Some experiments in 2.4:1 widescreen

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Rain

Before I launch into another lengthy and text heavy (but necessary) article, I’d like to take an interlude to remember why this site exists, and why we bother with cameras at all: it’s about the making of images.

Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with even wider aspect ratios than the usual 3:2 or 16:9 cinematic; I feel like I’ve got composition down pat for those two already. But what about going wider, and even more cinematic – say 2.4:1? This extremely skinny format presents a few challenges – compositionally, it only suits scenes with some depth and layering; otherwise the majority of the frame is just going to look empty. Technically, not many lenses have the required edge performance especially if you’re going to maximize subject isolation by bringing shallow depth of field into play, which means shooting wide open or close to it. And since you’re throwing away about half of a 3:2 frame, you’ve better have a decent number of pixels to start off with. Even from a display point of view, there’s going to be a serious amount of letterboxing which means not a lot of detail rendered.

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Crossings

It’s definitely an aspect ratio that works better on a larger display; an image that looks great across the whole width of my 27″ Thunderbolt Display looks rubbish on my 11″ Air. Our eyes might be next to each other, but we only consciously see this much perhiperal vision when it occupies most of the field of view in front of us – making us less aware of the limited vertical height. (To be honest, I’m not convinced that this blog is the best medium for display – horizontal images are limited to just 800px wide, which is probably about the same size as an XPAN negative on most monitors. Scrolling is just impractical and silly.)

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Rain II

Compositionally, it’s a challenge. A huge challenge. Mainly because for some odd reason I tend think of 2.4:1 as extremely cinematic, and cinema has shallow depth of field and mostly telephoto rendering; yet it’s the separation here that draws our attention to the motion and drama on screen. In a static image, this kind of perspective looks extremely boring: there simply isn’t enough depth rendered in a single frame to hold the viewer’s attention for very long. Moreover, I kept running into the problem of overestimating the vertical space available, resulting in cuts to anatomy or very small people – the solution to this of course being cut, but just be careful where you cut – that’s what happens in every single cinema frame. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the top of somebody’s head in a tight shot.)

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Hiding from the world

I’m now convinced that the answer is counterintuitive: you need to go even wider. I suspect that this aspect ratio would work wonderfully at 21mm, where if you’re not careful floor and sky can turn into vast desert expanses; however, the rendering of the central portion of the frame would be perfect. Forget what you know about perspective: the lack of proportion vertically means that frames render as a much longer focal length than they actually are; about 1.5-2x, I’d say. Crossings, for example, was shot at 120mm but feels a lot more like 200mm. Presumably, this has something to do with the horizontal field of view being very close to the diagonal field of view, instead of maintaining the usual relationship we see in a more square-shaped frame. One other thing I noticed was that if you composed for action in one portion of the frame, the rest became boring; there was too much context or empty space. I began to treat the single long frame as multiple small ones, and this resulted in much more interesting compositions.

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Destruction is the price of progress

In any case, it’s proved to be an interesting experiment; I’ll probably use it in busy compositions that have plenty of natural depth; these kinds of scenes lend themselves well to wider compositions. Somehow I can’t see myself using it for portraiture, though. MT

Images in this series were shot with a Nikon D800E, 85/1.8 G and 24-120/4 VR lenses.

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Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!

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Comments

  1. great pics. hard to believe that are crops, it feels as if there’re shot like that in the first place!

  2. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    Great post. I agree with going as wide 12 possible. The first thing I thought when I started reading was that this is something I should try with my Olympus 12/2.

    I also have to wonder why, in this day of 1920 & wider monitors, with high speed internet, we’re limited to web sites designed for 1024 or 1200 px wide.

    • Dynamic resizing isn’t so easy to code, unfortunately. And an image that’s optimized for say 1000px wide is going to look different to one optimized for 1900px wide – you’d need to have a few different file sizes, with different output sharpening, which would be a bit of a pain to engineer. The more practical reason is that not all of us are on super high speed Internet…my connection is decidedly third-world.

  3. Swiss photographer Michael Von Graffenried has specialized in this format using a Widelux camera (also Hasselblad XPan). These are very strong images. Have a look at this video to learn more about his photos and his philosophy :

    This gives some good clues about this format.

  4. Very interesting observations. Format proportions have really strong incidences on pictures and the way we (should) make them.

  5. Just take a look at koudelka work. Is just amazing what you can achive just becarefull to shoot incluso pictures that will not look Google ON a regular format. Othereise just play ir simple

    Greg

    • Sorry, I think something must be lost in translation or autocorrect…Koudelka did do some amazing stuff, but what did you mean by the bit about google and regular format?

  6. Good article – well written.
    I use to have a Hasselblad XPan i wide mode and love it. I think your 2.4-1 is close to ITS Pan-format.
    IMO thats a great format.

    • Thanks – I used a friend’s XPan briefly; it was disorientating, and the central-only rangefinder a bit limiting for fast work, but certainly interesting…perhaps worthy of a revisit.

  7. Corneliu Petrescu says:

    Very interesting post. It really got me thinking. I have noticed that maybe, patterns can be effective in wide format too. Like here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/76781530@N03/8362201488/sizes/c/in/photostream/

  8. If you have live view, did you ever thing of cutting out a matte out of heavy paper or cardboard and holding it against the LCD? I like to shoot a lot of square and I took some leftover black matte board and cut a square hole to approximate it the screen on one of my DSLRs. When I knew I was going to want to crop something square, I used it as a rough guide to block a scene. It helped. I would just hold it up to get a rough idea to see if things would work, then I would just stick it in my pocket and proceed with the shooting. I’ve used gaffer tape too on the LCD plastic cover LOL.

    NIce images here – you did well and have a good vision for the wide. Me, not so much.

    • Nope, but that’s not a bad idea – you could also just use a couple of pieces of electrical tape. I generally try to visualize the frame – I’m pretty good with 16:9, but 2.4:1 takes some work.

      You’re looking at the ones that worked, not the ones that didn’t – a lot worked in 16:9 because I think subconsciously I defaulted to that aspect ratio…

      • One f my favorites is 2:5:1 like the old Widelux. I look for awhile at getting a Widelux 7 but they rode a new wave of popularity for awhile since a famous movie actor was using one and the prices skyrocketed. In some cases the cameras were not so good with sticking problems on the swing lens mechanism. I got over the need to have it and moved on to other things. I was thinking of getting the 8mm Rokinin for APS C sensor and then just using the tape on the LCD cover to get the framing. The Rokinon comes the closest to that Widelux look that I like.

  9. I think it’s brilliant. As a viewer, I can’t just look at the photo – I have to engage with it, hunt around, find the different aspects of the subject.

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  1. [...] Before I launch into another lengthy and text heavy (but necessary) article, I’d like to take an interlude to remember why this site exists, and why we bother with cameras at all: it’s about the making of images.  [...]

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