How can this vase help you in photography?

Unless it is… 2 faces facing each other.

Today I'm going to talk to you about the theory of figure-ground perception. Don't throw yourself out the window, it's simple and it will help you a lot in photography.

This concept comes from the theory of Gestalt, developed by German and Austrian psychologists at the beginning of the 20th century. This Wikipedia moment is now over, I will pass you the details to focus on Edgar Rubin.

In 1915, he developed this concept of figure-ground perception, illustrated with this vase with two faces. The idea is very simple: when you look at an image, you simplify it by separating the figure on one side and the background on the other.

The figure is the subject or object that you perceive. In this picture, it is clearly the squirrel.

The background is whatever is in the background. Here, the park.

If I show you this image, chances are you will see a white circle on a black background. The figure is the circle, and the bottom is the black background.

But like Rubin's vase, you can also imagine it's a black rectangle… with a hole in it.

To speak in more photographic terms, this example illustrates a strong contrast between the figure and the background, whatever you perceive as a figure.

Conversely, you can also have… a weak contrast between the figure and the background. It's a bit like writing in white ink on paper. The reason why we are able to read is precisely this effect of figure-ground perception.

But then, what does it serve you in practice? Well, in photography and in the visual arts in general, we will most often seek a strong contrast between the figure and the background.

In French: we will try to ensure that the subject stands out from the background, that it is perfectly differentiable, and therefore that the image is easier to read. Which simplifies and reinforces your message.

This strategy appeared to respond to a simple problem: a canvas or a photograph are two-dimensional, while reality is three-dimensional, or more so if you have not only drunk water. The challenge is therefore to cheat with the brain so that it perceives this depth without the clues of the 3 dimensions.

And painters have understood this for a long time.

The simplest example is undoubtedly the Mona Lisa. To paint it, Da Vinci used an effect that could almost be described as shallow depth of field: the background is blurry, which helps to distinguish the figure better from the background.

But this principle is found in all currents and at all times. To see it well, just blur the image. Despite the lack of detail, we can still clearly distinguish the shapes, the subject and the background.

Even on more impressionistic canvases, where one might think that this distinction is weaker, one realizes that the subject is despite everything well separated from the background.

If you want to see this effect the next time you go to the museum, you can either remove your glasses if you are curvy like me, or step back about 3 times the height of the canvas, squinting your eyes until you are ready. let it be blurry.

But let's take a look at the practical application of this principle in photography.

Usually the figure is just your subject: often it's a human, animal, or object, something recognizable. You have several means at your disposal to differentiate them.

  1. The blur

If your subject is in focus and your background is blurry, this is a great way to separate the figure and the background.

  1. Tones

Whether there is a difference in sharpness or not, a second lever is very important: the difference in tones, i.e. whether the element is dark or light. Obviously, a light subject on a dark background, or vice versa, will be very readable and easily distinguished by the brain.

A good way to check if your photo uses tones is to switch the photo to black and white: you will immediately see the difference.

  1. The tint

If two elements have almost the same tone, in short if they are as bright as each other, we can still distinguish them by another characteristic: their hue, that is to say their color element if you prefer. While in black and white you don't see this circle, in color you can see it perfectly. In the photo, two elements of similar brightness but different colors will stand out from each other.

As you can imagine, a good figure-background contrast has been used by the greatest: Henri-Cartier Bresson, Willy Ronis, more recently Vincent Munier. ALL. THE. WORLD.

In practice, I have two different approaches to apply this principle to my photos:

A.  On the one hand, I have a subject, and I place myself in relation to it so that it stands out well from the background. For these two images, I deliberately placed myself against the light to create a silhouette effect, which allows the dark figure to stand out against the bright background.

B.  And on the other hand, I have a background and a composition that I find interesting, and I wait for a subject to come and integrate into the scene to come and animate it. Here, the rather bright subject stands out against the dark background.

Note the difference it makes when it is against the brighter background of the houses: the photo loses strength. It is not bad in itself, but when sorting, I choose the other without hesitation, because it is much more readable.

Here again, if the character was half behind a pillar, the photo would not be readable and would have to be eliminated.

Conversely, on these two images, the figure / background distinction is less clear, due to the close tones. They lose strength and are clearly less good images.

So how do you apply this principle to your photos?

  1. You can find a background, a frame with an aesthetic composition, and wait for a subject to pass in front of it, which will usually be more effective than taking the photo of an interesting subject with a randomly chosen background.
  2. Also remember to observe the light. placing yourself against the light, that is to say with the light in front, will allow you to make silhouette effects which can be very interesting in terms of contrast, if you pay attention to legibility. A ray of light on a dark background can also help.
  3. In post-processing, consider using the dodge & burn technique, which I explain in another video. It makes it possible to reinforce a figure-ground contrast already present if it is a little light at the base.
  4. Depending on the situation, you can simply ask the subject to move!
  5. A great exercise is also to think in black and white, to make yourself aware of the contrast of tones. You can do the shooting exercise only in black and white for a week, if possible in live view to see directly during the shot.

And especially to finish, keep in mind that this concept is not a rule, but a tool, which you use as you wish. You are free to use it to show something, or on the contrary... to hide it...

For more information, please visit