Figure to Ground Relationship

By Levi Shand

This month we are going to practice separating our subject from its background, and any other clutter in the scene. Sounds easy, right? FGR (figure to ground relationship) is important because if it is strong, it helps the viewer read the image and if it is weak, an image can prove more difficult to read. As a photographer, it’s easy to assume that everyone is as visually literate as you are…it’s just not true! In the dawn of human experience, there were hunter/gatherers and those who were better left tending the camp. This month, we are making images for those homebodies: so simple to read, full of compassion for the non-artist viewer.

How to Focus on FGR

Imagine a scene exposed for highlights, perhaps a busy marketplace with lots of tarps, various roof-coverings and sunlight filtering down, stabbing down in places amid a gradient of shadows. Not such an easy shooting environment. There are completely shaded vendors, and there are shoppers walking in the central aisle, in open sunlight.

To take a picture of a vendor, for example, is to risk the subject blending in quite well with the bric-a-brac, the hanging fabrics and the stall’s rigid corner-posts. To turn around and take a picture of a passing shopper is to catch a subject in full light against a shadowy background – very easy for a viewer to recognize. The latter picture would clearly say “human figure” while the former might whisper the same. Neither is “correct”, but as a street photographer it’s important to know what your work is saying to a potential viewer.

There are some simple ways to practice using this tool:

  • Go fishing. Wait by a well-lit background and shoot people passing by. Try to isolate at least one complete human figure.
  • Shoot at night. Street lights and plate-glass shop windows isolate figures well, as does the flash of headlights.
  • Try to isolate more than one figure against a background. Make sure no part of one figure is “touching” another.
  • Take several pictures of a busy area and arrange the set later on a scale of weakest to strongest FGR.

Here are some pictures of mine to serve as examples of strong FGR content:

Come Along, by Levi Shand

© 2014 Levi Shand

What Du Champ, by Levi Shand

© 2014 Levi Shand

Vendor Couple, by Levi Shand

© 2014 Levi Shand

This entry was posted in Composition techniques.

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