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.