All photos in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.
To continue my street photography composition lessons, I want to now move onto the topic of “figure-to-ground”.
What I learned from Adam Marelli is that one of the most important things in a photo is if it “reads” well. Meaning– if you look at a photo, can you tell what is going on– and see all the subjects clearly?
One of the most important principles is if a photo has strong “figure to ground.” Pretty much what figure-to-ground is having strong contrast between your subject and the background. For example, having a light subject against a dark subject, or a dark subject against a light background.
So if you look at those two figures above, you can see how easy it is to see the black dot against the white background, and the white dot against the black background. They have strong “figure to ground” – as the figure (the dot) is easy to see against the ground (background).
However I have qualms with the phrase “figure to ground” as honestly — it is a pretty technical term and difficult to remember the exact phrasing for. So to keep things simple, you can just refer to it as “contrast.” I am sure the definition doesn’t translate 100% well — but I think it is good enough in our application in street photography.
So let us see how this is important in street photography. I will give some examples of photos that have strong figure-to-ground– in which the subject pops out well from the background.
Henri Cartier-Bresson / SPAIN. Valencia. 1933
This is one HCB photo that has embedded itself into my mind. First of all, it is a very surreal photograph in the sense that when you look at it– you are first not 100% sure what is going on. There is this sinister-looking black paint (all scattered and rugged) with this little boy wearing all white, who is touching the wall with his left hand- and looking up.
When I interpret this photo – it almost looks like the kid was shot with a gun, with the blood splattering behind him.
So in terms of content (what is happening in the shot) the photo is very stirring — it makes you feel uncomfortable and makes you think deeper about what is perhaps really going on.
In terms of figure-to-ground, the shot works really well. You have the boy in all white against a really dark and black background. He pops out from the background — there is separation between the boy and the background.
Let us imagine how difficult it would be to “read” (see) the photo if the boy was wearing a darker color.
So in the photo above, I burned in his shirt (imagine if he had a darker colored shirt on). Now you cannot really make out the boy. There is not a strong contrast between him and the background. He gets lost in the background- and you can’t see him. He becomes more of like a chameleon (which is a bad thing in photos- if you want your subjects to be easily visible).
Josef Koudelka / FRANCE. Hauts-de-Seine. Parc de Sceaux. 1987
One of my favorite photos by Koudelka. In this shot, you have a very bleak and cold looking background (you see the snow and dreary sky). And in the middle of the shot, you see this dog looking at you– but with its jet-black silhouette and pointy ears– it almost looks like a demon-dog from the depths of hell. The fact that the pointy ears are mirrored in the little triangles in the background creates an interesting repetition of shapes.
What works well in this shot is the fact that in terms of figure-to-ground— it has a very dark figure against a white background. The dog pops out and has strong contrast against the white background, and you can easily see the dog.
Now imagine the opposite: if you had a white dog against a white background. This is not so farfetched– because there are lots of arctic wolves that are naturally white for this purpose (white wolves can camouflage with the background, making it invisible to its prey).
So now you can see the photoshopped version above. Note how you can still see the dog- but it is not easy to see as the case when it is dark. So when you have a light subject against a light background, it has “poor” figure-to-ground.
Let us bring some more examples forward.
Christopher Anderson / VENEZUELA. Caracas. 2006
This is another example of great figure-to-ground. You have a dark subject (the man with the devil horns) against the white background. You also have the silhouette of a dark cross against a white background- which also works well.
To see how incredibly important timing is when it comes to street photography — imagine how the photo would “read” (how it would be seen) if he took the shot half a second later.
So you can see in the second shot, the shot has “poor” figure to ground because there is not a clear outline of the white background against the dark figure of the man with the horns. You also miss out on one of his left horns as well.
Having white-space is crucial if you have a dark subject– especially in this photo by Anderson.
So in this figure, I took the original photograph and just drew a red outline around it. Notice how the black figure of the man has some white around him – with no black overlaps.
The second (and equally important) subject in this shot is the cross. The importance of the symbolism of this shot is the juxtaposition between the devil-figure and the cross on the right (evil vs good).
And you also see with the cross there is white space around the dark silhouette of the cross- or the shot wouldn’t work.
Now imagine the shot if anderson shot it a bit too early – with the cross a little more to the right (not left):
So in this above fake version (assuming Anderson shot the shot with the cross a bit more to the right) – you couldn’t even see the outline of the cross as well. So having the white-space around the dark figure is extremely important for visibility.
Nikos Economopoulos : TURKEY. Central Anatolia. 1988
This is another great example of how important it is to have strong figure-to-ground with your subject in background.
I am not 100% sure of how Nikos took the shot – but I assume he made a conscious effort to get the little girl with her white dress agaisnt the dark silhouetted background.
Imagine how it would be different if the girl was standing more to the right:
So if the girl was standing a bit more to the right – her white dress would camoflague too much with the grey background of the house. You couldn’t see her- she would be too invisible to you as a viewer.
The key to having the shot work so well is there is that black outline against the little girl’s white silhouette:
So you can see in this case- having black-space around a white subject is absolutely crucial when achieving proper “figure-to-ground.”
So how to apply figure-to-ground in the streets?
Of course every theory and concept is only as practical as how you can apply it to the streets. So let me share some thoughts how you can better incorporate this into street photography:
1. Look for the background before looking at your subject
I think often when we are shooting on the streets– we look for an interesting subject and then take the photo, and just hope the background works. The problem with this approach is generally the backgrounds tend to be ugly and camouflage too much with your subject.
A better strategy can be looking for a dark background, and waiting for a light-figured person to step into the shot.
For example, this photo I took in Korea – I waited for the right person to step into the dark scene (which was a woman wearing all white) and thus she pops out from the background and has strong figure-to-ground.
2. Use a flash
Using a flash is also a great way to make stronger figure-to-ground when on the streets. For example, this shot I took of this woman’s fingernails in Downtown LA, I used a flash which made the background pitch black – and only illuminated her hands. You can achieve creating a black background by shooting with a fast shutter sync-speed.
3. Look for the light
Often if you have your subjects step into a shaft of light (or happen to be in a shaft of light) you can create stronger figure-to-ground.
For example in this shot I took in Tokyo a few years ago, I saw this man doing this interesting hand-gesture in the subway, with a stream of light coming from somewhere. The stream of light helped illuminate him, and help him pop out from the background – giving him a stronger “figure to ground.”
4. Dodge & burn
By dodging & burning, you can create more contrast between your subject and the background. For example in this shot, I purposefully burned (made darker) the suit of the man- and his face to create a sense of anonymity.
5. Ask your subject to move
In this shot I took of a boxing promoter in Lansing Michigan, I asked him to move against a white background- which gave him a strong figure-to-ground.
So if you are shooting a subject who is white (or has lighter clothes on) it might be better to get them against a darker background. If you are shooting someone who is dark (or has darker clothes on) – it might be better to get them to move against a lighter background.
Visibility and contrast in a photograph are extremely important to have your viewer easily see your subject. If you have photos with ugly overlaps of your subjects and their backgrounds- it makes it harder to make your subject visible.
Therefore remember to move your feet (when trying to get a better angle of your subject), remember to time your photos correctly (that there is no overlaps of dark figures against dark backgrounds, or white figures against white backgrounds), and if you are asking for permission on the streets- you can always ask your subject to move against a background which gives your subject more contrast.