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Friday, 13 December 2019


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Thank you for this.

A few examples of B&W done well or not would be useful, although I get it that online jpgs may limit the illustrative value.

Yeah! Thanks for this type of instruction!

Mike - I agree with your point of view completely. But I would go even farther.

"Figure ground" relationships are a two way street - they affect each other, thus the problem with the image may be figure, ground or both. In the case of the RR I think we have the latter. Shifting solves the problem with the figure (the car) but there are at least six other problems with the ground that to my eye are distracting and need attention. The light post in the upper left; the left over tops of threes sticking out above the hood line between the lamp post and the first tree; the two trees; the branch sticking out of the upper right of the frame; the metal frame(?) between the car and the right edge of the frame and the very tight space between the bottom of the frame and the headlight on the left of the image. All are easy fixes. I've made the changes on a downloaded copy and it looks much more cohesive ... at least to my eye. Unfortunately, I don't know if I can upload the image with the comment.

WARNING: If you plan to make a habit of photographing cars, dust spots can be a nightmare in post. Carry a soft cloth with you. If the owner is present, ask them if they would mind wiping down the area you want to shoot or if they would mind you doing so. If you do it, be super careful and respectful of their baby.

I taught an evening photography class at our local Junior College for 15 years and I had no trouble finding examples of what not to do right in my own files. I told the class that it is the only reason to save bad photos.

Obvious! Not getting someone to cut down the tree behind and obscuring the Spirit of Ecstasy. Nothing says "Rolls Royce" more than needless, extravagant gestures.


My eye was drawn to the headlight brush.

Still was not a color field painter.

[I think a number of authorities would disagree with you on that, although you could also call him an abstract expressionist. A brief quote from the Wikipedia article on "Color field": "Still was considered one of the foremost Color Field painters...." --Mike]

Sam Abell calls that, and similar considerations, "microcomposition".


You sucked us in nicely, with your first example. It took me about ten seconds to zero in on the hood ornament. This was it. I felt smart. I expect most of us got it with equal ease.

Thanks for reposting this Mike! Unawareness of foreground to background relationships is by far my biggest compositional pet peeve. And making clear what is the subject is only the first step: the figure-ground relationship can be an amazing tool for telling a story too (or making up a story where one does not exist for you propagandists).

And if I'm in an ungenerous mood, I'd also add that ignorance of this principle is mainly responsible for photographers' obsession with shallow depth-of-field ultra fast lenses.

Naa, no!
Maybe not Anna missed the perspective, but Mike missed the moral of the image. If you visually extract the donned aphrodite-like, innocent-looking and angel-like figurine from the front section of a RR, then you may come to recognize its primitively agressive truck-like base-character. Assuming that the perspective of the image was chosen deliberately, converts the image into a visualized refusal of capitalism.
Different cultures cultivate different mindsets.

Yours Kleks

[It's a fair point, Kleks. Sometimes things that look like mistakes are not mistakes, but are done deliberately for specific reasons. I think this was just carelessness, but of course I could be wrong. --Mike]

"What basic mistake did the photographer make in the following picture?"

They took another damn picture of a damn automobile.

If you click through the link to my web site, you will find more bad photographs than you can shake a stick at. Knock yourself out.

If you want a source for really bad photo's just go to pretty much any real estate for sale site and look for low to moderately priced homes. You will find a huge number of poorly composed, under and over exposed, out of focus, off color, wrong time of day, etc.

And there are also ones that make you stop and think why in the world would they include that in the listing photos? Things like the agent or photographer in a mirror, a shade drawn in a bedroom window, but there's a shadow of a man outside the window. A couple of cats in the front yard making kittens.

Speaking of tai chi, photographers could do worse than adopt the practice. Besides the well-known benefits, it enhances overall balance and stability, body control, and strength and flexibility in the lower body--just what you need to do the compositional dance Mike describes with less shakiness or fatigue. That dance comes in handy in many hand-held photography situations, not just street photography, and requires more strength and endurance than many people realize.

Hi Mike - Feel free to use any of my photographs from my website for your examples. I have no aspirations to become a pro photographer, and no illusions about the quality of my work. If anything is really good, it's probably by accident. I just love having fun taking photos, and if I am happy with my own stuff I'll print it or load it up to the website. I'd especially be interested in seeing details of where I went wrong with B&W photos (some on film, but most shot as B&W jpegs in-camera). I assure you, you won't offend me.

Mike, I think the photographer was far more interested in the ultra fancy headlamp "grooming" brush than the hood ornament. That being said, thanks for the other examples - especially the pink pole and the Clyfford Still painting

I got it! I got it! Full marks to me.

Thanks, Mike. I love this direction for your posts. In my experience, one of the biggest complications in the ground in a photo is a bright area that pulls the eye from the figure. In many photos, this can be a bit of sky that sneaks in at the edge or top of a photo. This may be less of a problem for those who shoot primarily color (I compose primarily in black and white), but I can't count the times I have moved on from a composition because I could not "figure out" (pun intended) this problem.

“ I was puzzled by the fashion in interior decorating (in the Midwest at least) of putting a band of decorative wallpaper on the walls of a room up by the ceiling. Why in the world would you want to draw attention to the right-angle meeting of the wall and the ceiling?...”

Is that not merely some kind of vestigial evidence of the cultural attachment to the idea of a picture rail ?

As two others (as of this writing) have pointed out, the subject...or figure...is the headlamp brush. In that case blending the hood ornament with the background tree works to diminish distraction. A better composition overall could have done even more - but damned if I’d want to be the one trying to come up with it on the fly.

The principal mistake with this picture is that its intention is unclear due to all the visual clutter pulling us in all directions.
I'm guessing that as the headlight brush is central it is likely what the photographer intended us to notice.
However, the lines of the photo send us off to the right and out of the picture. There are bright and distracting details, lines, patterns and colours everywhere all demanding our attention.
All of which adds up to a snapshot of something the photographer found interesting – in effect, a failure of photography.
Merely pointing a camera at interesting things does not by itself make for an interesting photograph.

As someone who has been aiming at a fair amount of cars lately I actually picked out the mistake pretty quick.

Examining some of my shots I'll sometimes see a detail that should have been featured by using a closer perspective. Learning is forever.

Mike, Great article. I studied this concept when I took some photo courses at the local community college. Actually our teacher was great but this is a great reminder on the whole concept. Feel free to use any of my images from my flickr account for examples either good or bad. I have no pretense that any of my images are worthy of a museum show, but if they can be helpful for someone to learn the craft of photography, please use them. All the best Eric

Foreground to background relationships are even more important in our times, with the preference for the wide-angle "look" and the higher depth of field that naturally comes with wider field of view lenses.

The problem is exacerbated in today's smartphone photography, with their 2 and 3mm focal length wide-angle lenses that keep almost everything in the frame near-perfectly-sharp, no matter where you focus.

In my parents' time, almost everyone used roll-film, and it was less of a problem. Shallower depth of field—in the smaller aperture but longer focal length fixed normal lenses common in those days in consumer cameras—partly made up for obvious mistakes such as the one in the example.

Not that you would have achieved that look with a Kodak 120 rollfilm consumer camera back in 1950.

also to note when tweaking camera position is that with close subjects and wide angle lenses a little movement can go a long way, with faraway subjects and long lenses not so much

Another reason to like rangefinder cameras with everything near to far is sharp in the viewfinder. Often that telephone pole growing out of someone's head isn't all that obvious through your f1.4 85mm SLR lens when your taking aperture is f8.
Opposite issue with cellphone cameras. The tremendous depth of field often allows incredible clutter in the background of many pictures.

What I like more than photographic rules are artists that creatively debunk them. The figure/ground rule reminded me of John Baldessari’s series from the late 1960s where he interrupts the aesthetic intention associated with art and took pictures of things that were traditionally not believed to be worthy of art. His photographs and accompanying text were then applied to canvas with a photoemulsion technique that gave the resulting works a very rough unprofessional look. My favourite of this series is an image called “Wrong” below. Among the numerous “wrong” things about this photo that I can spot are the figure/ground problem, it is taken in mid-day, a boring suburban location, and it breaks the Ansel Adams edge rule. I love it dearly! Actually I found a reference to this work in one of your past articles.


Criag Tanner used to have a website 15 years ago with another guy, I'm sure the name was Michael Johnson. One thing they did was to have viewers send in photos for evaluation.

They never said something was wrong, it was always "in an ideal world"...

      In an ideal world, you could have taken
      a few steps forward at the edge of the
      grand canyon to eliminate some obstruction.

I give you blanket agreement for taking any of my photos on the web to illustrate a bad composition or bad whatever. I learn a lot from critiques. Thank you in advance.

Yeah, using actual people's photos as bad examples is chancy. When I was running the photo team back at the 1989 World Science Fiction Convention we did a daily meeting to show "the rushes" (film term borrowed for showing yesterday's still photo take), and I only used actual examples of the bad things too many photos had in them when I could find them in my own photos (and I told people the bad examples were mine).

Somebody, recently, I thought on TOP, said that classrooms are a much less risky place to use random bad examples from the real world, and I agree heartily. It doesn't seem to be anybody in this thread who said it, though.

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