Make it go ‘POP’
We live in a cluttered world and distracting backgrounds can ruin an otherwise strong street image, with the main subject just blending in with other elements in the frame. To avoid this you sometimes need to find a clean, contrasting background to ensure your subject “pops;’ and there’s no better way to make your subject (“figure”) pop out of the background (“ground”) than to have a strong figure-to-ground ratio. For street photographers that simply means separating the foreground interest from the background clutter.
Look through some of your street images and ask yourself: “Can I instantly work out what this picture is all about?” If the main subject in the frame pops clear of the background and gives you an instant understanding of the image, it has strong “figure to ground:’ A woman in a yellow coat against a blue wall is a good example of this, as is a portrait with a very shallow depth of field and blurred background.
Try this fun exercise to help you really understand what all this means. Visit an art gallery and find a big, traditional oil painting. Stand around 1 2ft (4m) away from it and squint at the painting until it becomes blurred (or, if you wear glasses, take them off). Can you still make out the major shapes in the painting? If so, there is a strong figure-to-ground ratio, but if the subject blends into the background, the ratio is weak.
Here are four simple ways that maximize the figure-to-ground principle to make your subject stand out:
- Light subject against dark background (and vice-versa).
- Strong color subject against contrasting color background.
- Shallow depth-of-field; subject in focus, background blurred.
- Clashing textures or patterns.
As an exercise to force you to look for the right background, go out and shoot two examples of each of the styles above.
View the images
- Depending on the circumstances, spot metering can ensure your subject is correctly exposed, irrespective of the background’s brightness.
- Use manual focus. As you’re waiting for your subject to appear, pre-focus on where the subject will be.
- When choosing your background, spend a little time “working the scene”; explore your surroundings from every angle and seek out good light.
- These scenes may be very contrasty so take care not to blow the highlights.
- Practice this technique until spotting good opportunities becomes second nature.