The Power of Color and Negative Space

By Lane Erickson

Photographers wanting to better their skills sometimes ask me what they can do to improve. I like to keep things as simple as possible when helping or teaching another person about photography. After all, it wasn’t the technical side that made me obsessed with taking pictures.  Rather, it was the moment I saw an image I created that had impact. This is what I try to teach new photographers. 

To me, nothing brings impact to a photo as well as bold, saturated color. Many renowned photographers who captured photos with this type of color are praised for their mastery of photography. But just capturing bold color alone isn’t enough to make a powerful photo. If it were, all we’d have to do is slide the saturation toggle over to the right when working on our photos in post. Those who have tried this know that oversaturation of an image doesn’t work. 

The purpose of this blog is to discuss an easy technique that will immediately improve your photographs. This technique will give your photographs impact.  So what is this magic technique? It is using color and negative space. (Stick with me because it is easier than you think.)

I’ve studied and love to view the images of famous photographers such as Pete Turner, Eric Meola, and Jay Maisel. These photographers are masters of saturated color and negative space. I’ve collected books and photographs from each of them. Every time I look at their images it’s like I am visiting with an old friend.

Simply using bold and saturated color alone can make a great photograph. But when you add some negative space (a/k/a black) into a photograph containing saturated colors it gets even better. Let’s look at some examples so we can better understand how this works. 

I created the first photograph while walking around our state Capital Building one fall. 

Row of Police Cars with Blue and Red Lights

The State Police were about to hold a graduation ceremony. I was immediately smitten by the rows of State Police cars that were lined up as part of the procession.  I found an angle where the background was a building in dark shadow. I boosted the shadow a little by increasing the contrast and the levels in the photograph. I love the negative space in the photo because it is right next to the colorful police lights on the top of the cars.

This second image was created on a backpacking trip in the Tetons

Forrest in autumn with mist sunlight and clouds trees mountains

It was a morning after a tremendous rainstorm. The clouds parted a little and let in some golden sunlight that illuminated the fog in the air above and around a lake below me. By exposing for the light, the trees in the foreground went black. 

Likewise, this next photograph was taken early in the morning in Yellowstone National Park on the Madison River near Norris Junction. 

Man flyfishing in misty river in the morning light

The steam from the river was lit up by the rising sun and the exposure was beyond what my Nikon D5100 could capture. The two fishermen went dark while the water and backlit steam retained the golden color of the rising sun. 

The sunrise photograph was also taken in Yellowstone National Park during the same trip as the fishermen photograph.

Sunrise near Yellowstone geysers with steam and silhouette of person on boardwalk

The negative space here includes not only the silhouette of the person (which is me by the way) but also of the mountains and surrounding trees.  I’m proud of this picture because I used my self timer to capture it so I could run and find a place in the photo. This is the first try. On the second try, I slid on the frost on the boardwalk and fell.  That photo didn’t make it into this blog. Ha ha.

I’m also proud of the photograph of the person mountain biking. 

Mountain biking up a trail in the mountains

This photograph is also a self portrait. If you look close you’ll notice I am riding with only 1 hand. That’s because I am holding a wireless remote in my other hand trying to take the photograph. It was a pure, dumb luck coincidence that I captured a photo with that fantastic sunstar, but I’m going to claim it as skill.

This last photograph was taken on a drive into an area called Swan Valley. 

View of misty morning in valley with trees and cattle animals

A thick fog followed the Snake River. The sunlight just began to shine on a portion of the valley lighting it up.  The rest stayed in shadow but was illuminated some by the fog. By exposing for the highlights, the trees and cattle went dark.

Each of these photographs has both bold color and negative space. Now I know that everyone is different. Not everyone will agree that the photos used here to illustrate color and negative space are “great” or even “good.” However, the impact of these photos using color and negative space far exceeds most photos that don’t.  

It would be good to consider the fact that each photo used in this blog to demonstrate this technique has sold well as a stock photo. I understand that selling a photograph alone isn’t evidence that it is great. However, if the photograph caught a buyer’s eye and eventually led to a sale, that does mean something. 

So do you want to immediately better your photographs? Then look for both strong color and negative space. I guarantee your family and friends will be impressed with your photographs.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments.


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