The figure to the ground relationship is one of the most important, but often overlooked concepts in photography. Painters have been using it for ages, but with photography, the methodology is a bit different, so it’s not always easy to translate painting tools. A good figure to the ground relationship is considered when the line between the subject (figure) and the background (ground) is clearly visible.
The line between the subject and the background is clearly visible
Think shapes and contrast
A photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space. The surface of a photograph is made up of various shapes, which are in some kind of relationship to each other. To better understand figure to ground relationships, try thinking in shapes. Your subject is the main shape that needs to stand out in relation to other shapes. The best way to do that is to enhance the contrast between the subject and the background.
You can easily make the distinction between the subject and the background with black and white photographs
Blur it out
It is easier to recognize the line between figure and ground in high contrasting and black and white images. With color photography, the line isn’t always clear and there are other elements that divert attention. If you are unsure of what constitutes a strong figure to ground, try blurring out your photograph. You can to that by looking at it from a distance – that way your eyes will disregard the details and focus on the colored surfaces. If there is a clear distinction between the surface of the subject and the background, you’re on the right track!
There is another method to this concept which is simply putting your photograph through Photoshop and applying the blur filter.
Light and dark
There are a number of different contrast that can be applied in photography, which we’ve covered in our color theory series. But the most basic contrast that works together with the figure to the ground concept is the contrast between light and dark. Your subject and your background should be in this relationship – one should be light and one should be dark. That way the contrast between them is greater which constitutes a good figure to the ground relationship.
The clear light and dark contrast makes a good figure to ground relationship
All of the above are only tools and not definitive rules. There is more to photography than just following composition principles and theories. You should never forget about your own creativity. A good photograph is usually made up of more than just one simple principle – it is a compound of many different elements that reside in harmony.
By learning and practicing you will be able to employ more than one rule in an image
Think about everything you’ve learned thus far – from color theory to composition rules – all this information is somehow implanted in your subconscious. You don’t have to think about them all the time, on the contrary, it is better not to think about them so they don’t overwhelm you, which will make you miss opportunities. So if there is one rule I would always keep in mind, it’s to keep your eyes open and your camera ready. You will realize that you’ve t a photograph that has an impeccable figure to ground relationship and you weren’t even thinking about it!