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

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