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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Queluz National Place

Quelez, Portugal (Rolleicord V)

I’ve been shooting film for a little over a year now and it has proven a great medium for me to explore areas of photography outside my usual street shooting. This past fall, while visiting Portugal, I used a Rolleicord V twin lens reflex to explore the architecture of the Queluz National Palace in Portugal.

I must say, these images were very difficult to setup with a twin lens reflex camera and its waist level view finder, a large format view camera and step stool may have been easier. But with a little time, so soften the memory of their difficulty, I’m pleased with the result. Seeing these result, and the fact that I have done a lot of street shooting already this year, have motivate me to get out more with medium format and large format. It is raining again tonight and promises to be a beautiful spring in Southern California filled with wild flowers. In the meanwhile, enjoy these few views of the Queluz National Palace.

Taken with a Rolleicord V 3.5 TLR, Ilford FP4+, developed in Clayton F76+ for 8 minutes @ 68-degrees. With these large medium format negatives, I’ve taken the liberty of cropping a two to 4×5, the other maintain their 6×6 square format. Click on the image to see it large and marvel in the detail.

Quelez, Portugal (Rolleicord V)

Quelez, Portugal (Rolleicord V)

Quelez, Portugal (Rolleicord V)

Gardens in Guimares

Portugal, Rolleicord V, TMAX 400

When I showed up in Portugal with a vintage Rolleicord V twins lens reflex (TLR) camera and several rolls of medium format B&W film, Arthur Meyerson, master of color photography, looked at me askance. Of course, I had my usual pack of digital gear centered around the micro-four-thirds system, but with the promise of castles, churches, and gardens, I was hoping to find opportunities to do a little bit of B&W work.

Our visit to Guimares was two-thirds of the way through our 12 day Portugal adventure organized and led by Keron Psillas and Arthur Meyerson. I had almost given up on using the Rollei until I saw these gardens with mossy steps and big over grown trees. It was spectacularly lush. The afternoon we arrived at the Pousada, the light was nothing special though I did get a unexpectedly beautiful sunset-moonset from the window in my room. But the following morning, with rain still dripping from the trees and mist in the air, the sun filtered in in magical patterns. There were several of us photographing that morning and I was the last one out, running so as not to be late for our departure to Porto.

I tend to like my B&W images a little dark and moody, which can make printing quite tricky. I hope you like these. They were a great delight to see come alive as I hung the negatives to dry. [Rolleicord V, TMAX 400]

The Rolleicord V is the low-end of the Rolleiflex line, and this particular model was manufactured between 1954 and 1957. It sports a 75mm Schneider Kreuznach Xenar f/3.5 lens, which I believe is uncoated based on the glow that I see in the highlights of these images. This is a medium format film camera which uses 120 film and the negatives are 6 centimeters (or 2 1/4 inches) square. The camera itself is actually quite small (roughly 4x4x5.5 inches) and light (less than 2 lbs) for a medium format camera. To take an image, you look down on the waist-level view finder and compose and focus a reversed image (reversed, but not upside-down) on the ground glass. This is all done through the top lens, or the viewing lens. The taking lens is just below and contains the shutter. The TLR is a very simple camera which explains why it is still in perfect working condition even after 60 years.

Portugal, Rolleicord V, TMAX 400

Portugal, Rolleicord V, TMAX 400

Portugal, Rolleicord V, TMAX 400

2014 Retrospective – Part II – various formats on film

This is the second of a 3-part retrospective of my 2014 photography. In Part I, I picked my favorite images from a body of 35mm B&W film work that I did with my 1962 vintage Leica M2 and Zeiss glass. In Part III, I will focus on my color digital street work. What you will see in Part II is all film, but in a mix of formats and genres. I experimented with large format, medium format, and a panoramic 35mm swing-lens camera (go check out Jeff Bridges photography and the work he does with his Widelux to learn more about this type of camera – yes Jeff Bridges the actor, yes the son of Sea Hunt start Lloyd Bridges, yes I just gave away my age). The medium format cameras (6cm x 6cm negative) were of two different styles, the Hassleblad 500 c/m which is a single-lens-reflex and a couple of different twin-lens-reflex cameras – a Mamiya C220 and a Rolleicord V. The Rolleicord is a low end Rolleiflex but still with great optics. Burning Bush Early in the year I took a 3 day trip to Bosque del Apache and White Sands National Monument. I am no wildlife photographer and a limited landscape photographer, but I spent this trip mostly focused on medium format landscapes with the Hasselblad. White Sands National Monument is super photogenic and much easier to navigate than the dunes in Death Valley. My favorite from the trip was using a red-sensitive film called Rollei 80s with a strong red filter. Alien Skin My medium format work is intended to be abstract and simple, an exercise quite the opposite of my street photography. I spent the morning at the Santa Paula Airport, the owners of the vintage planes can avoid certain costs and taxes if they show them several times a year. To support this, the Santa Paul Airport is open one Sunday of every month for the owners to show their planes. This airplane was all chrome. Chrome and B&W just go together. Hasselbladd 500C/M, Fuji Neopan Acros 100. Bodie From May through October, for one Saturday each month, Bodie allows photographers in at sunrise and to stay through sunset (check the Bodie Foundation website, you need to pay in advance). My objective was to use the 4×5 on the buildings, but it just wasn’t working out. I had also just bought a camera called a Horizon Perfekt swing-lens camera. It is a modern Russian version of a camera like the Widelux which you can purchase new through the Lomography store. These cameras take 120-degree panoramas with a 28mm focal length lens that swings from right to left across the scene. It is easy to get barrel distortion so care must be taken to keep the camera level. I ended up really enjoying the use of this camera in Bodie. Here is one of my shots. Horizon Perfekt, Tri-X 400. At Play Ok, I know that I said this part would not be my usual street stuff, but since this was taken on the Horizon Perfekt, I felt I should include it here rather than in Part 1. As I used the Horizon Perfekt, I knew that I can’t always get the camera level so I thought I would play with the distortion. Here on the beach, lining up the moments. Horizon Perfekt, Tri-X 400. Smile Last, but not least, an image which shows what you can do with a twin-lens reflex camera. This was taken with a Mamiya C220 as gifted to me by my good friend Milt Morris. Another reflection with shadow – sort of like my Hollywood Blvd shot in Part 1. The hat is mine, the camera is just visible in the shadows with the window sill. Mamiya C220, TMAX 400.

2014 Retrospective – Part 1 – 35mm Film Photography

I spent much of the first half of 2014 shooting black and white film, 35mm street stuff and some medium and large format landscapes and other scenes. Around the middle of the year, I was nervous that I’d not have a 2014 portfolio to show because I was doing so much experimentation with film. Because of this, during the second half to the year I started to shoot more color digital again. In September I was able to focus on my color work with nearly 2 weeks in Portugal with a short stay in Barcelona. For this trip I concentrated on my color digital work.

I’m going to lay this retrospective out in 3 parts:

Here is Part 1, stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 later next week.

Part 1 – On the streets in 35mm Film 

The year started on film shooting locally at the usual haunts – Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Hollywood, Downtown LA. My favorites in 35mm B&W are a mixture of things I went out looking to shoot and stuff I just found when I had a camera with me. A bit of this was for a project to depict LA in B&W for a group call the Film Shooters Collective.

3 Legs – Brent’s Deli in Westlake Village.

Dairy Images

I wanted to experiment with pushing TriX from 400 ISO to 1600 and 3200, so I bought a bunch of rebranded Tri-X from Freestyle (their Arista Premium 400 24 exposure rolls for $2.69) to experiment with. The camera of choice was my 1962 vintage Leica M2 and a 2014 (not vintage) Zeiss 50mm lens. No filter for this one.

Stop for Clouds – at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente, West Los Angeles

LA Misc

Chick and I were driving to my friend Jerry Weber’s house, on our way to spend some time shooting down at Santa Monica pier. I looked up out the window and was struck by the reflections of the clouds – a rare sight in Southern California in 2014. I framed up the shot again with the Leica M2 and 50mm lens.

Even in Winter – Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica Pier

Even in the winter, southern Californians head to Santa Monica beach. This was on the same day as the image of the stop-light but the clouds had gathered more thickly. I like the composition of elements with the line of people on the beach on the left and the life-guard house on the right. If you want to know what Santa Monica beach looks like in the winter – this is it. I worked this scene fairly hard with lots of different compositions. For this subject I waited it out to get the gesture and the wind in her hair.

Hollywood Souvenirs – Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Reflections

A complex image, to be sure, with a lot to look at. I wasn’t quite sure of this image, it was always one of my favorites but I was never quite sure if it was too complicated for others to appreciate. I like the way you can look all around the image, round and round, and then bam – head right to the center. I also like that it is uniquely Hollywood. I showed this image to Gerd Ludwig at an impromptu portfolio review. It was one of his favorites. Again the Leica M2 and 50mm lens.

Aspens at June Lake

June Lakes, Hasselblad 500 C/M

These past couple of months I continue to work both film and digital, nature and street. In May I spent a weekend in Bodie and June Lakes in the Eastern Sierra’s. I spent more time being with my husband than shooting, but I got in some late afternoon shooting at Silver Lake and then the next morning at Bodie. I previously posted my Bodie images from the Horizon Perfekt.

These are from Silver Lake in the late afternoon, around 5pm. Silver Lake is on the northern side of the June Lake loop. There is a nice lake with marshy grass and lots of aspens. The area I was shooting is right off a parking lot which probably accounts for the graffiti on the trees. It seems that no mater how much I work on my nature subjects, I’m still attracted to the scenes with a human touch.

I’m fairly happy with these images, but still view them as learning-sketch images. Compositionally, nature scenics is something that I still need a lot of work at to capture the quiet elegance that I’m after. Recently I learned of the photographer Tim Rudman through an interview with him on the Film Photography Project (FPP) podcast. I like his imagery very much (and the FPP too!).

June Lakes, Hasselblad 500 C/M

In this scene of Silver Lake, I was attracted to the texture of the marshes, the sweep of the shore-line and the bushes on the far side. I have only an 80mm and 60mm lens for the Hasselblad. I am working hard at capturing the right light for these black and whites.

I think the aspens are somewhat more successful. Here is a different composition of the trees with the graffiti. Though I’m not so sure about the space between the group of trees on the left and right.

June Lakes, Hasselblad 500 C/M

Technical Details

Camera: Hasselblad 500C/M
Lens: 80mm Planar T*Filters: Yellow, ND Grad on the scene with the lake
Film: Fuji Neopan Acros 100
Development: Rodinal 1+50

 

Truck in the Center of the Town

Truck and TownWhen framing up these panoramas my compositional agenda was to look for layers. I tried to bring some object into the foreground while looking for a perspective that aligned interesting items behind it. While looking for this image, I walked all the way around the truck and finally ended here giving each element a place of its own.

Horizon Perfekt, Arista Premium 400 (TriX 400), Clayton Chemicals F76+ (1+9), 7:15 @ 68º. Agitate for the first 30 seconds and 2 turns every minute.