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Figure to ground is one of those concepts in photographic composition that seems complex at first, but turns out to be easy to use once you understand it.
What is figure to ground in photography?
Figure to ground is the relationship between the subject (figure) and the background (ground). If people simple said subject and background it would be much easier to understand. Instead it’s usually referred to as figure to ground in reference to its origins in art theory.
For example, the photo below has a clear subject (the woman carrying a baby on her back) and background (the walls of the building behind her). We can say that it has good figure to ground, or more simply, that there’s clear separation between the subject and the background. In other words it’s easy for the viewer to see that the mother and baby are the main subject, and that the building is the background.
How do you achieve good figure to ground?
Every photo is different, but in this particular image there are three factors that help achieve this clear figure to ground (subject to background) relationship.
Selective focus. I used a wide aperture (f2.8) to focus on the baby and push the background out of focus.
Color contrast. The woman’s brown shawl and the baby’s brown skin are earth tones that stand out against the blue building. This creates a separation between subject and background that wouldn’t exist if they were the same color. You need good observation skills to recognize these factors and quick reactions to take advantage of them.
Human interest. When we look at a photo our eye automatically goes straight to any human figures, even if they are small in the frame. Because of this the human figure is said to have visual weight (sometimes called visual mass). It helps that in this case the baby’s hairstyle and the woman’s clothing place this photo in Andean South America (it was taken in the city of Potosi in Bolivia), an exotic location to those of us not born there.
Less figure to ground
Compare that to this photo.
The comparison is interesting because the boundary between figure (subject) and ground (background) isn’t so clear. The main subject is the statue in the center of the frame, but it merges into the background for a couple of reasons.
Lack of color contrast. The statue is the same color as the stonework and metal railings. The subdued color palette in this photo makes for an interesting composition, but it doesn’t give us a clear separation between subject and background.
Front to back sharpness. The entire image is in sharp focus, which makes it a little more difficult to tell which part of it is the main subject.
As you can see, these reasons are the reverse of two of the factors that gave the first photo a clear figure to ground relationship.
Before we go on, I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that one photo is better than the other. The figure to ground (subject to background) relationship is just factor among many that make up the broad topic of photographic composition.
It’s up to you, the photographer, to decide how clear the distinction between subject and background needs to be in a particular photo. Understanding figure to ground is useful because in some cases photos don’t work because there isn’t a clear relationship between the subject and background. That means you need to make it more obvious.
Let’s look at some more ways you can do that.
Figure to ground and tonal contrast
Another tool to help separate figure and ground (subject and background) is tonal contrast. Let me give you a couple of examples.
In the first portrait (left) the cluttered background means that there’s no distinct border between the man (the subject) and the wall behind him (the background).
I didn’t recognize this at the time, but if I had another chance at it I there are a couple of things I could have tried.
One is to use a longer focal length and a wider aperture to make the background go out of focus. This would have let me stand in the same position, but further back, and retain the strong eye contact with the man on the bed.
Another is to move to the side and search for a strong composition with a less cluttered background. Again, a longer focal length would help.
On the other hand, the second portrait (right) is clearly separated from the background, even though the entire frame is in sharp focus. The reason for this is that the man’s white clothing stands out against the darker background. We have a light subject (figure) against a darker background (ground). Even the man’s face and turban clearly stand out because they’re positioned against the dark interior of the temple.
Here’s another example. In this case there’s more light falling on the girl in the swing that on the background. It’s obvious that the girl is the subject, and that the piles of wood are the background.
It’s an interesting photo to analyze because the light is not the only factor that contributes to the strong figure to ground (subject to background). Just like the first photo it also has color contrast, human interest and selective focus. These work together with the light to create the strong figure to ground.
Subtle figure to ground
So far we’ve seen some fairly strong examples of figure to ground. But there are times when a more subtle approach is called for. A good example is environmental portraiture.
An environmental portrait is one where the background contributes to the portrait by providing information that tells you more about the model.
This works for portraits that capture beauty and for character portraits. There are a couple of examples below.
The first (left) has the following characteristics that create a subtle separation between subject and background (figure and ground).
A subtle color palette. There are no strong colors in the photo that help separate the model from the background.
A lack of tonal contrast. The model and the background are lit by the same light source (a cloudy sky) and have roughly the same brightness.
Recognizing this, I deliberately used a wide aperture (f2.8) to create some separation between the model and the rocks.
The second portrait (right) shows a blacksmith at work in his forge. There is little selective focus as his working environment makes an important contribution to the portrait’s story. On top of that, the blacksmith’s clothes are dark and so is the wall behind him. But there is still a little tonal contrast as his skin is lighter than the background.
The figure to ground (subject to background) relationship in this photo is much more subtle than in some of the other photos in this article, but the approach works.
What else is figure and ground for?
One of the reasons artists learn about figure and ground is because it gives them the tools to create a sense of depth. Artists have the same problem that photographers have – how to create depth and show the three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium, be it a piece of paper, a canvas or a photo.
Composing your photos in such a way that there’s a clear separation between subject (figure) and background (ground) is one tool for creating depth. If you go back and look at the photos in this article you’ll notice that all the images with good figure to ground also have a good sense of depth.
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My main encounters with the term have been as “figure to ground reversal” describing deliberately ambiguous images that can be seen as two different things if a central area is viewed as an object in front of a background or as a gap between objects bordering it.
Yes, that’s another application of it. It’s seen more in art and graphic design where artists can use it deliberately, but in comes up in photography from time to time as well.
Andrew, thank you for your clear explanation of figure to ground. I am fine with using that term, well used in other two dimensional art forms. It provides a handle, a descriptor that enables me to hold it, view all facets of it, consider how I have used it (or not!) in the past, and how I can use it during my next outing, and then place this “figure to ground”–at once an insight and a tool–into my tool box.
From Boulder, Colorado, I thank you. And I thank you for “Mastering Composition,” which I purchased last year.
Glad to hear it was helpful. Thanks for buying Mastering Composition too, it’s one of my favorites!
Not in real life, no. But it’s useful to understand the concept because it’s used in discussions about art theory and composition.