Gestalt Theory and Art II (Figure-Ground relation)

Posted: May 21, 2014 in Art of Photography

The principle of figure/ground is one of the most basic laws of perception,  used extensively to help us design our photographs. It refers to our ability to separate elements based upon contrast–that is, dark and light, black and white. This simple biological law explains our understanding of  abstract concepts such as subject/background and positive/negative space.


but  in the figure below, you can see him now, because there is sufficient contrast for your eye to perceive him against the background.This is a simple use of the principle of figure/ground.


In photography, we expand the concept to include color and content, not simply black and white values. In following picture, the white structure stands out against the background because of different colors. This separation may be achieved by throwing the background out of focus.



Similar to balancing negative and positive space in achieving a pleasing composition, we can also balance the two elements of figure and ground to help us create a successful image.Often our identification of the figure is helped by its position within the image. Most often, the figure is in the foreground as in above picutre.

Sometimes the figure/ground distinction is blurred on purpose. What do you see in the image on the right? Faces?  Or a goblet? When the figure and ground are equally balanced, we can be confused by the result.


The following is my own image


Throwing the figure/ground relationship off balance has various repercussions which can create interest in your photograph. In this photo, the ground overwhelming the figure helps reinforce the feeling of isolation and loneliness.



The opposite can create a feeling of intimacy.


Types of figure-ground relation

1. Simple

2. Figure-ground reversal (used in logo formation)

3. Figure ground ambiguity

Using Figure-Ground in composition

The mind tends to seek distinctions between the figure (the subject of the design or image) and the ground (the background). A designer typically wants the figure to demand attention; the ground should support the figure and not distract the viewer. A good design creates a balance in that the ground helps define the figure – whether through creating lines that define the shape of the figure, adding color that creates a mood, or establishing a reference point like place – but the figure is what the viewer notices and processes.

Distinctions between figure and ground can be accomplished in a number of ways:

  • Contrast of color
  • Blurred or out of focus background
  • Placement of the figure in the image
  • Magnifying the figure so that the ground is virtually non-existent
  • Minimizing the figure so that the figure appears to be isolated or insignificant

In addition to interesting optical illusions, figure ground ambiguity can be used to emphasize the ground while the most obvious figure is made less prominent. An example might be sightseers against a landscape in a travel brochure.

Care should be taken, though, to avoid images where the figure is camouflaged unless the intention is to require the viewer to search the image for the figure.


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