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Displaying All Entries for the Year 2011
News Article

Creating Better Photographs - Part 4 Oblong vs Square
Written by Derek Christy
Created / Updated on Saturday 19th of March 2011
Photos / Files Available
Oblong versus Square

One often hears judges referring to the shape of the 35mm format (3:2 ratio) as "the shape Mr Kodak dictates". However, the shape originally had nothing to do with Mr Kodak!

The format had its beginnings around 1912 when, in designing a motion picture camera, engineer Oscar Barnak at the Leitz Co in Germany, decided to build a small camera to test exposures on 35mm cine film. In order to produce negatives that would provide satisfactory prints when enlarged, (remember, film emulsions in those days were comparatively slow and would have much grain), he doubled the size of the cine frame from 18 x 24mm to 36 x 24mm by turning the camera around to produce the frame longitudinally along the film rather than across the frame as in motion picture film. These dimensions gradually became the norm for 35mm still cameras and are the standard today. So the standard was originally arrived at purely for technical, not aesthetic reasons.

Other artists, those who paint or draw for example, unlike photographers, are not bound by a fixed frame shape for their images. The problem for the 35mm photographer is that the frame shape can dictate the composition of the image in the production stage. By that I mean that in selecting the elements that will make up the final picture, the photographer will tend to use the attributes of the oblong format in order to compose the image. In addition, the small size of the viewfinder image forces the eye to select the image elements that satisfy the compositional demands of the oblong format by causing you to "fill the frame". This makes it difficult to change the composition later, particularly if drastic cropping becomes necessary.

Attributes of the Oblong shape frame

  • The composition tends to work through balance.

  • The eye tends to look first at the area on the left of the frame, about 1/3 from the side of the picture. (Someone has speculated that this may be because we read words from left to right - but is this true for those who read Hebrew or Chinese?)

  • We tend to look first at elements in the foreground, then move to the middle ground, then to the background. This means that placing an object in the front left of the picture immediately draws attention to it. The eye then moves to the centre/middle ground, and finally to the background.

  • An object on the left of frame can then balance an object on the right of the frame. The eye is drawn from one to the other, and thus there is tension between the two elements. One balances the other, but in a dynamic way.

A disadvantage of the oblong format is that because one side of the frame is much longer than the other (3:2 ratio) some images such as building towers, portraits etc. require the camera to be turned vertically - in fact many 35mm photographers who photograph for publication duplicate images in case they may be required to fit a vertical format on a published page.

Square format

Popular at the turn of the 20th century were stereoscopic photographs. These were made by combining two cameras into one by placing them side by side to duplicate the two eyes of humans. The problem of being able to view the image of the taking lens before exposure was first solved by using one of the lenses of the stereo camera as a viewing lens, placing a mirror at right angles to the light path and reflecting the image onto a ground glass screen. So that the image could be easily viewed, the camera was then turned upright so that the viewing lens was above the taking lens. Thus, the twin lens reflex camera was born. This would mean however, that if using an oblong format, turning the camera on its side would make viewing difficult, as anyone who has tried to do will attest. The solution was to use a square format which made the need for turning the camera for a vertical shot unnecessary.

The square format revealed quite a different way of photographic seeing.

Attributes of the Square shape frame

  • Square pictures tend to be static.

  • All sides are equal, so the eye tends to look first at the centre of the frame.

  • Instead of being drawn across or up the frame, giving a sense of dynamism and depth, the eye tends to move in a circle.

  • The result is a more static, but also a more peaceful composition.

  • The square shape allows less room for balance, but gives more scope for the use of symmetry. Absolute symmetry is rare in oblong framed pictures, but works very well in square ones.

The square shape also seems to give extra strength and weight to diagonals. Any line which goes, in the picture, from one corner to the opposite corner exerts a strong attraction to the eye. In an oblong framed picture the diagonal nature of such a composition may be barely noticeable. But when the picture is cropped to a square, it becomes the strongest feature.

Square pictures

Many subjects fit the square picture format shape very well. For example, a head and shoulders portrait is a natural for the square format. Square pictures are required for some purposes, for instance the covers for the old LP vinyl records (and CDs).

Apparent unbalance can be remedied by choosing a square format

Square pictures can always be cropped afterwards to give a horizontal or vertical format picture. This can be valuable for commercial purposes, thereby avoiding the necessity for the photographer who may be using a 35mm camera to duplicate an image in both vertical and horizontal framing for publication. With a square format camera, there is no need to turn the camera to obtain a vertical format - this can be done later during printing.

Cameras with oblong viewfinders discourage the taking of square format pictures. With such a camera it is natural to fill the frame with the subject. Therefore picture material which would fall naturally into a square shape is difficult to frame. Cropping the 35mm format to square format can mean sacrificing some 30% of the negative area, leading to a fall in image quality, especially when enlarged. However, cropped to 35mm proportions, a 6x6cm negative is still 57 x 38mm, twice the area of a 35mm negative.


Creating Better Photographs - Part 3 Composition
Written by Derek Christy
Created / Updated on Saturday 19th of March 2011

Composition - Part 1

A definition: " Composition is the selection and arrangement of elements within the picture area ".

Traditionally this has implied a set of "rules" which can be stated thus":

  • A picture must have a strong centre of interest.

  • Avoid placing the centre of interest in the centre of the picture area; it is better to place the centre of interest at or very near the intersection of a "third" (the 'rule of thirds'). Avoid subject moving or facing out of picture.

Rule of Thirds
Offset main centre of interest
  • Angle of view. Select a point of view that shows the subject to best advantage - a high angle or low angle can make a subject more interesting.

  • Backgrounds. Take care - keep them simple. Watch out for trees, power poles, chimneys and the like that can seem to 'grow' out of a subject's head!

  • Foregrounds. The foreground can help or hinder a composition: in a landscape rocks, trees, people etc. can help to frame a picture and add interest to it. However, be careful when using wide angle lenses - they can produce large areas of uninteresting foreground.

  • Leading lines should run into a picture - NEVER out. Leading lines produced by roads, rivers, railway lines etc. can lead the eye into a picture to meet the centre of interest. They are stronger moving diagonally from left to right.

Diagonal Leading Lines
  • Timing. Photograph at the peak of the action.

  • Move in close!

  • Keep pictures simple. Reduce the number of elements in the picture Eliminate clutter.

But remember - these "rules" were valid from about 1500 to 1850 and come from painting (which has largely abandoned them), and reflects the concerns of artists of the period in which they were formulated. Treat them not as rules but as guidelines, particularly if you are a beginning photographer. Soon you will learn when the "rules" can be disregarded in order to produce a "good" photograph.

Remember too, that you are attempting to convey something or other (feelings, mood, outrage etc) in your image, and adherence to the rules may inhibit you from doing this.

Good reference: "Practical Composition in Photography" - Axel Bruck (Focal Press 1982 ISBN 0-240-51060-7).

Composition - Part 2

Everyone knows that you can use telephoto lenses to photograph distant objects, animals or people. Without these lenses we would have been spared neat shots of celebrities in the nude, but we would not have pictures of dangerous or shy animals. On the other hand it is well known that wide-angle lenses can be used to take pictures in restricted spatial circumstances. Tourist agencies, for example, need them to show mere holes of hotel rooms as palatial apartments.

These practical considerations do not come into creative photography at all. The reason for this is that each lens of a given focal length renders spatial relationships between the objects depicted which is quite specific to it and different from the effects provided by lenses of other focal lengths.

This is what makes them so valuable for composition and is the reason why we should understand completely the influence of interchangeable lenses on the appearance of our photographs.

Most people start their photographic life with what is generally called a "standard" lens with "normal" focal length. This lens is not called "standard" or "normal" because most cameras are equipped with it, but because it produces an image which comes closer to what we see with our eyes, than the image produced by any other lens.

Now although this statement seems quite true and is a well-known platitude of the photographic literature, it is more wrong than right because it is based on the assumption that the camera and the eye are very similar. Mechanically or physically this may be true: both have a lens, an iris and a plane on which the image is projected. But here the similarities end. This is because composition (and indeed the whole of photography) draws its impact from the dissimilarities between camera and eye.

This needs explaining.

The camera produces photographic images, if necessary, automatically and without human interference. The eye cannot "see" by itself - we see, using our eyes. This means that seeing is a process which involves not only our eyes but also our cerebral system and has nothing to do with the production of photographic images.

Here are some of the important differences. You will see that these differences each indicate one of the compositional possibilities of photography:

  • The photographic process produces a two-dimensional image. We "see" (experience) the world in the spatial perception. (The transformation of space into planes gives a first means for composing a picture).

  • The spatial effect of photographic images can be changed (for example by the use of lenses of different focal lengths). The perception of space depends on seeing with two eyes and on eye- and body-movement. The perspective effect of the perception of space is unchangeable. (That is why changes of this kind work especially strongly in composition).

  • The photographic image has a clearly defined distribution of sharpness and unsharpness (This can be influenced by the choice of lenses and other factors, thus giving us an additional means of composition). In seeing, the field of perception is scanned in steps with changing sharpness, partly conscious, partly controlled by our interest and the situation.

  • The photographic image is "total" or "complete" in that everything which can be shown with the given technical means will be contained in the final image. In contrast to this, human perception works "selectively". It is subjective and we do not necessarily "perceive" everything that we "see".

Although this comparison could be continued, this should be enough to show that the photographic process (and its results) are entirely different from human perception. The photographic image never shows us "a true image of reality" or anything of the kind - at best it contains our interpretation of it, "filtered" and changed by the composition.


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