Figure to ground relationship on Instagram

Henri Cartier Bresson

The figure-to-ground relationship is used in photography to describe the relative size of the motive (figure) compared to the background.

For a photograph to work, the motive needs to stand out from the background – simply so you can see it properly.

Figure to ground – classical definition

The motive needs to be set off against the background through a difference either in colour or, in black and white photography, in grey scale – by being lighter or darker.

Have a look at the following pictures. Clearly the figure is better separated from the ground in the second one?

Seagull against cluttered background

Seagull contrasted against clean, dark background

The motive, or figure, also needs to be large enough compared to the background in order to capture your attention.

Figure absolute – Instagram addition

While toying around with the small format of Instagram, and watching thousands of photos from people around the world, I’ve come to a realization. It’s not only the figure to ground relationship that is important – the absolute size of the motive (figure) also matters.

The harsh truth is this:

If you take a classic photograph of a great photographer and post it on Instagram, it may not work at all. The motive becomes so small you can hardly tell what it’s all about.

Example: Henri Cartier Bresson

The picture above of Henri Cartier Bresson, one of my favorite photographers, is full of beautiful detail, and you can let the eye wander about in enjoyment.

But if you downsize it to Instagram size, or smartphone size, the enjoyment is lost (I feel). It’s hard to even see what it is.


Quite a few experienced photographers post their fine high resolution pics on Instagram, and it does not work. The photos just aren’t that fine anymore. They become cluttered with detail that you cannot discern.

The absolute size of the figure isn’t large enough. It’s a figure absolute fail.


For your pictures to work in the small format of Instagram – AND other smartphone platforms – you need to crop harder, move in closer to the motive.

Good luck!