Composition Concept – Figure-Ground

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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).

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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.

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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.

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4 Responses to “Composition Concept – Figure-Ground”

  1. Superb compositions. 🙂

  2. Does every silohuette qualify?

    • Neil – Most silohuettes are dark on a lighter background, so technically they are using figure-ground relationships to show off the subject. However, these are rather simple examples. It becomes much more interesting when you have mutliple levels of figure-ground relationships like the one presented here by Elliot Erwitt.

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