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.

Using Point of View – A short tutorial

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com·po·si·tion:

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.

Roster

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

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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

Prepare

  • Set your background
  • Set your exposure (and possibly your focus)
  • Get comfortable with the subject and setting
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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?
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Gesture – Not all gestures are created equal

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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.

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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.

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Gesture on a Mission

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Every other month I give a short lecture at the local camera club on a fundamental compositional technique as an introduction for the following months member submissions. Some recent topics have including using line, light, color, placement, depth, and movement. This month’s topic is “Using Gesture”.

The lectures always start with the same mission statement:

We are looking for exceptional images where the composition component – compositional element goes here – is a major contributor to the image’s story, mood, emotion, and purpose.

I break down this mission statement as follows:

  • exceptional images: focusing on the compositional element only does not ensure that you will create an exceptional image. Foremost, I want to remind the members that we are after great photographs and the compositional elements are only a piece of the puzzle.
  • major contributor: the main purpose of these assignments is to focus on the compositional element and to practice that particular element like a pianist practices their scales. To include the compositional element as a subtle part of the image is missing the point.
  • story, mood, emotion, and purpose: these words are included to make the photographer realize an interesting subject alone does not create story, mood, emotion, and purpose. The composition, among other things such as the use of time, focus, and processing, play an important role in carrying the photographers message.

This mission statement has served my lectures well, however as I worked out the lecture on gesture, I realized that the statement was not strong enough. I realized that gesture is so fundamental to my images that it is more than just a “major contributor” it is their essence. This also provided real insight into why I am so disinterested in most posed street portraits.

Here is the new mission statement I created for working with the compositional element: Gesture

We are looking for exceptional images where the composition component – Gesture – is used to tell the to the image’s story and to create its mood, emotion, and purpose.

A lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-composition

Recently I took a workshop called “Sharpening your Photographic Vision” with Sam Abell, a veteran National Geographic photographer, at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops studio. This lesson is about macro-composition and micro-composition.

Sam and I were walking up the beach when we saw the curved boardwalk winding through the sand. I commented that it might make a good macro-composition. Sam was teaching us to find the macro-composition, the overall composition and lighting, and then fit a subject inside with, what he calls the micro-composition. On the macro-composition, he would tell us to mind the corners and make them strong. On the micro-composition it was all about find a clean space for all the elements. He would call the macro-composition “The Setup”.

The Setup

So Sam helped me frame up the macro-composition, using the path to create strong corners and we took a few shots comparing our ideas. He then agreed to be my subject and took deliberate walk down the path. But Sam knew something I did not. Sam knew that this composition would not work. There was no space for the micro-composition. No space for the subject to fit within the scene.

First Series

As you see in this sequence, there are only two reasonably strong frames: the first and the last. In the first frame, Sam just simply overpowers the scene behind. Unfortunately, to keep his head, and really just his hat, above the commotion of the roller coaster, I had to cut off his feet. The last frame is interesting because, however small, it shows Sam cleanly composed against the green fence. I needed to find a macro-composition that would allow room for my subject while they were still strong in the frame.

Second Setup

I shifted to a new position a few steps to the right. I was still using the background and the strength of the pathway into the corners, but this time I had room for the subject to move through the image. Sam walked again. The outcome was more successful but now illustrated that I had left too much space for the subject and also inadvertently cut off the edge of the trash barrel and the edge of the roller coaster. Note however, the clean composition around Sam and each trash barrel. This is the micro-composition.

Final Setup – macro-composition and micro-composition in balance

The final positiong produced our objective. With just a slight modification of my position, I achieved a clean background of sky, roller coaster, trash barrels and path. There is a good balance between the space for the subject to walk and the presence of the background. Moreover, look at how the shadow fits within the frame. The micro-composition fits Sam just right in between both the two large trashcans and the two smaller ones.

Thank you Sam for your patience and lesson.