Space, Figure, and Ground
...plus a few "rules" to tempt the unwary...
This lesson started out as something rather specific: a description
of a well-known compositional rule of thumb. I wasn't quite satisfied with
the way it was originally written, though, and decided to try to get it
more in line with the stated aims of this course: to learn to think
compositionally. So, it turned into something rather different -- an essay
on the fundamental elements of composition: figure, ground, and space.
The objective of this lesson is to introduce three fundamental elements
in compositional thinking: division of space, figure, and
ground, learn to use them to think and talk about pictures, and
learn a simple method with which to apply them in your own
What is space?
Space is a deceptively simple concept over which much ink has been
spilt -- see, for example, Henri Lefebvre's influential Marxist monograph,
The Production of
Space. (My wife read it, and she wouldn't have put it under
the notbored.org domain name; I haven't even tried.) In this case, we'll
use "space" in a very simple, almost trivial sense. We'll define it simply
as the flat surface delimited by the edges (or "frame") of a picture.
The fundamental challenge in creating any picture is filling that
space. If it's done successfully -- that everything within the space has a
reason for being there and a relation to the other things in it -- a good
picture results. If it's done badly, that is, the things within the space
appear random, disjointed, or chaotic, if there's a lot of space that
doesn't appear to be doing anything, you get a bad picture. Of course,
this doesn't mean that there shouldn't be any empty space in the frame --
in fact, quite often this "negative space" is precisely what makes
the picture. The point is that everything in the frame should be there for
a reason, whether the reason was actually intended by the photographer, or
merely emerged out of the image afterwards (as we could see in many photos
submitted for Lesson Zero).
So, the first commandment of composition could be written simply
Fill the frame.
We humans make sense of the world by dividing it conceptually. Nature
is continuous: any classification we impose on it is at least to some
degree arbitrary. Where does your hand end and your wrist start? On what
day does winter end and spring begin? If you cut your hair, do you cut off
a part of yourself?
When thinking of the space that constitutes a picture, such divisions
are especially arbitrary, and can often be made in several ways. Yet the
idea of division of space helps -- both in understanding and appreciation
of other people's work, and in creating your own.
In a very real sense, composition is the division of space. When
you pick up a blank piece of paper and start turning it into a picture,
the moment your pen touches it, you have divided the space in it. First,
to dot and not-dot, then to line and not-line, left-of-line and
right-of-line, eventually, if you draw a closed curve, into inside and
outside and -- maybe already -- into figure and ground. Of course, with a
camera, the division of space can be an almost instantaneous event that
happens at a shutter-press. This does not change the fundamental process:
what preceded the shutter-press was the framing of the picture in the
viewfinder. You as a photographer selected what to include and what to
exclude; where the lines and areas and blocks of color and light and dark
lie, that divide the black space of an unexposed frame turning it into a
The next time you see a picture you like -- as a picture, not because
of its subject matter -- look at it this way. How is the space in it used
and divided? Is there "slop" in it -- areas that simply aren't interesting
or don't add anything to the whole? Did the artist manage to "fill the
Fence and tracks in the snow, by alexo1.
Figure and Ground
We can often identify one specific type of division of space when
looking at pictures: the division between figure and ground.
These terms are best defined tautologically: ground is everything that is
not figure, and figure is everything that is not ground. Of course, not
all pictures with "artistic merit" (whatever this may mean) have an
identifiable or unambiguous figure and ground, but surprisingly many do.
In any case, the concepts are highly useful, again when thinking about
other people's pictures, and when creating your own.
Apple core, by hinius. I think you can tell what I mean by figure
and ground just by looking at the picture.
The relation between figure and ground (or figures and grounds, as the
case may be) is one of the things that makes or breaks pictures. If the
figure and ground have some sort of identifiable visual relation with each
other, with some purpose (either instinctive or considered) in placing
them in the relation they are, the picture is generally more effective
than one where the relationship is disconnected or random.
For example, the typical holiday snapshot of your significant other
standing in front of a monument is usually not photographically very
exciting, because the background and foreground don't really meld or talk
to one another; it's just a person and a scene, splat. That simple picture
could be improved a great deal if you did something to create a connection
between the figure and the ground -- for example, asked your significant
other to lean against a piece of stonework and admire the monument. Now,
she's a part of the scene rather than something disconnected from it.
Joanna herding sheep, by Petteri.
So, here we can derive another principle of composition -- although,
being more specific, it's less universally applicable than the previous
Identify the figure and
the ground, and create a relationship between them.
In the above snapshot, Joanna and the stubborn sheep constitute the
"figure" I had in mind when shooting it, while the rest of the scene
constitutes the "ground." The connection is created by Joanna's physical
contact with the sheep, and the similarity of the sheep with the other
sheep in the background -- and pulled together by the lucky chance of
having a sheep mugging for the camera at top left just at the right
But how to create that division into figure and ground, and
re-connection as a relationship?
There are an infinite number of answers to that question, none of which
are really "right" or "wrong." Generally, it's a good idea to start with
the subject, and make that the figure. If this doesn't work out -- for
example, the subject you're really interested in is too big to be a
figure -- you might want to choose to make your subject the ground
instead, and look for something more or less random to be the figure:
we'll return to this theme later in the course... I think.
The connection could be thematic, based on color or color contrast, the
creative use of depth of field, based on form or texture or tone, based on
the line of sight (people are great at following lines of sight --
that's why having your model look at the beautiful scenery works so well
in tying it together), or, well, pretty much anything really. Sometimes
the connections are pre-existing and only need to be recognized; at other
times, they can be "engineered" in -- either by changing something in the
scene, or simply by changing your point of view, framing, or something
A few dos and don'ts
Moving on -- to the ever more specific, ever more controversial, and
ever less universally applicable. Let's have a few things that have
generally been discovered to either work (or not) in figure-ground
juxtapositions. Here, note especially that these are guidelines, not
rules: sometimes breaking them may create a more effective picture than
following them, but I can't see there being any harm in knowing to look
out for them.
- Decide what's your figure and what's the ground. If you're
taking a picture of your significant other by the Notre Dame of Paris,
you should decide which you're going to emphasize. By including both at
the same "weight," the cathedral and the person will be competing for
status as the figure, which will probably not work... unless you manage
to create that connection or juxtaposition between them.
- Put something in the foreground. Pictures with a sense of
depth to them tend to be more compelling than ones that look "flat."
Even if what you're really interested in is the beautiful view, the
picture will very likely be much more powerful if you include something
close by in it.
- Avoid joins. The scene you're photographing is
three-dimensional, but the picture will be a flat plane. This means that
unless the picture contains strong visual cues about depth (something
we'll talk about later), the figure and ground are easily melded
together: what's intended as the ground looks like a part of the figure.
The classic case is photographing a person in front of a palm tree,
resulting in a picture where it looks like the tree is growing out of
his head. At times, this might be just what you need -- but either way,
look out for joins: if unintentional, they probably won't look great.
The Rule of Thirds
Finally, we're getting to the bit Ed hates: the Rule of Thirds. There's
good reason to hate it, too -- first, because it's called a "rule" (which
implies that there's some sort of punishment for breaking it), and second,
because it's actually the dumbed-down version of a really beautiful,
almost mystical property that crops up in art, nature, biology,
mathematics, and other unusual places with surprising regularity. I'm
talking about the Golden Section. If you're an experienced photographer
familiar with the Rule of Thirds, skip the rest of this lesson and read up
on the Golden Section instead -- there's a wealth of information available
on it on the
Internet as well as the local library.
Still, there's something to be said for the RoT: it's simple enough to
be applied easily in hand-held photography, and it'll almost always result
in a more interesting picture than the default non-composition of putting
your subject bang in the middle of the frame at middle distance. (In fact,
Kodak came up with it to help people get nicer snapshots.) It'll also
force you to identify the figure and the ground, and think about how you
can divide the rest of the space in the future picture -- even if you end
up not applying it, just thinking about it may have come in useful.
Personally, the RoT is something of a fallback "rule" for me: if no other
way of composing a picture suggests itself to me, I figure hey, I can't go
too badly wrong with the good ol' RoT.
One word of warning, though: don't ever mistake the RoT, or any
compositional rule, for that matter, for a standard or photographic
excellence. Many amateur "camera club" critics make this mistake -- I've
even heard that some judge in a club competition knocked points off a
picture because the subject was a few millimeters off the position
prescribed by the RoT, and I remember a discussion on DPReview where some
guy had RoT guides etched on his viewfinder so he could follow it more
accurately. Sometimes critics deserve the reputation they have, although I
don't think they're all bad.
What is the RoT?
The Rule of Thirds is very simple in principle: you mentally divide the
area of the picture into thirds, with two vertical and two horizontal
lines, and compose your picture around the nine areas and four
intersections. There are many ways to apply it; in fact, so many that with
hindsight you'll find it possible to apply it to many pictures that have
already been taken, whether the photographer had the RoT in mind or
The simplest variant is to put your subject near one of the four
intersections. Like this:
However, this isn't all. For example, the RoT gives a good rule of
thumb for where to put the horizon on a landscape. For example:
Of course, the horizon could just as well have been on the top line;
this time, though, I thought the sky was more interesting than the water,
so I put it where it is.
The RoT in division of space
Yet another idea is to compose the picture around the regions delimited
by the lines, not by the lines or the intersections:
This picture would've been a lot nicer if it had had something or
someone in the foreground. I should've waited until someone came by, but
the weather was cold, wet, and miserable, and we were impatient.
- Pick a picture you like from the assignments submitted for the
previous lesson -- not yours, but somebody else's. Discuss the division
of space in it. Does it have an identifiable figure and ground, or
several figures and grounds? Could it be possible to interpret what is
the figure and what is the ground in more than one way? Do you think the
photographer had some specific idea of the division of space in mind
when s/he shot it?
- Grab a camera like for the previous assignment. Identify a subject
and study it and its surroundings. Use the subject as the figure and the
surroundings as the ground. Create a connection or relationship between
the figure and the ground. Shoot several variants, and present the one
you like best. Discuss what you did, why, how you did it, and why you
chose the variant that you did.
- Extra credit: Create an abstraction. Read the appendix, and
look up some of the abstract artists suggested in it. Take your time;
shoot lots of variants. Think about how to create something interesting
even if it isn't a picture of something: maybe it reminds you of
something, evokes a memory or an emotion, just produces some kind of
regular pattern, or maybe it's just that the colors are nice. If you
find it helpful to use the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Section for your
abstraction, by all means do so, but don't feel compelled to restrict
yourself to these choices. Discuss why you created the abstraction the
way you created it, what you were trying to achieve, and how well you
think you achieved it. Oh, and don't worry if it's not quite as abstract
as most of the stuff the artists in the appendix did -- even Malevich
and the other Suprematists occasionally included some figurative stuff
in their abstractions. The main point is that the picture shouldn't be
primarily a picture of something; rather, the interest should lie in the
way the space is divided in the picture itself.
Appendix: What is an abstraction?
An abstraction is something that's not readily identifiable as a
picture "of" something. It's nonfigurative. Instead, it evokes
associations and emotions by division of space in and of itself. However,
most abstract artists didn't consider their work as something disconnected
from "reality" -- on the contrary, they wanted their art to capture
something more fundamental and "true" than mere pictorial representation.
In fact, the very term "abstraction" implies the question -- abstraction
There's a famous abstract painting by the Ukrainian artist Kasimir
Malevich, called "Black
Square" (1913). On the face of it, it's the very epitome of abstract
art -- just a black square painted carefully on a piece of white canvas. A
bit of boring, pretentious, artistic snobbery, only to be appreciated by
the initiated? Not at all.
"Black Square" snaps into a whole different focus if you know one
thing, and you're told another.
- Russian Orthodox homes have a corner of the room reserved for an
ikon, and a place to burn tapers in front of it. The ikon representing
the Christ is placed near the ceiling, looking down into the room.
- Kasimir Malevich displayed "Black Square" in the corner of a room,
near the ceiling, tilted to look down into it.
I still get a shock of "meaning" when I recall these two simple facts.
The featureless black square is suddenly transformed into something of
awesome power -- a challenge shouted out to nothing less than God! By
usurping the space reserved for an ikon of the Christ, the Black Square
becomes an ikon itself. This raises another question: of
what is the black square an ikon? What does it represent?
It is an abstraction -- of what?
The power of abstract art lies in the capacity of a "pure" division
space to raise such associations. Whether these associations are inherent
in the work of art or "brought to it" by the audience is, to my mind,
irrelevant. The point is that it can be done: in order to convey something
fundamental of a thing, you do not need to represent it; in fact,
sometimes the most powerful way to convey an idea is by such means. The
anti-religious propaganda posters and paintings in the Socialist Realist
style, with their fat clerics, tangle-bearded monks, and triumphant
laborers look trite and frankly silly next to the simple, arrogant
statement of Malevich's Black Square.
For further inspiration, you might want to check out the works of Kasimir
Kandinsky, or Jackson
Pollock, to name a few. Or you might want to look at the evolution of,
Mondrian from the figurative to the non-figurative.
Roof structure in an abandoned building on the Nahr Beirut, by
Joanna S-S. There's nothing inherently interesting about the roof -- but I
think the pattern the beams make, the light and dark, the flecks of blue,
and even the feeling of motion imparted by the camera shake make the
picture of the roof interesting to look at. It also evokes a strong
emotion for me.