Figure to ground, grit and grain, and emotion.


CONQUER THE STREETS.

Henri wrist strap chroma. Phantom black.
Henri Wrist Strap: PHANTOM BLACK

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Figure to Ground: Contrast/separation between subject and background

Figure to ground: White circle against black background.
Figure to ground: White circle against black background.

The first principle of black and white photography: figure to ground.

Black circle against white background.
Black circle against white background. Strong figure to ground.

Basic idea: clear separation between black and white, and white and black.

Basic figures

Some basic figures that illustrate the importance of clear separation between black and white:

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.
White triangle on black background.
White triangle on black background.
Black triangle on white background.
Black triangle on white background.
Black circle against white background.
Black circle against white background. Strong figure to ground.

Black and white as opponent colors

Opponent based color theory. Opposing colors become more intense when placed next to one another.
Opponent based color theory. Opposing colors become more intense when placed next to one another.

In color theory, the opposing colors create the strongest visual effect.

Therefore, consider the dramatic contrast or juxtaposition between black and white.

Also, the benefit of black and white in street photography is that it helps you simplify your pictures.

Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM
Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM

How does contrast and figure to ground lead your eyes?

Figure to ground
Figure to ground: Black background
Figure to ground: White box creates a “strong” figure to ground against the black background.
Figure to ground: White box creates a “strong” figure to ground against the black background.
In figure to ground, your eyes always travel to the areas of the highest contrast, then to areas or shapes of less contrast. For example, your eye will first look at the white box (most contrast) then the grey box (less contrast)
In figure to ground, your eyes always travel to the areas of the highest contrast, then to areas or shapes of less contrast. For example, your eye will first look at the white box (most contrast) then the grey box (less contrast)
When we introduce a fourth shape (very dark grey lightning bolt in bottom right corner) we can barely see it — because very dark grey has “weak” figure to ground (contrast) against a black background.
When we introduce a fourth shape (very dark grey lightning bolt in bottom right corner) we can barely see it — because very dark grey has “weak” figure to ground (contrast) against a black background.
Inverse figure to ground: with a white background, your eyes are first drawn to the darkest colors and shapes.
Inverse figure to ground: with a white background, your eyes are first drawn to the darkest colors and shapes.

Case study: Gaussian blur effect

To see whether your black and white pictures “work” or not, apply the Gaussian blur effect in Photoshop, to see whether you can clearly separate your subject and background.

For example, here is a silhouette of a woman behind a door which passes our “figure to ground test”:

Silhouette of woman behind door. Hanoi, 2017
Silhouette of woman behind door. Hanoi, 2017
Gaussian blur effect. The woman in the black silhouette pops out from the background.
Gaussian blur effect. The woman in the black silhouette pops out from the background.
Composition of the silhouette of the woman outlined in red.
Composition of the silhouette of the woman outlined in red.
Abstract of the 'figure to ground' relationship of the picture.
Abstract of the ‘figure to ground’ relationship of the picture.

The silhouette picture of the man at the lake also works:

Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM
Man in silhouette. Street photograph at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, 2017 / ERIC KIM
Separation is clear Between the head of the man and the white water. This picture passes our “figure to ground” test.
Separation is clear Between the head of the man and the white water. This picture passes our “figure to ground” test.
Separation of the man outlined in red.
See the separation between his head and the background.
See the separation between his head and the background.
Separation of the mans head from the black on top of the frame. Strong figure to ground.
Separation of the mans head from the black on top of the frame. Strong figure to ground.

Why does gritty, high contrast pictures look better?

Dark man in suit. Dark Skies Over Tokyo.
Dark man in suit. Dark Skies Over Tokyo.

Simple: having more contrast increases the “figure to ground” effect. Therefore, the good black and white pictures you make should be able to work when you crank the contrast and black slider to 100.

Therefore, I recommend download ERIC KIM PRESETS for the gritty, high contrast look.

Use a flash

Eric Kim eye, with flash. Shot by Cindy Nguyen
Eric Kim eye, with flash. Shot by Cindy Nguyen

Also to increase figure to ground, use a flash. This will create a higher contrast in your picture, and this create a more visually compelling black and white picture.

Why grain?

My theory: aesthetically, we prefer grain because the irregularity and texture of grain is related to the sense of touch. Humans love textured and “haptic” surfaces. This is why shooting gritty textures make for good photos.

Kyoto old school car.

When I shoot film, I use Kodak Trix and push the film to 1600, which increases the grit and contrast.

eric kim photography trix 1600 abstract

eric kim photography sea black and white trix1600 film

Or if you shoot digital, you can apply a grain filter or preset, or adjust the grain levels in your pictures using Lightroom.

Nostalgia

Kettleman City, 2015 #cindyproject

Black and white pictures are also more nostalgic. Why do we like nostalgic pictures? Because we find security in the past. We nostalgize over the “good old times”— perhaps because we don’t want to lose our personal memories. And memories is what make us human.

Amsterdam, 2015 #cindyproject

Repetition/rhythm

Curve composition and Cindy hand. Saigon, 2017
Curve composition and Cindy hand. Saigon, 2017

As a case study, let us analyze this picture of Cindy in Saigon, in front of a hotel at night.

The reason why the composition works:

  1. Eye contact from Cindy
  2. Curve in the background (blue line), and curve of Cindy’s hand
  3. Repetition/rhythm of lines in the curve (red and yellow rhythm lines)
  4. Strong figure to ground (contrast between black and white, because of the flash)
  5. Dynamic low angle perspective

Takeaways

  1. When shooting at night, experiment using a flash to create more separation between subject and background
  2. Integrate dynamic curves in background of the scene
  3. The more lines, the better (make sure there is separation between the lines. Avoid overlapping lines).

Master the fundamentals of Dynamic Composition with ERIC KIM >


Shoot black and white in color

Abstract. Amsterdam, 2017
Abstract. Amsterdam, 2017

To challenge yourself in black and white and see in black and white, look for black and white scenes (while shooting color JPEG in your camera).

Personally I like to shoot abstracts, and I practice my composition.

If you simplify the scene, you can see the balance of the composition:

Rorschach test: What kind of image do you see in this abstract picture?
Rorschach test: What kind of image do you see in this abstract picture?

Assignment: Only shoot black and white objects in color

Closed sign. Only black and white in the picture. Shot in color JPEG on RICOH GR II
Closed sign. Only black and white in the picture. Shot in color JPEG on RICOH GR II

For an entire week, only shoot black and white subjects and backgrounds (in color mode in your camera). This will train you to better visualize black and white.

It is easy to just shoot black and white mode on your camera, and simplify all the scenes you see in the real world.

Shooting monochrome in color is more fun, and more challenging.

Add color to monochromatic pictures

Tokyo Eric Kim street photography black and white.

Understand black and white imagery better by adding filters in Photoshop or layers in image processing applications.

Yellow background color, and hard light filter on tokyo man.
Yellow background color, and hard light filter on tokyo man.

For example, I applied filters like “hard light”, “overlay”, “difference” in ProCreate App on iPad, to better visualize and understand my black and white images.

Dark skies over Tokyo red

Conclusion

DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO // RED

With black and white and monochrome, think outside the box. There have already been decades of classic black and white photography.

Dark man in silhouette and boot. Dark Skies Over Tokyo.

How can we drive the aesthetic of black and white photography forward?

DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO REMIX. Color tracing.

My suggestion: experiment, have fun, and play.

All theory is just theory. More important than Theory: treating photography as your own visual playground, to figure out things for yourself.

Even now, I’m still trying to understand what makes a compelling black and white picture. I’ve found the biggest insights from outside of the art of photography. The suprematist artists are good to study:

Black and white photography masters

(c) Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Hauts-de-Seine. Parc de Sceaux. 1987. - dog devil silhouette
Devil dog. (c) Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Hauts-de-Seine. Parc de Sceaux. 1987.

In my opinion, the black and white masters you should study include:

  1. Josef Koudelka
  2. Henri Cartier-Bresson
  3. Sebastião Salgado
  4. Richard Avedon
  5. Anders Petersen

Learn from them, steal from them, but make your own monochromatic, black bliss.

And when you’re done with them, kill your masters.

BE BOLD,
ERIC

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STREET NOTES.

Yigit Altay – Netherlands // STREET NOTES Print Edition
Yigit Altay – Netherlands // STREET NOTES Print Edition

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GRAIN IS BEAUTIFUL.

FILM NOTES: Bring Back the Old School.


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