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An Introduction to the three fundamental elements of composition Figure, Ground and Space.

Figure & Ground

Being one of the essential elements in the language of graphic design; the principle of figure/ground constitutes one of the most basic laws of perception which is used extensively to compose photographs better.

photography composition ideas
Photo by: Mike Baird

To put matters simply, figure/ground principle refers to the ability of the human mind to separate various elements in a frame on the basis of contrast: dark and light, black and white, background and foreground, positive and negative, subject and background etc.

In this article we will discuss the three fundamental elements of composition, the division of space, figure and ground and learn how to apply them in photography.

photography composition rule
Figure, Ground and Space

What is Space?

Space refers to the photographic frame, the same as Format for painters. It is the flat surface delimited by the edges (or "frame") of a picture.

What is Figure?

Figure refers to the focal elements the line, shapes etc. that are called the positive shapes or space. It is what we pay attention to in a composition. There can be multiple figures in a composition; generally recognizable shapes are immediately identified as figures. But in case of abstract compositions what the viewer perceives as figure will depend on many factors like the design elements, proximity, proportion, contrast etc. and their inter-relationship.

What is Ground?

The space excluding the figure in a composition is the ground. It could be the space around or between figures and is often addressed as the negative space. As the eye move around a picture the brain constantly re-assesses what is figure and what is background. Objects can go from figure to ground and back.

The Relationship between Figure and Ground

photography composition rules
Photo by: Thomas Leuthard

Figure and ground are inseparable elements; you cannot have one without the other. The figure always defines the ground and the ground defines the figure. When you draw the figure in a composition, you are simultaneously drawing the ground; the edges of one are the edges of the other.

Figure / ground relationships can also be affected by the color of the background in which the composition is placed.

Types of Figure / Ground Relationships

There are basically three types of figure / ground relationships

Simple Figure Ground

When an independent object is juxtaposed in a space that that functions as its surrounding ground there exists a simple figure / ground relationship. In simple figure / ground relationships the figure is clearly visible and separate from its background. The figure is always positive and active, whereas its ground is always negative and passive.

When the ground completely surrounds a figure, it creates an illusion of depth. 

figure and ground illusion
figure and ground illusion

Depending upon the figure and the ground it could appear that the figure is sitting on top of the ground or the figure could appear as a hole punched out of the surface.

But in cases where the figure is not completely bound by the ground, or when the figure contacts an edge or two of the format; it splits the ground into a series of shapes. 

illusion created by figure and ground
illusion created by figure and ground

Now instead of creating an illusion of depth the new arrangement emphasizes the flatness of the composition.

Figure Ground Reversal

When figures in a composition functions as the ground and when ground in a composition function as figure it is called figure ground reversal. Basically roles of both elements are reversed or inverted. Typically this is caused by shapes that form in the spaces located between the parts of the figure, creating the reversal. 

Figure Ground Reversal
Figure Ground Reversal

Figure ground reversal can be used to add a dynamic feel to otherwise neutral white space in a visual composition. In a simple figure ground composition, the borders are perceived as limitless, whereas in compositions involving figure ground reversal there are visible boundaries.

Figure Ground Ambiguity

When the graphic relationship between different elements (figure and ground) in a composition is undetectable, yet fully comprehensible it is said to have figure ground ambiguity. It occurs when pair of objects shares the same edge or profile.

The most famous example of figure–ground perception is probably the faces–vase drawing that Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin described.

figure and ground in photography composition
Courtesy: Wikipedia

This drawing exemplifies one of the key aspects of figure–ground organization, edge-assignment and its effect on shape perception. Notice in the faces/vase drawing, the perceived shape depends critically on the direction in which the border (edge) between the black and white regions is assigned. If the two curvy edges between the black and white regions are assigned inward then the central white region is seen as a vase shape in front of a black background. No faces are perceived in this case. On the other hand, if the edges are assigned outwards, then the two black profile faces are perceived on a white background and no vase shape is perceived. The human visual system will then settle on either of the interpretations of the Rubin vase and alternate between them.

Using Figure Ground in Photography Composition

photography composition
Photo by: MichaƂ Koralewski

Human mind has a tendency to seek out distinctions between the figure (usually the main subject) and the ground (background). A good composition is one that perfectly balances the two elements in such a way that the ground helps define the figure and give it more emphasize. The viewers’ attention should be immediately transferred to the figure and ground should always play the role of supporting the pictures main point of interest by defining the shape with lines, adding colors that create mood or by establishing reference points like place.

There are many ways of distinguishing figure from ground, some commonly used techniques are;

using color contrast in photography
Photo by: Martin Gommel

  1. By using Contrasting Colors.
  2. Using Shallow depth of field to blur the background.
  3. By placing the figure in areas that command most attention (eg. Intersection of Rule of thirds lines).
  4. Giving more prominence to the figure and rendering the ground virtually invisible.
  5. Maximizing the ground that the figure appears to be isolated or insignificant.

Using figure / ground ambiguity as stated in points 4 and 5 above could create interesting optical illusions. A Good example will be a landscape with a person in it. However the photographer should be aware of the effect of manipulating the elements have on the pictures.

photography composition technique
Photo by: Thomas Leuthard

In our case giving prominence to the ground in a way that overwhelms the figure will help reinforce the feeling of isolation and loneliness whereas doing the opposite can create a feeling of intimacy.

composition tips for photographers
Photo by: Riccardo Romano

The Importance of Establishing the Relationship Between Figure and Ground

We have seen how we could effectively distinguish between figure and ground. Now comes the final and most important part; establishing the relationship between figure and background in the composition. Anyone who views the image should be able to tell how the figure relates to the background; without such a connection, the figure will feel out of place and create a feeling in the viewer’s mind that it does not belong there.

photography composition tips
Photo by: Justin C

The connection could be made using many elements like color, contrast, form, tone, texture, depth of field, line of sight etc. in some cases the connection occurs naturally in the frame but in cases where it doesn’t the photographer should take extra effort to create a connection by altering elements in the scene or by changing shooting angle, framing etc.

Related Reading

  1. Using Leading Lines for Better Photography Compositions
  2. Using Lines to Improve Photography Composition
  3. Photography Composition Tips – Balance
  4. What is perspective and how can we use it to improve the composition of our photographs?
  5. Using Backgrounds to Improve Your Photography Composition

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