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Rules of Composition – Figure to Ground Photography

Figure to ground photography has the main subject in contrast with the background. Light on dark or dark on light.
The most dramatic example is a silhouette.
Our article will show you how to recreate this technique.

How to Create Contrast in Photography

Often the contrast light difference creates the contrast. Good black and white figure photography is often punctuated by light contrast.
You can have more light falling on the subject than on the background. Then you have figure to ground composition.
You can also create contrast by colour and tone differences alone. Where your subject and background are in the same light but the subject is a lighter or darker tone than the background.
Some people ‘see’ good photography composition. They perceive figure to ground consciously thinking about it. Other people are not aware of it.
You can learn this technique though. And the more you look for it, the more you will see it.

A young karen girl holding a large DSLR camera
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Why Is Figure to Ground Important to Photography Composition

Sometimes the contrast is between the main subject and the background. You’ll notice the main subject instantly.
Where there is little or no contrast the viewer may find it difficult to make out the main subject.
Using figure to ground can also bring depth to your photographs.
It is easier for your mind to separate elements in photos that are in contrast to one another.
Pictures using figure to ground are more likely to grab the viewer’s attention. This is a basic principle of visual perception. If you can learn to use it well in your photography more people will take interest in your pictures.

A Karen Woman Smoking a pipe against a black background - figure to ground photography composition
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Best Exposure Settings for Figure to Ground Photography

You need to know how your camera will record a scene. This will help you ‘see’ when the conditions are right for figure to ground.
This scene with the Thai model in front of the meditation tunnel is a good example.
When I was looking at this I could see a lot of detail inside the tunnel. I knew it would be a stronger photo if that detail was not visible.

A beautifully costumed smiling thai dancer poses aginst a dark figure to ground background
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

I positioned my model just in the mouth of the tunnel where there is a lot more light than further in. I manually set my exposure. And I made sure her skin is the correct, natural tone. And that the background is underexposed.
My camera settings for this photo were 1/125th of a second, f4 and ISO 800. I had taken a spot meter reading off her face.
Exposure is vital to getting the most effective use from this technique. If you have your camera set on an automatic or semi-automatic mode it will not work so well.
If you are using a spot meter it can help, but it is best to be in more control. On auto, the camera will try to balance your exposure.
It will make a photo with too much detail in the shadow areas and not enough contrast.
You will be more successful with figure to ground if you are in control of the exposure settings. This can be in manual mode or using exposure compensation if you use auto.
Placing my model further back in the tunnel would not have given me the same result. The deeper into the tunnel I place her, the less light would be falling on her. You’ll lose the advantage of the contrast.
I would need to increase my exposure, letting more light reach the sensor. The tonal difference between my model and the background would be too close. The colour of her skin and the bricks in the tunnel do not contrast.
A beautifully costumed smiling thai dancer poses in front of a tunnel - photography composition tips
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Use Tone Contrast for Figure to Ground Photography

You can make figure to ground photography when light on both subject and background is the same.
Make sure the colour and tone of your subject and background are different enough. Then you have a figure to ground example.
In my photo of the two muddy boys, the light is the same on the figures as in the background. It was an overcast day and the light was flat and even.
This is figure to ground because the mud covered boys are a darker tone than the green grass behind them. Had there been a wet, muddy field behind them there would be little or no contrast.
You can make figure to ground work without the assistance of contrast in light on your subject and background, but it can be more difficult.
Especially when the light is flat and dull, like on days with heavy overcast skies. Look for subjects wearing clothes that contrast with what’s behind them.

Two laughing Thai boys covered in mud - figure photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

How to Spot Figure to Ground Compositions in Everyday Scenes

Look for contrast and think like a light meter. Think about how the light is reflecting off your main subject and off the background.
Is there significant difference? If so, you can create a figure to ground composition.

Tips to Keep in Mind

1. To help you see the contrast, squint your eyes. Looking with your eyes almost closed will blur out most of the detail you see.
It becomes easier to make out the contrast. If you try this technique when there is little or no contrast you will see a greyish blur.
2. Set your camera monitor to black and white. See how the scene will look without the distraction of colour.
3. To be more precise use your camera’s exposure meter. Set it to spot metering mode. This will allow you to make one exposure reading from your subject. And one from the background.
You want to have two stops or more difference between your subject and background. For example, in my photo of the old Buddhist nun opening the temple doors I made a spot metered reading from her.
I set my camera to 1/80th of a second, f 2.8 and ISO 400. To expose the background  my settings would need to be something like 1/500th of a second, f/88 and ISO 400.
This is a difference of over five stops. The contrast is significant.

A porttrait of a Thai monk looking out a window - figure to ground photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

For a light figure on a dark background your exposure setting will be different. In my photo of the young monk standing in the doorway I took a spot meter reading from the boy.
My settings were 1/400th of a second, f 4.5 and ISO 200.
To expose the background my settings would have needed to be something like 1/60th of a second, f 2.8 and ISO 1600.
But the dark interior of the room showing in the open doorway creates a strong contrast.
A young novice monk in orange robes standing outside a doorway - figure photography composition
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

To make both these photos I positioned myself so the open doorway was behind my subject. Doing this provided the contrast I wanted and also framed my subjects well.
I could have stood a little to my left or right when making either of these photos. But then part of the door frame would have been behind my subject.
The figure to ground composition would not be effective.
Even a slight change in your position can affect your composition.
This photo of the smiling novice monk is not figure to ground photography. The light on him and on the other novices is the same. The colour and tone in the whole image is very similar with low contrast.
The reason he is the main subject is because of his smile and the fact you cannot see any other face.
If he had been in the sun and the others behind him were standing in the shade there would be more contrast. It would have been a stronger photo.
A group of young novice monks smiling
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Why Extreme Contrast Is Not Necessary

In figure to ground photography the greater the contrast, the higher the impact. A silhouetted figure on a bright background is the most extreme. I like to use a black background with my outdoor studio portraits because the contrast is high.
Sometimes, you will want enough of the background clear so your main subject  stays in context. In my photo of the monks lighting candles, if the background was much darker the context would be lost.
If the background had been flood lit there would be less contrast. The figure to ground effect would be diminished.
For environmental portraits it is often best to have a more subtle contrast between.
In my portrait of the woman serving in the street side restaurant the light on her is soft and even. This is because she was near the open front of the restaurant.
Further into the room there was less light, creating just enough contrast for her to stand out and also show her environment.
She remains connected, but also somewhat removed, because of the subtle contrast. Your eye is immediately drawn to her. And she appears to be lifted forward from the background because she is lighter.
This creates the impression of depth in a two dimensional photograph. My close proximity and choice of a 35mm lens to make this portrait are also factors in this depth perception.

A smiling Karen woman with face-paint - figure to ground photo composition
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Post Processing Figure to Ground Photography

Modern camera sensors are capable of rendering a very broad tonal range. This is more noticeable in RAW files.
You can heighten the figure to ground effect during post processing. One common method to achieve this is by using the dodge and burn tools.
Use the dodge tool to make the main subject of you composition lighter. Use the burn tool to make the background darker.
If you were to use only contrast control this would influence the whole image and not help so much.

A black and white portrait of a Thai butcher kneeling on the ground - photography contrast
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

How to Use Dodge and Burn Tools

When using the dodge and burn tools have the exposure level set very low, around 5% to 10%. This will allow you to work with these tools so the edges of the affected area will not be obvious.
You can work over the same part with a low exposure brush until you see the desired result.
With enough careful post processing it is possible to create figure to ground photography from a low contrast photo. This will work best if you have a RAW file that is well exposed.
I created figure to ground contrast in this photo of a butcher at the markets. He was taking a break and I asked if I could make his portrait.
I knew he would be a bit shy and would not want the attention of his work mates. I had to photograph him where he was sitting.
The room is illuminated with fluorescent lights and is open around the sides. The light is very even so there is not much contrast. The tone of the butcher and the background are very similar.
I wanted him to stand out more from the background. To achieve this, I used the dodge tool on about 5% to lighten up his face and arms. I used the burn tool on about 10% working over and over on the background until it was dark enough.
Having him lighter helps to separate him from the background and creates more depth in the photo.

A street portrait of a Thai butcher kneeling on the ground - photography composition
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

There are many ways you can alter tone values during post processing. I prefer dodging and burning because I am old school and that’s how I worked on prints in a darkroom.

Conclusion

You can learn to see figure to ground. Walk around squinting at things until you get used to seeing when it will happen.
Think in black and white. Look for the contrast between figure and background in tone and in lighting. Photograph it when you see it. Then experiment with enhancing the effect during post processing.
Looking for some more great composition tips? Check our posts on using the rule of odds or central composition!

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