you want to. But remember, your work needs to stand on its own, without excuse or explanation.
Here are a few tips on how to use negative space in your photographs:
- 1. Start with a clean slate. It’s often easier to compose from scratch than fix something that’s flawed. So when you’re decluttering your image, empty everything out of the scene first. Start with a plain background. Then add elements that you truly cherish and that the viewer will enjoy.
- 2. Lose the “filler.” Every single thing in your photograph should advance the story. If it doesn’t DIRECTLY advance that story, leave it out.
- 3. Put everything in its place. A symphony depends on every note being in the right place. Make sure to use standard compositional rules like the rule of thirds and clean subjects should guide the viewer through the image.
- 4. Take lots of images and then edit. All talented and skilled artists realize that editing is often where the magic happens. If you weren’t faithful to whittle away some of the clutter in all of your images, select those where you did succeed and make those your keepers. Consider using creative cropping to establish what matters.
- 5. Be thoughtful, deliberate, and mindful. When an artist creates, they are completely focused on the work. Focus on the task at hand, and the excess falls away.
The negative space on the left of the image gives the bird a direction to look and balances the image...
If you want to take your photography to the next level, remember what Debussy said about the space between the notes. Simply put, when you’re composing your photographs, think like a minimalist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Bourne is a member of The Board Of Advisors at Macphun, an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, Founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network (photopodcasts.com.)
Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and is the author of 11 photography books.
Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.