Continuing our photography lesson from last week, today I’m going to talk to you about the compositional importance of negative space and leading lines. These two concepts are not exclusive to photography, but prevalent in all visual arts.
When I think of negative space the first thing that pops into mind is a specific painting that I viewed years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario during a high school field trip. It’s called Dancers Practicing at the Barre by Degas. Negative space is defined as the relatively empty space surrounding the subject of focus. In this case the two dancers seem to be shoved into the top right corner and the rest of the space is taken up by blank floor or wall. This might appear curious, but in doing so Degas is enhancing the importance of his subjects and making his composition dynamic. You would think that all that negative space would make the painting unbalanced because all the weight is in the top right corner. In fact the plainness of the wall and floor balance the detail in the figures.
Negative space can achieve another interesting effect. In simplifying or enlarging the negative space the viewer is forced to examine the composition in terms of form rather than colour. With my photo of the mini eggs you notice the shape of the light and shadow on the tea cup and saucer more than you would if it was placed in a busy composition. In my photo of the blueberries the perfect spherical shape of the fruit is emphasized by the empty space around it. It is an effect I use frequently in my photography.
Degas’ painting also exemplifies the second concept I want to address. Leading lines serve as a way to draw the viewer’s eye through the composition and also pull the focus to a specific point of interest. In Dancers Practicing at the Barre the planks of wood and the barre itself act as leading lines that point the viewer to the dancers. Leading lines don’t have to be so literal either. The level of contrast and quality of brushstrokes behave like leading lines because they seem to climb up the canvas towards the dancers solidifying them as the focal point.
To understand the final purpose of leading lines you must first know how viewers take in the content of a photo. Because many languages are read right to left we tend to see right to left as well. Initially the eye is drawn to a point of high contrast or bright colour. Next, depending on unintentional or intentional, leading lines the viewer moves through the photo and normally drops out the bottom left corner. With creative use of leading lines you can prevent the viewer from merely glancing at your photograph and force their gaze to linger.
In my photo of Stuffed French Toast the tines of the fork throw the wandering eye back into the composition and, more specifically, toward the luscious chocolate sauce spilling over the strawberry banana cream cheese filling. In my photo of the vanilla beans the eye is originally drawn to the high contrast of the vanilla bean tips in focus. The curling ribbon pulls your gaze around the photo, but all lines lead you back to the focal point you started on.
Basically think of your image as a visual whirlpool and a well placed cinnamon stick, napkin or teaspoon can mean the difference between a mess and a perfect storm.