Sometimes as photographers, we try to put so much into an image, color, shapes, lines, patterns, etc. With so much inside a frame, everything is in competition for the viewer's eyes. The result is opposite of our intention which was to draw the viewer in. In walks negative space, not to be confused with negativity.
I have discovered lately that people really, really like negative space images. They are bold in their simplicity and can really draw the viewer in. Below is an example of an image that uses negative space. Like every image, it begins with the photographer and what attracted her to the scene in the first place. Why did I take the shot? Without trying to psychoanalyze my decision, my first instinct is that there is a rhythm to the silhouettes that is pleasing to the eyes. Indeed, a couple people have told me this image made them think of music.
What is most intriguing about this image is when I think about it from an opposite perspective. Instead of facing the scene toward the sun, what if I had the sun to my back? Knowing the location, I would have had a background of mangroves and certainly, the sticks and birds would no longer be silhouettes. The scene would not have grabbed my attention because the shapes would not have been first and foremost in the scene. I get a similar reaction to the image below. The negative space and how the delicate shapes of the sticks and the lone cormorant interact with it makes this image. It isn't an image of sticks and a bird, it is an image of space.
When photographing silhouettes, the shapes become the dominant element in the scene. If birds are the subject, the composition possibilities are limitless. For example, at the top is an image of cormorants resting in shallow water. I believe that what makes this image work is the horizontal line of the birds that allows the eyes to easily move from one bird to the next. It is not the individual shapes so much but rather how they work with each other. What makes this composition fun for me is the imagined interaction between the birds. You can conjure up all kinds of little scenarios, like the bird on the far left giving a lecture to a class of students.
Below is another image using bird shapes. These birds were captured on the shallow flats of Flamingo Bay. Except for a couple birds that were relocated, this is the scene as it was in reality. The lack of pattern, contrary to the previous images gives this one a playful feel; kind of a garden of watery delights. The eyes can wander around and enjoy the variations. The birds' reflections and the scattering of various sized birds maintains the reality of the scene with its depth.
High key images do not require silhouettes. Viewing the shape as the key element, I was drawn to a lone mangrove on Biscayne Bay. The sunlight was to the left, providing a strong contrast of light and shadows on the mangrove leaves. I created ripples in the water to give the reflection its own identity rather than it being a mirror of the tree. The ripples also reminds us that the negative space surrounding the tree is water, adding some context to the image.
And yet another area of photography where I have experimented with negative space is macro. Here, the subject comes close to filling the frame. This is not the type of composition for a silhouette as much as it is one where you want to present the details or patterns of the subject without its surroundings distracting the viewer. When I photograph butterflies in the butterfly conservatory, I look for those subjects that are above me, using the glass ceiling as the surroundings, as seen here with the two paper kites. With a white background, the dark outline and patterns of the butterflies wings are prominent.
Similarly, when I photograph the goldensilk orbweaver, I point upward using the sky as background. As with birds, I am initially attracted to the spider's shape. It's long legs speak for themselves. While it is possible to make an image of a silhouetted spider, I believe the details of the spider are worth a serious look. Once you really look at the spider, you begin to see details that should not be discarded by using backlighting to get a silhouette effect. Instead, I use the empty surroundings to give the spider's form impact and I use fill flash to allow the viewer to see the subject in all her glory. Imagine the image below as a silhouette. It would not be the same image by any stretch.
Nature has many simple and elegant ways of presenting itself. Challenge yourself to use negative space in your images to highlight that elegance. At the very least, it may force you to pay close attention to shapes and space. And that will carry over to every aspect of your photography.