“Figure to ground” sounds rather a technical term, but all it really means is the contrast between the “figure” (subject) and the “ground” (background).

For example, if the subject is white against a black background, the figure to ground relationship is very strong, it’s therefore extremely easy to distinguish the subject against the background.

If however the subject and the background are both white or near white, the figure to ground relationship is then very weak, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the subject from the background.

It’s all about looking at the background first, and then the subject, and making sure there is good definition between the two, because unfortunately however “good” a subject is, against a “poor” background it still makes for a “poor” photograph.

Some examples illustrating the technique

Tips for when on location

  • Check background before looking at subject
  • Check for good contrast between subject (figure) and background (ground)
  • Look for or create light
  • At its most basic a light subject should be contrasted against a dark background, and a dark subject against a light background

© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2017

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