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.

The forest, a cape, and a dog – How I got this shot in Ireland

Click image to appreciate large.
Click image to appreciate large.

I want to talk about this image –  what makes the image stand out for me and why I put it in black and white (something I rarely do), I want to illustrate how I got the shot and what I was thinking. It is a process I use often and sets me up for being able to capturing these poignant fractions of time.

Choosing the frame

I took 36 images to get this shot. This image is frame number 10.

I chose this particular frame from the sequence because it shows clearly a figure and a dog miniaturized by the breadth and majesty of the forest. There is not a lot of detail in either the future or the dog and this helps the viewer appreciate the size and magnificence of the forest around them. They are clearly recognizable, however, and in each occupy own separate space in the image. The figure, all in silhouette, looks mysterious with her jacket forming the shape of a cape. The silhouette is also fully surrounded by lighter areas making the shape standout without ambiguity. In art they call this using “figure and ground” to make the shapes stand out. The dog, is also in a figure-ground relationship with the background, only in this case a white dog against the shadow of the path floor. The fast that the figure is black on white and the dog is white on black increases the visual enjoyment of the image. Finally there is the forest and the diffuse light hitting all the bright green spring leaves in such a way as to highlight every little layer and texture.

I rarely turn my digital images to black and white, not because I have anything against black and white, but because I usually use the color in my images as an additional form of contrast, focus, and emotion. For this image, however, it is too green – all green. The beauty of this image are the layers of texture and light patterns in the leaves and the use of figure ground and I think black and white will show this best.

Getting the shot

If this were a roll of 36 exposure film, this is what you would see.

Click to view large in another window.
Click to view large in another window.

Novice photographers often try to capture these types of images with a chase the image sort of process: “see image, hope your camera is set ok, pray you focus well, try to grab the shot”. Rarely am I successful in taking “grab” shots using this method, instead I have developed a discipline of looking for situations that could present opportunities in the near future and following my instinct and waiting for the image to materialize, as was the case for this image.

I was standing on the steps of Moore Hall and had just finished taking this shot of the graffiti I found inside. I turned around and saw the forest and the path and liked this higher vantage point.

Moore Hall
Moore Hall

Graffiti Ghosts
Graffiti Ghosts

I was lagging my friends because I was taking many pictures in the forest on our way to Moore Hall. They had already moved off the scene and where off to the right. As I turned around I noticed the figure coming up the path. My first thought was to wonder if something unusual would happen to make this more than just a “person on a path” image. I framed up the shot, checked my camera settings and dug into my position.

Frame 2
Frame 2
(Frame 2) As the figure moved closer I noticed that her jacket looked like a cape
– that would create a nice extra piece of the story. I started shooting, not really confident that my tiny photographer brain would know, in the moment, exactly what combination of person, path, and forest would have impact.

Frame 6
Frame 6
(Frame 6) A little closer and I noticed the dogs. “Dogs!”, my tiny photographer brain in my tiny photographer voice exclaimed, “A cape and dogs!”. “Oh no, two dogs! Why two dogs? I need just one dog.” My tiny photographer voice continued jabber on. I continued to shoot.

Frame 7
Frame 7
(Frame 7) One dog lags behind and I evaluate the scene: a figure in a cape, with a dog, on a path in the forest. I figure is nice with the cape-like silhouette, the dog still just a speck. I keep following the scene as it unfolds, carefully holding my composition as best I can.

Frame 8
Frame 8
(Frame 8) Good, the dog is now in profile. It is recognizable as a dog, even at this small size. What will it do next. I just follow the dog. Taking my pictures to capture the dog gestures and relationship with the unidentified “caped” master. This is perhaps the most important moment of getting the shot.

Frame 10
Frame 10
(Frame 10) The dog stretches. I hardly notice that this will be the keeper, I’m simply keyed into taking a shot at each different gesture of the dog.

Frame 15
Frame 15
(Frame 15) The dog starts to run ahead. Just as with Frame 8, this is another important moment to notice as it constitutes a pivotal point in time for the next potential perfect alignment of juxtaposition and gesture. Another shot might still be in the future. Will the dog turn and do something interesting a little closer? As it happens, it doesn’t materialize.

Frame 20
Frame 20
(Frame 20) Sniffing the ground, the two dogs are separated, this is promising, my tiny photographer brain thinks.

Frame 28
Frame 28
(Frame 28) One dog is now out of the picture and never really made an interesting gesture. The figure is not in the light with fully recognizable features, and the small dog by her side. I keep shooting, but notice that when the dogs run, my shutter is really to slow and the mystery is gone as soon as all the figures are in the light.

The scene is over. Did I get one? I remember the steps and the concentration, I’m pretty sure I held my composition throughout the sequence. Did I get a moment, a gesture, and a play of light all to coincide? I would only be able to evaluate my success by looking at the whole sequence after the emotion had passed.

Using Point of View – A short tutorial

Chevy and Che


a series of short tutorials on different compositional techniques you can use to make images with stronger impact.

Our responsibility as photographers is to show ordinary subjects in extraordinary ways, to point out what the casual or indifferent observer overlooks, that which the vigilant observer sees. Being attentive and alert observers is not even enough. We must show what we see in ways that capture the imagination and attention. We must show the world from an original and novel point of view.

Eye-level is boring.

Showing the world around us in this way means using your position to create a unique perspective or point of view. There are several obvious approaches including getting low, high, very close, using unusual angles, or obscuring your subject in interesting ways.

Get Low, Step Closer.

There are many images taken at eye level, but unless they use other strong compositional elements, they are just repeating the view seen by every other person walking around the face of this earth. One of the easiest methods for adding impact to an image it to get lower and closer.

Boy at Eye Level
Eye-level is boring

Get low, step closer, fill the frame
Get low, step closer, fill the frame

On the left is a simple image of a child playing on the Prado in Havana Cuba. The has a lot of potential with a cute kid, nice expression, and interesting color play, but there is no presence. The eye-level point of view has simply copied a simple scene and, and due to the camera position, there are a lot of details competing with the top of the child’s head.

In contrast, the image on the right was taken after taking a step or two closer and getting in lower. This image has great presence and is very dynamic. There are no distractions around the child’s head. You can use your position to bring your subject’s head and shoulders above the horizon line which not only removes distractions, but also conveys a sense of elevated stature.

Getting low put the head and shoulders above the horizon
Getting low put the head and shoulders above the horizon

Getting low and close also gives you the opportunity to show details and context as seen with this image on the rooster on the farm in Trinidad, Cuba or with these old American Cars in the heart of Havana.


Get High

By seeking a higher vantage point you can begin to show the relationships between objects and display graphic designs. Notice the use of horizontal lines in this image looking down on a street full of Taxis in San Francisco and the patterns formed by the stars and pedestrians on Hollywood Boulevard.

Late Night Taxi

Stars and Strips

Go Behind Something

Shooting behind something can add mystery, story, and context. Here is a two images taken from the back seat of a pedicab, or BiciTaxi as they are known in Havana Cuba. In each image I made sure to include the context of the taxi driver to ensure the point of view.

Tunnel of Lights

From the BiciTaxi

Don’t be Obvious

In summary here are things you can do to add Point of View to make your images have a stronger impact

  • Explore your subject from different angles
  • Get low, get high
  • Get closer
  • Shoot from under items
  • Use occlusion
  • Use wider angles

I Live in Trinidad, Cuba

Gesture is not a grab-shot


A judge once commented on one of my photographs with the phrase: “What a great grab shot”. It was intended to be a compliment but it also exposed some naivety about street and documentary photography in general. While it is true that in this style of photography you are dependent on the chance action that happens in front of you, hardly ever do you get your shot simply by seeing something, raising the camera, and taking the “grab shot”. To the contrary, those are more typically the shots you miss, not the shots you get. Once you see the action, it is too late.

Capturing good gesture, like photographing birds, requires that you observe and prepare. Sometimes your image will materialize and sometimes they will not.

Here are my tips for capturing gesture


  • Set your background
  • Set your exposure (and possibly your focus)
  • Get comfortable with the subject and setting


Take many images

  • Take as many as 20 or 30 images of the same person
  • Explore different angles
  • Practice your timing
Evaluate your results with the following questions

  • Is something happening?
  • Is there emotion?
  • What is the story?
  • Have you caught the action at its peak?
  • Is there anticipation?
  • Is there mystery?


All post on “using gesture”

Gesture – Not all gestures are created equal


Not all gestures are created equal. There are a lot of pictures with pointless gesture. The gesture must tell the story.

Compare this image with the image at the top of the post.

Weak gesture and weak background

This image has a pointless gesture. The story is weak. The man is walking and pointing at the photographer. Where is the mystery?

The gesture in the image at the top of this post is subtle but the story is stronger. You see the slight lean on his right leg and umbrella, a gaze out side the frame, a slight curl to the lips or raise in the eyebrows. What is he looking for? What is he looking at? The lean provides some anticipation. As a side note, the background and lighting are also stronger in the top post. Look at the rim lighting on the edge of his leather coat, the water one the floor, the detailed repeating pattern of the stairs.

Here is another gesture, the universal sign for figuring out what time it is. Is he late? Is he waiting for someone? The context of the train station adds to the story.


All posts on using gesture

Using Gesture

Lunchtime Ritual

Using Gesture to tell the to the image’s story and to create its mood, emotion, and purpose.

What is gesture? The English dictionary gives us two very useful definitions:

  • A movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning
  • An action performed to covey one’s feelings or intentions

In art, gesture is used more abstractly to include the line of a strong graphic element. As I explored in my last post, gesture just might be at the root of all great images; whether achieved with a human (or animal) gesture or just a strong graphic.

Henri-Cartier Bresson’s concept of Decisive Moment is about finding that moment when all the compositional elements line up, just right, to tell the most compelling and emotionally involving story. Simplified, this involved finding the peak of the action, but also finding the right relationships between object.

Jay Maisel teaches “gesture over graphic”. What he means is that if the action is happening, but there is still crap in the background, just take the image. An image with great story-telling gesture with crap in the background is better than a perfectly clean image with no story. (Yes, we should try to optimize both).

For a more subtle understanding of gesture, study the work of Sam Abell. Sam Abell talks about micro and macro composition, but he too is waiting for the gesture and waiting for all the gestures to line up just right. A good example is this video of Sam Abell produced by the National Geographic where he talks about his book The Life of a Photograph.

Gesture is emotionally involving.

As I think about gesture, I think about passive and active gestures. Passive gestures are waiting or preparatory gestures, coming often before and after the story. You want to capture the active gestures. Here are a couple of examples:

wyman_IMG-290393-Edit wyman_IMG-290378-Edit
Passive PoseWith his head down, the story is simple “I’m reading the paper” Active PoseWith his head up and looking out of the frame, the story has more intrigue. “What is out there?” “What interrupted me from reading the paper?”

Another example

wyman_IMG-290305-Edit wyman_IMG-290303-Edit
Passive PoseA simple story of a woman reaching into her handbag. She has an interesting look and there is nice color combinations in the image. Active PoseIn this pose we get more action with the tilt of her head causing her hat and head to be at different angles. Also we see her hand then details that it unveils with the her rings. It tells us more about the subject and more specifics about what she is doing.