Figure to ground example: Silhouette of Cindy against backlight of stairwell. Hanoi, 2017
Figure to ground example: Silhouette of Cindy against backlight of stairwell. Hanoi, 2017

One of the fundamentals of DYNAMIC COMPOSITION: to make strong contrast between your subject and the background (concept of “figure to ground”— “figure” being your subject, and “ground” being the background):

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1. Shoot black and white

First principle: keep it simple, clean, and black and white.

If you want to improve your figure to ground, shoot black and white.

Specifically, shoot RAW+JPEG and set your JPEG preview to “high contrast black and white”. If possible, use your LCD screen, or electronic viewfinder (EVF) to visualize the world in black and white.

If you shoot with an iPhone, set it to “Noir” black and white mode while you’re shooting.

2. How to see figure to ground

To see the world according to figure to ground is simple:

  • Make your subject very dark or very bright
  • Do the inverse for your background

For example, if you shoot a picture of someone as a black silhouette, make sure the background is bright white — or at least has some white space around the subject (like a halo).

Or, if you photograph someone who is white, make sure the background around them is black.

As a figure to ground example, I drew a curved white object against a black background. This has “strong” figure-to-ground.
As a figure to ground example, I drew a curved white object against a black background. This has “strong” figure-to-ground.

3. Using a flash

Easiest way to make strong figure to ground compositions: use a flash.

I use a RICOH GR II camera, with ERIC KIM STRAP, shoot RAW and use ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 PRESET to get a gritty, high contrast look that I like.

I use the flash in P (program) mode, to separate the subject from the background.

Also, the benefit of using a flash is that it adds DYNAMIC CONTRAST between the subject and background. By having a high contrast or juxtaposition of contrast (between dark and light) between the subject and background, it makes the picture more powerful and interesting to look at, and also causes the viewer to constantly look back between the subject and background. This “back and forth”of the viewers eyeballs is good— it engages the viewer, and encourages them to look at your pictures for longer periods of time.

Overexposed background shot with a flash on RICOH GR II in P (program) mode. Creates a strong figure to ground because Cindy’s face is well-lit, the background is very bright. This picture is strong, because it creates a DYNAMIC CONTRAST between Cindy’s face and the backdrop.
Overexposed background shot with a flash on RICOH GR II in P (program) mode. Creates a strong figure to ground because Cindy’s face is well-lit, the background is very bright. This picture is strong, because it creates a DYNAMIC CONTRAST between Cindy’s face and the backdrop.

4. Minus exposure compensation

When shooting your subject in bright lighting situations, use the “exposure compensation” function of your camera to properly light, and add more “figure to ground” to your subject.

I generally recommend the following:

When shooting in bright light, Use minus exposure compensation. Experiment between -1 and -2 (or sometimes -3) exposure compensation.

Photograph of Cindy’s face In the bright sun, shot with -1 exposure compensation, to accentuate the circle around her face.
Photograph of Cindy’s face In the bright sun, shot with -1 exposure compensation, to accentuate the circle around her face.

5. Shoot from a high angle looking down, to get a simple background

One of the keys to make a strong figure to ground composition:

First, start with a simple background.

Or, if you have a subject you already want to photograph, figure out how to SIMPLIFY the background.

For example, if I’m in a busy and crowded place with no clean background, I’ll put my camera very high in the air, and point it, shooting downwards, to simplify the background, and to create a stronger “figure to ground” between my subject and background. Like this example with Cindy:

Cindy stretching backwards. Saigon, 2017
Cindy stretching backwards. Saigon, 2017

6. Move your subject against a simple background

Another idea to make a stronger, more simple figure to ground composition: ask your subject to move and stand against a simple background (a simple white background or simple black background).

This is what I did with my grandma — her living room was too messy as a background. Therefore, I asked her to go to her bedroom, with a clean all-white background. This works, because there are no distractions in the background, therefore I can focus on her face, expression, emotion, and soul.

My grandma, laughing. Seoul, 2017.
My grandma, laughing. Seoul, 2017.

As a reference, study the work of Richard Avedon who was the master of photographing strong portraits of people, against simple white backgrounds.

6. Over-expose

Another technique for stronger figure to ground pictures, which are more surreal. Intentionally try to OVER-EXPOSE your subjects, by making the power of the flash very strong, or doing +1, +2, or +3 exposure compensation. This will create an eerie, ghostlike image of your subject, which can be very interesting to look at:

White ERIC KIM FACE. Selfie, Saigon 2017
White ERIC KIM FACE. Selfie, Saigon 2017

Conclusion

Silhouette of man at Hoan Kiem Lake. Hanoi, 2017

The principles of figure to ground are timeless: you want to just create a strong contrast between your subject and the background, in order to create more focus on the central subject of your scene.

Not only that, but picture with strong figure to ground and contrast are just aesthetically more pleasant to look at.

Consider— the rhythm in which you can undulate between darks and whites, bright and black. Keep up a tempo between them both — make monochromatic music.

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Leading lines. ERIC KIM DYNAMIC COMPOSITION

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Chiaroscuro. DYNAMIC LIGHT AND SHADOW. Hanoi, 2016 by ERIC KIM

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Dynamic low angle composition. Tokyo, 2011 by ERIC KIM

Take your composition to the next level:


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DYNAMIC REFLECTIONS. Man and three reflections by ERIC KIM

For distilled lessons on composition, read the free ebook: “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”

Further articles to improve your compositions in photography:

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Chiaroscuro. DYNAMIC LIGHT AND SHADOW. Hanoi, 2016 by ERIC KIM
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