Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Aspect ratios - to crop or not

click photo to enlarge
There is a school of thought that says the best photographs are achieved by composing within the confines of the viewfinder. Those who hold to this idea often also believe that composition that takes place after the shutter has been pressed, through cropping, lessens the worth of the image. This isn't a maxim to which I subscribe. I have nothing against composing photographs in the viewfinder: I do it all the time. However, I don't believe that it's the only way to compose, or that cropping necessarily makes for poorer images.

Photographic film and digital sensors are rectangular - either squares or oblongs - following the precedent of painting. It's interesting that the circles, ovals and other shapes that painters sometimes employ haven't found their way into photography. Perhaps one day! In some respects the aspect ratio of the oblongs used in photography are arbitrary. The 35mm size, and its so-called "full-frame" digital successor, derives from the shape settled on by the makers of movie film. Like painters before them camera manufacturers also paid some attention to the aspect ratio of the Golden Rectangle. But, the imperial and metric sizes of paper used for printing (which is now a complete mess, a point that no one would have aimed to be at) are also constraints that weighed on the designers' minds. My camera has a 4:3 aspect ratio which perfectly matched the shape of most CRT monitors, but is less of a fit for "widescreen" LCD panels. So, given that photography's different shaped viewfinders arose through the influence of a group of rather odd constraints, and that our subjects vary too in terms of the best way to compose them, why should we always shackle ourselves? Painters didn't do it: why should photographers?

I was reflecting on this as I processed today's photograph, taken during a walk near Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire. The image is cropped, with some sky and some of the foreground track removed. I took the shot knowing I'd do this, and I think it makes for a better image than the full frame offered. I've also added another shot of the cockerel's feathers that I posted yesterday. I rather wish I'd used this cropped image instead of the version I chose - I think the variety of colour and texture across the cropped "letterbox" frame is definitely superior.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Image 1
Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 83mm (166mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On

Image 2
Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 100mm (200mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On


Linda Lewis said...

I agree! The second photograph of the feathers is better :-)

Anton said...

Two great images Tony.

Henk said...


I do not agree on the crop of photo of the cockerel, the white lines of the feather shafts in the lower left are distracting me and do not contribute to the composition.

Just my two €cents ;D

Best Regards,

Tony Boughen said...

Thanks for the comments Linda, Anton and Henk. I kept those feathers for two reasons Henk - they increase the number of textures in the image (and consequently, I hope, the interest), and the the visual weight they add to the left of the shot stops it being quite so symmetrical.

Regards, Tony