Food Photography

Food For Thought: Passive Space, The Under Utilised Food Photography Technique.

It is our experiences and fond memories with food that strengthens our connection to food photography. However, in order for the connection to be truly moving or inspiring, it is those subtle yet powerful concepts of design and composition in photography that really have us hooked. No, it’s not all just about the food.

My style of food photography takes a bold and clean approach, whereby the focus is on the main subject and the intricacies and beauty of the food itself. Negative space is a technique that I actively use (and love) to not only make the main subject stand out, but to create an appealing image in my work.

Yet, I use negative space in a completely different way in food photography to how I’d use it in say my travel or landscape photography. Let’s take a look at what I mean by that.

Passive Space in Food Photography | 1 Simple technique to improve your food photography to create more powerful images in now time. Click through to get the technique.

But first, just to make sure we are all on the same page, we’ll cover what negative space actually is.

Negative Space.

Most photographers know the definition of negative space and put simply, negative space is the empty, neutral or white space around a main subject within your image. Conversely, the main subject is your ‘positive space’ and the feature of your image.

The three main reasons photographers use negative space in photography are to:

Emphasise the main subject: It gives the image some breathing room and doesn’t overwhelm your senses, letting your eyes know exactly where to look.

Create harmonious and interesting compositions: It allows you to look deeper into the image and holds your attention for longer.

Add context, scale and shapes a story: It allows you to connect the image to nostalgia, or experiences you’ve had.

Passive Space in Food Photography | 1 Simple technique to improve your food photography to create more powerful images in now time. Click through to get the technique.

Passive Space in Food Photography.

As food stories (foraging, preparation, cooking and eating) occur in very agreed upon places (homes, kitchens, restaurants, farms, gatherings), food photography relies on these ‘agreed upon’ elements to create a food scene to convey a story about the dish itself. An empty space can sometimes be a little too abstract and not send the intended message. The space in my opinion doesn’t have to be bare or empty to generate the feeling of negative space in food photography. Therefore I like to use a technique I am defining as Passive Space. It has a similar conceptual outcome, yet allows for the emotional connection of a food scene.

“Passive Space, akin to negative space, being the ‘inactive’ space around your main subject. Inactive meaning a space that is not talking part in competing with the main subject in size, shape, colour or contrast etc, but rather complimenting it in the most subtle of ways.”

Passive Space in food photography could be something as simple as a linen or bowl placed within the shot that isn’t distracting. Here I have used a plain bowl, linen and cutting board that matches the colour of the background and an empty, clear jar. Although they don’t seem to add much except an ‘outline’ within the shot, your brain immediately can tell that they are pieces associated with the overall subject and allows you to keep focus on the shape; colours and textures of the hero in the shot, our subject – the cherry tomatoes.

Passive Space in Food Photography | 1 Simple technique to improve your food photography to create more powerful images in now time. Click through to get the technique.

Passive Space in Food Photography | 1 Simple technique to improve your food photography to create more powerful images in now time. Click through to get the technique.

Passive Space in Food Photography | 1 Simple technique to improve your food photography to create more powerful images in now time. Click through to get the technique.

Creating Passive Space in Food Photography.

Now this isn’t to say that negative space doesn’t have a place in food photography, or one is better than the other, but rather to get you thinking about how creative elements can interact differently between styles of photography – specifically food photography.

When you next set up a food shoot and want to utilise the visual power of negative space, yet still draw in the viewers emotional connection via props and food elements, think about this idea of Passive Space.

To create a shot that is a little more interesting and powerful, try using these examples or ideas to create something bold and clean!

Examples and Ideas:

Neutral linens, or ruffled/crumbled linen background to add some texture but stay passive in the shot

Neutral or white plates, bowls

Clear glasses/glass jars. You can even add water to add a little interest

Shadows from props sitting just outside the frame

Neutral placements/cutting boards/trays/paper or even newspaper that isn’t too text heavy

Neutral cutlery/silverware

A textured background (if shooting straight on or similar angle) that will add interest when blurred at large apertures

Edges or corners of tables, benches or the background you’re shooting on if possible

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  • Reply Karene November 19, 2015 at 5:47 am

    This is such a wonderful way of putting it! It’s in the subtlety of your additional props. That’s what creates the sense of quiet, in your photos, without being too stark or clinical. It’s a wonderful observation – so when we’re aware of it we can choose to create something busy or calm, by the amount of passive space we use, and be fully in control of what we intend to do. I like that. I find I crop too tightly and I constantly have to remind myself to pull back and allow for breathing space, but what goes in that breathing space is important too. Thank you for sharing this!!! You’ve switched on a lightbulb!

  • Reply Susan November 19, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Agree with Karene. Totally ‘got’ the subtle difference between negative space and passive space. Love the idea of props playing a pared back role that compliments rather than competes with the main focus. Thanks so much!

  • Reply Lauren November 26, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Beautiful concept! I adore negative space and use it all the time. It’s a concept I love teaching my beginner students too, although they are always reluctant to embrace it. The idea of passive space is just as powerful as negative space to enhance the subject and draw the viewer’s eye to the visual weight in the scene. There’s a tension created, but it’s the good kind, the kind that comes from your viewer wanting to absorb the entire scene to learn the whole of the story. I love it!

    • Reply Rachel Jane November 27, 2015 at 12:20 am

      Wow Lauren, that is such a beautiful response. I really feel this is something important in food photography to really create that emotion and story that a food scene craves. I really do see that beginners are reluctant to embrace it, and it’s so funny cause once you do I think maybe it can be over used (if that is even possible!). Maybe not over used, but becomes a staple design technique.

  • Reply Jonathan Thompson December 1, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    What a wonderful post. I love the way you describe how you see. It makes it clear to us, your readers, how and why you shoot this way. Giving us a better understanding and clearer way to apply it to our own work, in whichever way we want to.

    I can feel the energy and love you put towards your photography. It’s evident to see for me, but to have it backed up by your delightful and descriptive written word, brings a bit of your magic to wherever we happen to be reading this. When someone describes their why and it’s so similar, but distinctly unique from my own, I take a deep breath in, and it’s crisp, spring morning air to me. Someone else gets it… Oh dear lord thank you 🙂

    • Reply Rachel Jane December 3, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you Jonathan! Sometimes (as the writer) you know exactly what you mean, but to convey that to others in words that motivate them is truly an achievement. I think it is really great to have different perspectives and takes on things. Keeps it fresh and inspiring. It is really nice to have you here and thank for your contribution!

  • Reply Using a Tilt-Shift Lens in Food Photography - Two Loves Studio February 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    […] and freedom of capturing the angle I want whilst being able to play around with negative space or passive space for cover images, simply by adjusting the shift function up/down or […]

  • Reply Moya June 5, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing your valuable information and your inspiring photography 🙂

    • Reply Rachel June 6, 2016 at 8:40 am

      Oh you’re welcome Moya! Glad to have you along for the ride.

  • Reply Salma December 12, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom Rachel. I feel that I often struggle with food styling as I’m usually too excited to fill my scene with so many props. I really like this concept of passive space that you discuss and look toward to embracing it to take my photography to the next level.

    • Reply Rachel December 16, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Hey Salma! Not such a bad thing you know. Getting excited for your craft is something we shouldn’t take for granted (I definitely have done this often!). Glad you like this concept. I think it will work really well to bridge that gap for you. Let me know what you come up with!

  • Reply Priya April 15, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    Nicely clearly explained article..thanks a lot for sharing..

    • Reply Rachel April 19, 2017 at 10:32 am

      You’re welcome Priya – it’s a simple yet powerful technique 🙂

  • Reply Tanja August 18, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    You have such beautiful pictures:) I wait so much to learn more about your tricks about food photography.
    Thank you for sharing all the tricks you have!

  • Reply Sonia January 3, 2018 at 10:57 pm

    The way you use negative space and your styling technique is probably the first thing that got me glued to your site! It’s so unique and it definitely is one of my food photography learning goals 🙂

    • Reply Rachel January 5, 2018 at 1:58 pm

      Oh that is so sweet! I love Negative space, it’s such a great technique.

  • Reply Ekarin Yusuksomboon March 24, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Dear Rachel
    Thank for your conceptual ideas,
    That s great for my current job as food stylist in Bangkok and also easy to explain to my students in my master class. You are so thrilled

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