#548. Photo Composition: the Importance of Frame Aspect Ratio
Regular readers will have found their fair share of rants against the 3:2 photographic aspect ratio on this blog. It’s no secret that the club of photographers finding this frame aspect ratio at the same time too narrow and too wide counts me as a vocal member … So, to continue with my nascent series on composition, let’s examine what that actually means and the real impact of frame aspect ratio on composition.
Frame aspect ratio choices are very personal
During my year-long stint with the m4/3 Olympus OM-D E-M5, the 4:3 format really appealed to me a lot. It gave the image more room to breathe and led to more relaxing compositions than the cramped (in my hands) 3:2 used previously and since.
Prior to that, the two loves of my life had been a Hasselblad 500 C with its 56x56mm square format and the 56x70mm format of the Mamiya 7, very close to the 56x72mm Linhof used and called the ideal format. Interestingly, I owned a 4×5 Linhof Master Technika and never really fell for the format which many others, particularly in the landscape photography world, adore.
More recently, I’ve been having a lot of fun with cellphones, in 16:9 format, as below.
And while my favourite camera has always been the Mamiya 7, my heart still has that particular fondness for the 1:1 square.
Others feel very differently. The square format has a lot going for it from a purely logical standpoint (see below), but was never really adopted because of the difficulty most photographers have composing for it. 4:3, which appeals to many, also irks all of those who have been raised with 4:3 cathode screen televisions and are reminded of them when viewing photographs following that aspect ratio.
This aspect ratio is now the default for medium format cameras and digital backs. So many use it, but many also crop. And the possibility of cropping very little to output other famous ratios such as 3:2 and 4:5 is touted as a strong point in its favour, sometimes more so than its native look.
The truth about the 3:2 aspect ratio
A common misconception is that the 3:2 ratio has been created to replicate (in horizontal format) the natural field of view of the human eye.
Each eye (for young people with no visual problems) covers a field of about 120° horizontal by 100° vertical. People with 2 eyes normally enjoy a field of view covering roughly 200° horizontally by 100° vertically. Not all of this field is covered equally, but that’s a subject for another post (also super important for composition, as it explains why and how we scan photographs, so how you can grab someone’s attention and keep it for a long time). But the 2:1 oval approximation is good enough to illustrate that 3:2 isn’t close to our natural perception of the world. 16:9 is closer, but still not quite there.
The photograph below is an approximation of how we see the world. Though, obviously, we tend to add colours, and not every scene is full of sheep.
The reality of 3:2 is that in the 1920s, when most prints where contact printed from large negatives requiring large and expensive cameras, Oskar Barnack suggested that the same quality could be achieved by enlarging negatives made by much smaller cameras. Cameras that could be carried more easily and which would cost a lot less (ironical, isn’t it, that Leica should now make the most expensive range of cameras this side of low-volume large sensor specialists) Barnack brilliantly proposed to use two 18x24mm cine frames (each 3:4) assembled into a single 24x36mm (3:3) negative.
The rest is pesky history (he said, unbiased).
Interestingly, classical theories of balance and aesthetics should make this the king of frame aspect ratios, because it is the closest to the Golden Ratio (1.6:1, roughly). However, wikipedia flies to the rescue of good taste in the aesthetics section of it’s article on the Golden Ratio:
… Livio points out that the interpretation has been traced to an error in 1799, and that Pacioli actually advocated the Vitruvian system of rational proportions. …
Phew, close one. Now, Vitruvian proportions make a lot more sense, as they are based on the square. I can live with that. And so can Leonardo Da Vinci, who clearly demonstrates what he thinks of Barnack’s idea on this page:
All the important stuff in a square and scribble the useless rest.
After the rule of thirds, it is so great to debunk yet another photographic myth 😉
The underestimated square format
Now, more seriously, someone else was inspired by the concepts elaborated by Vitruvius: Victor Hasselblad, himself.
Moment of respect!
Son of the inventor of the thermos flask and photography aficionado, Victor Hasselblad was a keen twitcher (bird watcher) and photographed birds with a Graflex, then a Leica. But always wanted something better (sorry, Oskar). Having tried many film formats and designed a great number of cameras himself, he eventually elected the 6×6 format used by Rolleiflex as the best choice.
Moment of respect! (who here has ever used a Rolleiflex SL-66, the spiritual ancestor of the Fujifilm GFX?)
Anyway, his design, the Hasselblad 500C was dubbed the ideal camera, providing much of the convenience of smaller format Leicas with far greater image surface (more or less equating to image quality in the age of film). Good enough for NASA, a ton of legendary photographers and … yours truly. I sincerely wish Hasselblad the best possible recovery under the new DJI leadership. This is one company and heritage we cannot afford to lose.
But back to Square One.
As can be seen on the Vitruvian Man, the square format makes the most use of the circular area covered by the lens. Add to that the fact that a square can be cropped to 6:7, 4:5 or 4:3, both in vertical and horizontal formats, with minimum loss of pixel count, and the square should have been a winner. But it wasn’t to be, for a number of reasons.
Chief among which, the difficulties many have had composing inside that frame.
So how do aspect rations influence composition ?
There are 3 main aspects to consider:
- The actual dynamics of the aspect ratio
- The interplay of components inside the frame
- Closely related to this second point, negative space
The dynamics of frame aspect ratios
Our eyes are aligned in a horizontal plane. We live under the influence of gravity.
That pretty much sums us how we react to frames.
We scan horizontal frames from left to right and back again. The longer the frame, the more we do it. So panoramic frames give an impression of action and dynamism that are absent from more “sedately” proportioned ones, such as the two above (roughly 4×5).
The same is true of vertical formats, which suggest (or, even accentuate) height, might, elevation.
The (roughly) 6×7 photograph below is all about serenity and pre-dawn quiet.
The use of height is very limited here and, instead, the nearly square frame builds on depth. Since our eyes aren’t scanning horizontally, they explore depth in that slight up and down movement from foreground to horizon.
The feeling is very different below: while there is a strong feeling of 3D in this frame, the eyes can’t stop moving from the well-lit part of the farm, to the trees at far right, back to the hangar and tree at far left. It’s clearly a horizontal yoyo. That scanning is ingrained in how we view things that are larger than our (relatively small) field of clear focus.
Here, the 16:9 phone frame invites vertical roaming and this is encouraged by the vertical lines of the legs throughout the frame.
And below, what could have been a stately architectural photograph of Les Invalides is turned into an up and down crossfire exercise for eyes by the reflection (aided by some heavy-handed post-processing of said reflection).
Faced with a stretched photograph (panoramas), the eyes behave as they would in an expansive vista, scanning to take it all in. The creates dynamism.
Whereas squares and disks remove that sense of direction totally, as well as the scanning that goes with it. They convey a feeling of stability, centricity and, in the case of the square, solidity. In fact, the difficulties in producing compositions that escape or deny that feeling of stability is what caused many to criticise the format. Cropping is always a possibility, of course, but this makes previsualisation more difficult for many.
The global success of Instagram might help resurrect this lovely format, who knows ? With modern sensors, cropping is no longer an issue. Is anyone listening, as sensor HQ ?
But this only scratches the surface. Because, although the frame and its aspect ratio direct the eyes, it’s through the interaction with the subject and various components that it has its greatest unsung impact on the viewer.
The interplay of components inside the frame
This is where things get very interesting. Composition is the art of arranging the various components inside the frame to convey a mood or story, right?
Well, in and by themselves, most subjects create a sense of direction.
And the way the frame interacts with that direction either builds upon it to create great dynamism or counteracts it to create imbalance, unease …
Think of a sprinter. Place her moving right from the left of the screen and you have movement. Predictability. Place her at the right edge and you have imminent disappearance (whatever that might suggest in the context of the photograph).
Above and below, even the square frames can’t stop you feeling the sense of direction. The painter at left is clearly looking at Mont Saint Michel at right, and nothing is stopping that.
The photographer at bottom left is obviously walking towards Mont Saint Michel. The shadows contribute to that feeling. So do the lines in the gorse and sand. Imagine her at the same spot facing the other way, leaving the frame. Wouldn’t you wonder what’s happening? Where is she going? Why have I included her in the photograph? Questions, instead of predictability.
In Paul’s photo below, the active subject is centred horizontally in a square (and grounded at bottom). The image is tranquil, serene, but not still or boring.
By offsetting the subject inside the frame, you create imbalance that is Okayed by the sense of direction. By centering it, you have no imbalance. And a square frame offers no sense of direction of its own to create motion and dynamism.
Squares therefore work well for symmetrical subjects, in which they enhance the stability, or for stabilising very deliberate compositions such as the photographer at bottom left (2 pics above). Elongated frames create that direction that can either complement or counter that of the subject. A subject that has none, can look very odd inside an elongated frame.
A frame with an aspect ratio that mirrors the proportions or dynamism of a subject produces a feeling of balance and predictability. One that goes against creates questioning and imbalance. In that senses, the frame becomes an active part of the subject. A fact that was well-known of classical painters as the incredibly intricate frames built around religious tondos or tryptics illustrate.
What happens with multiple subjects ?
Well, that’s a biggie.
And a hard one to explain.
Composition hinges on the relative visual weights of the components of the image. Say the person moving away from us and the worrying face inside the window, above. I’ll get back to that picture in a future post, but once you’ve viewed the man walking away and continued all the way down to the end of the passage, your eyes can’t do much else but return to the face on the right. And back again.
So the man and the face are the two main components, with a few extra ones playing secondary roles (the actual end of the passage, the reflection of the man, the red sign, other people in the gallery …). The way these are arranged is what determines your eye / brain movements through the image and the story your get from it. It’s what composition is all about.
In a square format, the two main elements would have to be much closer to one another. Like the face and the man’s reflection. In a pano, you could bunch them up or spread them out through the frame. This alters the relationship significantly as Gestalt theory tells us we mentally group things that are physically closer to one another.
In the photograph above, for instance, you have an interplay between the group of people (close to one another), the opening at the back and the old stone wall surrounding the lot.
Now, compare the following two pictures.
Both frame a statue + reflection in the same modern concrete building. In this example, the 3:2 frame (top) feels too tight vertically to allow the subject to breathe. Yes, I could have moved back or used a shorter focal length but this would either have bunched everything in the middle or allowed more stuff from the outside to creep into the frame. Maybe both. A 4:3 would have allowed more vertical room and less horizontal. A square would have been even better (crop the right to the middle of the horizontal ledge and extend the bottom of the image).
The reason some people dislike 3:2 is exactly that. The spatial relationship it imposes between elements doesn’t suit the type of compositions we like. I really find it not stretched enough to provide any dynamic excitement (like the 16:9 does) and yet, it is too skinny to provide the air for a more classical composition. Often, the size you have to make the objects to give them sufficient visual weight is incompatible with the spacing needed to the proper dynamics.
For other togs, it’s the other way round.
3:2 feels perfect as a safe horizontal format for trees, buildings and other natural scenes. Using the rule of thirds described previously, you can place the horizon on the lower third, and interest points on the vertical grid to create a very stable and reassuring image with enough strength in it to feel interesting.
And this brings me to the last part of this article: space. How much space are you willing to leave empty in the frame? Do you like to fill it up?
Use of negative space inside the frame
This would have worked a lot better in a square frame. I’d have left a lot of dark space around , including at the bottom.
This, on the other hand, looks OK because the shape of the frame mirrors that of the subject.
The empty parts of the frame are just as important to telling a story as the parts with content.
And some people love to fill the frame, while others feel happy leaving plenty of empty room. Which are you?
Here’s a frame that’s chock full of info, with only a bit of breathing room at far left.
Whereas the main content on this panorama (the statue and the grass alley in the background) could have easily fitted into a 3:2 image. The reason I made it so wide and gave it that soft painterly look is to accentuate the tranquility. It’s soft and roomy. Yes, the aspect ratio makes your eyes scan, but they mainly stick to the main subjects in the middle, the rest is just there for air and sense of space.
And while that’s not strictly speaking negative space, it does play a role in the final appreciation of the photograph.
Negative space is the parts in between the subject components and the frame. The dark background around the tulip above, for instance. Or the sky around the tree, below:
Negative space is just empty space until you make it look interesting, via careful composition or cropping. In the photograph below, you could argue the negative space is really the mountain, a dark cutout in a photograph covered in pink clouds.
Here, those fortuitous shadows look like a man carrying a child and constitute negative space that’s far more interesting than the positive.
The thing with negative space is that kids notice it instantly but schooling irons it out of us so most adults can feel its impact but don’t know why or how to use that to their advantage.
“Fill the frame” is a frequent guru tip you’ll find on the internet. Never very far from the rule of thirds.
So it’s important to try to recognise it for what it is in great photographs and understand how the shape and ratio of negative to positive space can make or break the composition.
The 3:2 format and rule of thirds usually leave very little room for negative space. Most photographers are afraid of leaving some parts of the photograph empty. It goes against what we’ve been told. It’s wasteful. It adds nothing. You don’t leave empty lines in your essays or reports, do you?
Well, if it can make you feel better, here is Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat. A painting worth millions. One of the first works of political propaganda, it attempted to make a hero and a martyr of Marat. The empty – and visually uninteresting top half – is there just to force the eye towards the bottom, onto Marat’s body (painted in a Christ-like manner, kind of amusing for revolutionary work). It’s a 3:4 frame. Block the top part to make a square or horizontal 4:5 and see for yourself how different this feels without all that negative space.
So, negative space is the third way frames play with our interpretation of photographs.
Some pictures feel safe and natural. Others force a feeling of imbalance upon us. Others still instil excitement and dynamism.
Depending on the style of image you like to make, some frame aspect ratios will feel too fat, others too skinny. Whatever works for you is great. The only bad frame is the default frame, the one you choose because that’s what your camera or phone app uses.
There’s that old school of thought that you must comply to your camera’s format. That cropping is cheating. The culminated with the actual film rebate being shown around the photographs. To me, that’s rubbish of the same level as refusing digitally edited photographs in competitions. Choosing a focal length, choosing the direction you point your camera in, that’s cropping already. Letting the physical dimensions of a sensor or film, very likely decided for purely economic reasons one century ago, yeah, that’s rubbish.
It’s nice when all the photographs on a same wall or inside a same project have the same aspect ratio. But it’s even nicer when you, and you alone, decide what ratio best suits your subject and the story you want to tell around it. I hope this article helps you do so 🙂
If you think so, and think of anyone else this can help, please share the love !