April 13, 2016

Figure-Ground or Using Contrasting Tones (reprise)

Last night, I presented on using figure-ground, or tonal contrasts, in photography to the Thousand Oaks Photography Group. To recap what I wrote a few posts back on this subject, figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark, dark vs light) to distinguish subjects in your image and draw the viewers eye.

In graphic design, it often also refers to pictures that are ambiguous based on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and the ground (the background). Here are three examples.


Cat or dog?


Hand or gun?


Old woman or young woman?

In photography we use tonal contrasts to separate the subject and details from their surroundings. You can use simple images to explore this technique such as a light (or lighted) flower against its darker foliage.


Here the dark outlines on the wings of each bird make it stand out against the lighter foggy background.

In Flight

The light-colored weeds and grasses stand out in all of their detail against the dark rusted cans.

Camp Keeler #12

In this street scene, the mid-tone wall is used to highlight both very dark and very light objects.


Or this white dog lying on the dark mat at the dog show. Note how the use of subtle gray tones within the figure (the dog) and the ground (the mat) add more information and interest than if it was just a pure white shape on a pure black background.

dog on black

Finally, in this more complex scene from Ireland, notice how the woman in her coat (it looks like a mysterious person in a cape) is a dark figure highlighted against the lighted part of the trail, but her white dog is situated in the shadow part of the trail. The use of tonal contrasts to enable the viewer to see each of them and their outlines clearly.


I recommend studying the work of Penti Sammallahti and Elliot Erwitt to explore and be inspired by their black and white photography and their masterful use of tonal-contrasts.

Recipes for Success Using Tonal Contrasts

  • If possible – Set your camera to B&W mode, to show your image in B&W in the Live View mode
  • Background First
    • Start with a background with an area of uncomplicated light or dark that you can use to frame your subject against.
    • Wait for a light object to frame within a dark area or a dark object to frame within a light area
  • Subject First
    • Find an interesting subject
    • Determine if it is a dark object or light object
    • Reposition yourself or your subject so that it is surrounded by contrasting tonality
  • Add complexity
  • Look for patterns of repeating light/dark
    • Look for images with both light on dark and dark on light
    • In stripes
    • In surrounding areas
January 2, 2016

Trees inspired by Pentti Sammallahti


About a year ago, while attending Photo LA, I was introduced to the images of the Finish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. Sammallahti, who shoots exclusively on black and white film, has a magical way of using tonal relationships and often shoots panoramic formats.

Inspired by Sammallahti’s work, I have recently been shooting with a 12mm lens (24mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) and my camera set to “monochrome” and a 16:9 aspect ratio.


When working wide and panoramic, my compositional choices are not muchdifferent than when walking around doing my normal color street photography. I look for compositions with layers and dimensions, bringing some objects near and some further away. I try to fill the frame to the edges with stuff (sometimes the stuff is negative space) so that the composition appears to go on forever. And, with black and white, I look for components of the image to be visually speparated by tonal differences – if shooting color, I would use differences in color.


Oddly, I don’t think these images look like anything like the images in the book of Sammallahti that I have studied. His compositions usually have big wide open (snow covered) spaces. I suppose this is true inspiration; to be moved to make your art and not just to copy their art.

November 21, 2015

Why I had to take my camera off B&W


November 8, 2015

Composition Concept – Figure-Ground


Every other month I challenge the members of the Thousand Oaks Photo Group, and myself, to employ a specific compositional technique on the images entered for critique the following month. As I prepared my topics for 2016 I decided to add a topic for using figure-ground relationships.

Figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark) to bring out the subjects in your image. If you look it up on the internet you will find lots of examples of black and white images where you see two different images depending on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and what you see as the ground (the background).


In photography, we use figure-ground relationships to distinguish the subject (the figure) from the background (the ground) using contrasts in light and color.

Here is the dictionary definition:

1. relating to or denoting the perception of images by the distinction of objects from a background from which they appear to stand out, especially in contexts where this distinction is ambiguous.

I am a strong believer in the adage that to really learn something, you should teach it. With each lectures preparation, I am challenged to isolate the concept and do my own shooting. The topic of figure-ground was surprisingly more difficult than I had imagined. Once I got past the simple examples of a light flower against a dark forrest or dark silhouettes against a bright sky, I found my own vision for seeing figure-ground relationships cloudy, and so I set myself out to practice seeing these relationships.


If you know my work, you know that 90% of what I do is digital color street photography. But I found that seeing figure-ground relationships in color was difficult. So I gave myself a little edge in learning to see by setting my camera to show me only B&W in the viewfinder so that I could easily see the tonal relationships. You can do this with any camera with an electronic view finder or via live view on your DSLR. B&W photography is particularly beholden to the use of tonal figure-ground relationships because you don’t have color to help you find and distinguish objects.

Photo by Elliot Erwitt, In Glass

Photo by Elliot Erwitt, In Glass

As I was doing my research, I found this image from Elliot Erwitt with many layers of figure and ground relationships:

1. the darker helmets against a light background
2. the highlights on with the dark faces
3. the light reflection in the front soldier’s sun-glasses
4. the self-portrait of Erwitt himself in dark silhouette inside the frame of the sun glass lens.

Each element is clearly delineated from one another simply by surrounding darker items with light and lighter items with dark.

Perhaps my best example of a photography effectively using this figure-ground relationships is this image from the Cong Forest in County Mayo, Ireland.

The Cong
Ireland, County Mayo

The examples of figure-ground relationships in this image include the white dog framed against the darker shadowed part of the path and the dark figure framed against the lighted part of the path. While I was composing this image, I was aware of these relationships somewhere in the back of my mind, but I’m certain that I was more concentrated on spatial the relationships between the objects and their gesture. However, without the figure-ground relationships, I’m not sure that this image would have been as successful.

October 11, 2015

Little Man


When my husband and I just want to get out of the house on a hot summer day we will often head to one of the small Malibu beaches. We take the windy 30 minute drive through the Santa Monica mountains, find an open parking spot on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and step out to a refreshing ocean breeze and air temperatures at least 10-degrees cooler.

The free beaches in LA are a great social equalizer open to all walks of life and economic classes. There is always a story and I always bring a camera. Although the direct lighting is often a struggle, reflecting harshly on the great Pacific Ocean, the payoff are the people, timeless setting, and the stories to be found.

This image, like many street images, was a gift with all the elements aligning just right. I am on wooden staircase leading down from PCH. To get to the beach, you must first cross this strip of asphalt. It was likely once a piece of PCH itself  but is now closed providing pedestrian access to the coast.

This littleman surfer was walking up the road. I am attracted to by color and gesture – orange and blue complementary colors, the turquoise of his boogie board tying in with the ocean scene. He glances up at me, but keeps walking. He is trailed by a sandy-white dog dragging his leash, I do not know if they belong to each other. The dog’s color is in harmony with the road slowly returning to its natural unpaved state. These two subjects are tied together by the nostalgic lifeguard stand in the mid ground, adorned by a single seagull perched in profile on the roof. There are many other small details adding to the story: the single communication line leading into the lifeguard station and the silhouette of the tiny people in the surf. The one tiny person standing with arms slightly raised and feet spread provides a special visual gift by showing this fully detailed outline. Even the scraggy row of cactus at the bottom of the image provides locational cues and a compositional base to this southern California scene.

It is a bright sunny day. Before getting out of the car, I mount a fixed 50mm equivalent lens and set the camera to f/11, ISO 400, with the center focus point turned on. Images will appear and disappear quickly. There will be no time to frame with a zoom or fuss with focus or other settings. Little Man gave me this gift within 5-minutes of our arrival.

September 27, 2015

Me and My Dog

There is a big dog show twice a year at the Ventura County Fairgrounds just 30 minutes north of where I live. As a non-dog person, I love to watch how people over-extend themselves on their dogs. Here are a few scenes.

For a little music accompaniment go get yourself a copy of Nellie McKay singing “The Dog Song”.















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