How to Use Figure to Ground Art Theory in Photography

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1 Light figure on a dark ground

Light figure on a dark ground, Florence, Italy © Adam Marelli

What is figure to ground?

Why can you recognize an amazing photograph but struggle to produce one? Sure there are better cameras, advanced lighting techniques, and endless theories on composition, but very often the root of the problem lies in a simple concept that is often missed. In three words, we can sum up almost every cover of Vogue, National Geographic, and the New York Times – Figure to ground.

What is this term, what does it mean, and where does it come from? Figure to ground is one of the most important, and easily overlooked concepts, in photography. It’s not a rule, it’s not a law – it is a tool, and a very powerful tool at that. Once you learn it, it will become a part of every picture you take, no matter what type of camera you use.

If you were ever curious to see masterful use of figure to ground, try revisiting the photographers you already love like Steve McCurry, Richard Avedon, or Henri Cartier-Bresson. They all use it, some more elegantly than others. Figure to ground acts like an anchor in a photograph, holding the viewer’s eye inside the frame.

2 Dark figure on a light ground

Dark figure on a light ground, Florence, Italy © Adam Marelli

It goes by many names

Figure to ground has a multitude of names; subject to background, figure separation, foreground to background, and the list goes on. To simplify, figure to ground is the most descriptive and easiest to say, which is why artists have favored it for centuries.

3 Light figure on dark ground

Light figure on dark ground, Berlin, Germany © Adam Marelli

A starting point

When it comes to describing visual tools in the written language, firm definitions are always a problem. Consider the following definition a starting point, not an immovable scientific definition.

Figure to ground is the visual relationship between objects and the space they occupy. We live in a 3D world, but your photographs are a 2D translation. When the third dimension of depth disappears, you end up with a problem that has plagued artists since they started scrawling on cave walls, how do you create a picture of the 3D world with only two dimensions?

Figure to ground allows your brain to determine shapes, sizes, distance and other optical illusions that exist in photography (it also applies to drawing, painting, and other 2D arts, but for this article the focus is on photography and how you can use it successfully).

4 Dark figure on a light ground

Dark figure on a light ground. Berlin, Germany © Adam Marelli

Where did it come from?

The idea of figure to ground comes from drawing and painting. It forms the basic grammar of the visual language. Think about it, how can you see a shape on a piece of paper? It is visible because it is a black line on a white page. Seems obvious right, but what is that phenomenon called? It is called figure to ground. Imagine if we wrote in white ink on white paper – everything would be invisible.

The same thing applies to photographs. In order for your photograph to be legible, we must be able to see the object against the background. Artists have worked with this concept for centuries and developed elegant solutions to figure to ground as a deliberate, but subtle, technique for making pictures.

5 Light figure on a dark ground

Light figure on a dark ground, Matera, Italy © Adam Marelli

How to practice it

The first step in practicing figure to ground is to condition your eye by looking at good examples. If you want to be a great photographer, study master painters and how they use figure to ground. You can do this on the internet, in a book, or at a museum. Pick the one that is easiest for you.

TECHNIQUE 1: The Book

Pick up a book on a famous Renaissance artist, like DaVinci, Raphael, or Michelangelo. Setting aside whether you like their work or not, the way to use art to your advantage is to master the tools of successful artists, and apply them with your own unique touch. Lay a piece of tracing paper over the page and be sure to cover the whole picture. Can you still see the subject? If yes, there is good figure to ground. If the subject seems to disappear into the background then no, the figure to ground is weak.

TECHNIQUE 2: The Museum

If you wear glasses, this will be even easier. Go to a museum and find a painting. Following DaVinci’s advice on viewing distance, stand three times the height of the painting away from it (example: if the painting is five feet tall, stand 15 feet away). Now squint at the painting until it is all blurry, or simply remove your glasses. Can you still make out the major shapes in the painting. If yes, there is good figure to ground. If the subject seems to disappear into the background then no, the figure to ground is weak.

6 Light figure on a dark ground

Light figure on a dark ground. Kyoto, Japan © Adam Marelli-8

TECHNIQUE 3: The Computer

If you prefer to use technology, here is a technique you can do in Shotoshop. Pull a picture into Photoshop. Select Filter > Box Blur > set the pixels at 15 pts. You will end up with a blurry version of the picture. Can you still make out the major shapes in the painting? If yes, there is good figure to ground. If the subject seems to disappear into the background then no, the figure to ground is weak.

TECHNIQUE 4: Your Photography

Try any of the techniques above with your own photographs. If there is not strong figure to ground in your picture, play closer attention to the backgrounds when you shoot.

Camouflage

What if you never learn figure to ground, what will happen? Will it be impossible for you to ever make a good picture? No, of course not. But when you understand why some pictures work better than others, and what tools to use at the right time, you will enjoy photography much more. It relieves the anxiety of, “Will I get the shot?”. When you have a toolbox full of resources, it becomes easier to create consistently powerful pictures.

If you would like to know what the opposite of figure to ground is, look no further than camouflage. Camouflage is designed to obscure objects in space. It is the direct opposite of figure to ground. If the goal is to blend in, then use camouflage – if the goal is to pop out, use figure to ground. It is your choice.

7 Dark figure on a light ground

Dark figure on a light ground. Matera, Italy © Adam Marelli

Tools are not rules

Photography is an artistic expression. It might be your break from everyday life, the pressures of work, or the hidden talent you want to explore. Whatever role photography plays for you, the idea to take away is that photography is not a rule book. BUT – and this is a big BUT, there are tools involved. You can use a tool the way it was intended and achieve amazing things, or you can spend your life using a chisel as a fork and wonder why eating is so painful.

Think of your photography like a toolbox; it might have a hammer, a chisel, a screwdriver and a wrench. You might use more than one tool at a time, and all tools will not be used for every job. Your role as the photographer is to know how to use each tool at the appropriate time to reach the desired effect. Otherwise you might end up hammering screws and painting nails.

8 Dark figure on a light ground

Dark figure on a light ground. NYC, USA © Adam Marelli

Developing subtlety

Where do you go from here? Here’s an assignment that will be very helpful:

1. Find 20 examples of figure to ground in paintings
2. Find 20 examples of figure to ground in photography
3. Go take 10 pictures of light figures on a dark ground
4. Go take 10 pictures of dark figures on a light ground

Once you practice this enough it will become like a reflex. Please share your comments and images below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Adam Marelli is an artist, cultural photographer, and explorer based in New York City. He wants to re-connect you to your curiosity through photography. To study with Adam you can join his international workshops or his online program where he teaches the lost lessons of classical art to photographers.

  • stuart murphy

    Great Article Adam, thanks for sharing it

    Would also recommend readers of this to view Adam’s excellent video on composition here

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoGICG3UmUQ

    Stuart

  • Jordan X Randall

    Great article. For me, this is one of things I’ve vaguely intuited but definitely didn’t have a name for. Knowing it’s actually “a thing” (god I hate that phrase now, but it fit), I’ll be able to use it more consciously.

    Thanks!

  • Lovely article, Adam.
    Never heard of the concept earlier but I am just loving it.
    After reading the article I am now eager to go out and shoot the way as you explained.
    Feeling excited. 🙂

    Anshul Sukhwal
    http://www.clickstoremember.com

  • Adam Marelli

    Thank you Stuart for the kind words and also for linking the video : )

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Anshul,
    Im pleased that you enjoyed the article and that the concept made sense to you. As an artist, I found it odd that such a basic tool as “figure to ground” was not discussed in photography teaching. Happy to share it with you. Best of luck shooting.
    -AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Jordan,
    You are spot on…it is something that people gravitate toward, but don’t know that it has a name. It might be like a chef calling chilis “hot stuff” until they learned that Spicy is a tool they can use and that it comes in a number of different forms.
    Clarity goes a long way in learning.
    Now the idea is yours, run with it!
    Best-AM

  • John Voss

    My wife is a professional painter/print maker. Her advice to me has always been to pay attention to what artists learn, and less to what photographers discuss beyond the technical aspects of using the camera well. I applaud you for saying the same thing about studying what painters do. It’s a good idea regarding all aspects of picture making. Truly useful suggestions.

  • J Public

    Many thanks for this pointer. I did not understand the article at first … but absolutely loved the video!

  • Florin

    Very nice! Thanks a lot!

  • Adam Marelli

    Thank you Florin : )
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    John,
    Your wife is leading you in a great direction. Painters never sit and wax on about how great their brushes are…they just get on with the work. The tech/gear aspect of photo gets WAY too much attention. Its only a small part of the process. And many of the lessons photographers can use were already hashed out by artists centuries ago. Please give my regards to your wife and her sage advice. Best-AM

  • Christine

    An excellent article – thanks! I have to admit, I learned far more about composition studying fine art and graphic design in college than I got studying photography. Not that they don’t cover composition in photography, but for graphic design, it is almost the main emphasis, and for fine art, you can’t get by without it. They make you study several years of just design classes. I’ve found my art training to be far more valuable in my photography for composition in so many ways. You are basically an artist using equipment (the camera) to make art instead of brushes/pencil/chalk/whatever-medium-you-use.

  • travel_bug

    Thank you Adam – we have been reminded of a technique that is sometimes used but often missed. We can see opportunities better when we have these sorts of reminders. Here is one pic I did a couple of years ago without any concept of what you have described – it did just catch my eye.

  • IceSwan

    Thank you for this useful, interesting and well-written article. Reminds me of a lecture on Gestalt psychology back in uni. The technique with the glasses at a museum is a brilliant one – I’ll definitely try that.

  • Geoff

    In one of my photography classes with Joe Baraban, we studied figure to ground.it’s absolutely a great tool to use.

  • Joe Quinn

    It seems very obvious. But why didn’t I think of that? Thanks for the tip.

  • Adam Marelli

    You are welcome Travel Bug, enjoy the shooting ahead!
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Ice Swan,
    The glasses trick is very useful. We spent years squinting as students, but just pop off the glasses and you can actually see better. They said that Degas made the best paintings of his life as his eye sight was failing as an old man.
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Glad to know someone else is spreading the good word Geoff!
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Is it more clear now J Public?
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Christine,
    It sounds like we had similar education experiences. When an artist has to make all the decisions, they tend to be more aware of what is in the frame. Photography short cuts this and as a result, photo-only folks can get a bit lost. The exchange between everyone is very beneficial. Equipment doesn’t teach anyone anything. Its why painters dont take endless classes on brushes. : )
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Most good ideas are obvious in retrospect. Now the idea is all yours, run with it Joe.
    Best-AM

  • Tomáš Moudrý

    really nice and helpful. thanks a lot! 🙂

  • Julie Van Mersbergen

    Loved this article! I’ve struggled with this because I was once told that the subject must always be light. I don’t know why I didn’t figure out that it can also be dark. You get caught up in trying so hard to do what you’ve been told, that you miss the obvious. Thank you for enlightening me.

  • J Public

    Yes, thanks again Adam.

  • brucehughw

    Very nice article and discussion. I have a print on my office wall of photo I took in the Galapagos. The photo is of a mostly tan iguana. Half of the background is a striking red bush, and the other half is tan rock. I like the photo, but it bugs me (in a good way) every time I look at that photo that I did not know better to pay more attention to the background. Fortunately, there’s a photo next to it of a bright, bright white flower with dark, dark green in the background. Figure to ground at work, which I was lucky to capture.

  • Adam Marelli

    Hi Julie,
    Im happy to offer you an alternative. In the end, these ideas are all tools. Many people think of them as “rules.” Its like a hammer and a screwdriver, they each work a certain way. The trick is knowing how to use them properly and went to put them to work. 🙂
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Hi Bruce,
    Next time you will know what to look for and any reason to go back to the Galapagos is good in my book. Enjoy, I have not been yet, but its on the list.
    Best-AM

  • Definitely this is one of the key concepts that, once comprehended, will never leave your eye and will help you get better images in any circumstance!

  • Adam Marelli

    That’s it Gonzalo, once you get it, the idea is yours forever.
    Best-AM

  • Kamaljeet Chugh

    Very simple and greatly useful. Worth the exercise.

  • Well done. Thanks a lot for this basic and relevant content. Greatings from Brazil.

  • Adam Marelli

    Muito obrigado Alex : )
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Kamaljeet,
    Happy to hear you found it easy to use and useful.
    Best-AM

  • Adam Marelli

    You are welcome Tomas!
    Best-AM

  • Alejandro Ruete

    Thank you Adam.

  • Gary Thursby

    Great article Adam! This technique has become one of my main building block to create more successful photographs. As you say, you have to get your subject to read and figure/ground allows your subject to do just that. When is the next lesson?! 😉

  • Michelle Leung

    Dear Adam, thank you for the superbly written article. Love that you distill to inspiring simplicity, concepts that offer huge impact to images. Always enjoy your mastery in melding theory, classical examples, and then practical modern day application. Now to work on the assignment. Thanks x

  • Mohamed Ali

    Will definitely put this to practice Adam. Thanks for the informative article! 🙂

  • I’ve seen Bridging the Gap a few times now, and it led me to Adam’s great Room for Improvement course on Udemy. I learned a lot from them. Still waiting for the next modules, Adam 🙂

  • Riooso

    I have practiced this concept for many years and it was nice to see you explain why I have always used this tool when I can.

    A bit off topic but I first caught a video of yours about a year ago and it caused epoch changes in how I view photography. My mother was a fine art painter and quite recently, in a formal critique setting, it was put forth that I was a “formalist” in my work. That, generally, I was an artist that just chose photography as my medium of choice.

    Not to be so long winded but Mr. Merelli I feel that the metamorphosis that I am in the middle of is a direct result of your input in that first video that I saw of yours. You are making a huge difference in many people’s lives out here with your work. Thank you.

    Richard Adams

  • Adam Marelli

    Dear Richard,
    Just noticed your comment come in this morning. I’m very pleased to hear that the article and the video are making lasting impressions in your photography and life.
    Never know who it will touch, so I really appreciate you reaching out and letting me know.
    Enjoy your forthcoming development…I trust that things are making much more sense now.
    Best-AM

  • Md. Sariful Islam Prince

    plz write something about accept ratio ……

  • Adam Marelli

    Could you elaborate on your question Prince, Im not sure what you mean exactly?

  • Md. Sariful Islam Prince

    Sorry to late reply. Again sorry for my mistake It’ll “Aspect ratio”. how , when and which format (like 3:2 / 4:3 /16:9 /1:1)  have to use, with example . it will be great help for me .

    My camera is Canon Eos D700.

    A special thanks for your mail.

  • Jerry Mathers

    Thank you for your time that you spent to post this. Absolutely useful and well written.

  • DavidR8

    Great article. I’d heard the term”figure to ground” though never an easy to understand explanation of the principles.

  • Adam Marelli

    @disqus_SW69q1OLHU:disqus Happy to hear that it was clear and easy to understand. : )

  • Roque Fabular

    Great article! I never think about it. I always separate my subject from the background by using wide aperture.

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