Figure to Ground Photography Composition

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"Figure–ground organization is a type of perceptual grouping which is a vital necessity for recognizing objects through vision. In Gestalt psychology it is known as identifying a figure from the background. For example, you see words on a printed paper as the "figure" and the white sheet as the "background" " Figure–ground organization is used to help artists and designers in composition of a 2D piece. Figure–ground reversal may be used as an intentional visual design technique" Wikipedia

There are several rules or techniques that professional photographers use to make their images pop.

Keeping in mind that photography is a 2 dimensional art form then how do you "make" a 2 dimensional image seem to be a 3 dimensional one? The secret is really not a secret at all but a concept which has been used by artists for hundreds of years.

Some of the most famous Renaissance artist, like Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo used this concept to make their paintings seems to be 3 dimensional.

The concept is also rather simple; you must use the relationship between your main subject and its background to force the eye to focus on the main subject and visually separate the two.

The technique works best when one element in the image is darker than the others with preferably the main subject being the darker of the two elements.

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Public Domain
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To understand how the concept works you can do several "experiments". Stand back about 3 times the height of the picture (if the picture is 2 feet in height then stand about 6 feet away), squint your eyes slightly. If you are able to distinguish the general shape of the main subject in the picture the concept is being used correctly.

If you want to do it from the comfort of your home or office using nothing but your computer then try this: Download a photo to Photoshop, Gimp or any other major digital editing program. Open the photo and run it through the blur filter set to about 15 megapixels.

Now you have a semi blurry looking image. If you can still see the major elements in it then the technique is good. If however the main subject(s) seem to disappear into the background then the concept was not used correctly.

A much easier way of doing this is to take a printed photo or finding one on a book. Lay some tracing paper on top of it. If the main subject is recognizable and readily seen then the concept is working but if the subject seems to disappear into its background the the concept was not applied properly.

In plain language; a dark picture posed against a light background or a light figure posed against a dark background would be the best samples of figure to ground.

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Were you aware of how this concept is used or how it functions?

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The best use for this technique is to force the eye to focus on the most important element in the scene. In other words figure to ground is like an anchor in a photograph, holding the viewer’s eye inside the frame.

The way that this technique works is that it allows your brain to determine shapes, sizes, distance and other optical illusions that are present in photography as well as in other works of art like drawing or painting.

More simply put in order for your photograph (your main element) to be recognizable, a viewer must be able to see the main subject against its background.

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One of the best representations that you can see is when a still life like a fruit, insect or flower is photographed against a totally black backdrop. Nothing detracts from the specimen and one can clearly see what it is.

Everything works depending on how you compose the shot and how you work the backdrop to complement the subject.

This is best done in a studio where you can control all the elements like the light but it can often be used with found shots as well as nature scenes.

One of the best things that you can do to get better acquainted and see how the concept is utilized is to look at the works of famous painters as well as photographers. Look specifically for works that use figure to ground.

Think in terms of contrast. Look at you intended main subject and pay attention to the background. If the backdrop is darker than the subject then the concept works. If it is the other way around it also works.

If both the subject and the backdrop have similar tones and not enough contrast then the subject might become sort of muddled and the shot will not take advantage of the figure to ground technique.

Move your subject or take a different angle to compose it better always keeping in mind that one of the two principal elements should be darker or lighter that the other. The key is using contrast to separate elements.

Don't fret if you capture a scene that is perfect but lacks contrast enough to make the main subject matter distinguish itself from its background. Photoshop and the majority of digital editing programs can help you do this.

Simply darken or lighten the area considered to be background and you come close to achieving figure to ground aesthetics.

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© 2015 Luis E Gonzalez

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