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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Experiments with street photography and motion

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This series of images was captured around dusk in Shinjuku, Tokyo during my last workshop. While my students were off completing their final assignment, I decided to challenge myself to capture the feel and essence of the place in a different way to what I would have normally done. (After all, it wouldn’t be fair for me to put my students outside their comfort zone by insisting on the importance of having a central idea or theme in their images for their assignment if I couldn’t delivery myself, would it?)

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At the same time, I’d felt as though I’d been reaching a little creative stagnation of late, and wanted to force myself to do something different anyway. Having your own style is good, but at the same time, that style has to evolve and grow in order not to get stale or boring. One of the things I’d been doing a lot of lately is jacking my shutter speeds up very high to ensure I was getting every last pixel of resolution out of the new cameras; whilst this made for great definition under the majority of circumstances, this crispness of capture doesn’t always suit the theme you’re trying to shoot to.

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The idea I decided to follow for this series was flow – people as water, life as transient, a moment being more than a moment and altogether insufficient to capture the sheer volume of activity of what was going on around me. It’s a very strong impression I got simply by standing in place and watching life moving around me – people simply didn’t stop, torpedoing from location to location with some objective in mind, dispatching that objective, then moving on to the next one. (I’m guilty of this at times too; it’s a consequence of running your own business. Perhaps this experiment was as close to my subconscious was going to get to forcing me to slow down and smell the roses.)

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The only two ways I could see of communicating this idea were either to have a huge number of people lining streets and thoroughfares to appear as a continuous mass (there were a lot of people, but not that many, and moreover there was no way or achieving that vantage point) or through the use of motion blur – not a little bit, of the kind that appears at 1/30s and with people walking, but something altogether a bit more abstract. In hindsight, this would have been very easy to accomplish with a tripod, but without it, I didn’t have the foresight to pack one in – much less bring one on the day. Even a mini-pod or a Gorillapod would have been useful.

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Instead, I was forced to test the stabilizer of the OM-D to its limits – even with something to brace against (And sometimes not), I’d be needing shutter speeds in the 1/2s-1/5s range to achieve the effects I was looking for. Needless to say, you can only do this when the sun is going down. To give me a higher chance of success, I used the 12/2 for most of these shots, and shot in continuous high burst mode – not for the frame rate, but because I’d be able to keep my finger on the shutter button to minimize camera shake, and have only short intervals between frames. When I had to shoot using the LCD instead of the EVF, I would pull the neck strap tight to tension the camera somewhat against my neck and hopefully reduce shake – this technique is actually surprisingly effective. In hindsight, I should have used the self timer + burst function to completely eliminate finger-induced shake.

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One of the things with this kind of photography is that you really don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until you get it; there may not be enough motion, or too much, or you might have streaks in the wrong part of the frame; all you can do is do a lot of takes until you get the right one.

Compositionally, the most important thing to remember when involving motion in your shot is that there must always be some clearly static and sharp object in the frame to serve as a visual anchor for your composition; if this is missing, the photograph just appears to be blurred or out of focus without the same directionality and focus that is implied by motion blur. In fact, having a large number of people moving through the frame is somewhat reminiscent of the energy of strong, dynamic brush strokes in a painting. I like the idea of abstracting out the people from the scene, and the contrast between the animate and inanimate. For these images, I chose the visual anchor first, then followed it by imagining where I’d want my flows of people to go; needless to say, there were a lot that didn’t work out because I didn’t have enough people moving close to the camera – a foreground is of course a necessity of using a wide-angle lens.

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I did use the 45/1.8 for some of the images, but this proved to be extremely challenging as the lower practical limit for handholding a 90mm equivalent was somewhere in the 1/10s range on the OM-D, which is fractionally higher than what I needed for the desired effect. Still, I did manage to get lucky a couple of times with both very stable shots and convenient things to lean against. I also tried some more and less conventional techniques – panning blur, and combining staticness with abrupt motion of the entire camera to impose an impression of chaos whilst maintaining some semblance of a visual anchor. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results though. Notes for a future experiment: I’d love to try this with a tripod and a longer lens. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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