Repost: Aspect ratios and compositional theory

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Round plate in a square frame. The composition is ostensibly balanced, but a little randomization is created by the uneven lighting. Leica D-Lux 5

Today’s article is a repost of a classic from two years ago (has it really been that long?) I bring it up again on the back of an interesting offline discussion I’ve been having with one of my email school students. How many people think about the relationship between idea, subject, composition and the final presentation format before hitting the shutter? The missing link is usually the last one – and almost always results in a necessary compromise in composition. But, there are ways to fill the empty space, as you shall see…

Aspect ratio: image width/ image height, with the long dimension first.

There are six common aspect ratios for cameras today (and as many as you like if you use the crop tool, but that’s another subject for another day):

1:1 – Square format, traditionally the realm of 6x6cm Hasselblads, and now popularized by various mobile apps.

5:4 – Large format and sheet film cameras, mainly 8×10″.

4:3 – Broadcast television and video used this aspect ratio, originally in 640×480 pixel resolution; small sensor cameras and compacts (which inherited early video CCD architecture) have been using this aspect ratio ever since. Four Thirds and Micro Four thirds are the larger consumer formats to use it; in medium format there’s also 645 which has the same aspect ratio for both film and digital.

3:2 – Double a movie frame; famously invented when Oscar Barnack rotated the film through 90 degrees and doubled the width of the frame to create the 24x36mm ‘full frame’ 35mm camera format. Almost all larger sensored DSLRs use this today.

16:9 – HDTV format; not a native aspect ratio for digital still cameras, but useful to provide a more cinematic feel to an image.

2.35/2.40:1 – Motion picture widescreen for feature films; very rarely used for still photography, and there are certainly no dedicated digital still cameras that offer exclusively this format. Not only is it extremely wide, if you’re cropping down from a 4:3 sensor you’re throwing away more than half of your image.

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16:9 and cinematic. Note how the whole subject isn’t necessary for you to identify it. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

Most modern cameras offer different image sizes in-camera, though all they really do is crop the top and bottom or sides. There are a few digital cameras that have sensors bigger than the lens’ image circle, which allow the diagonal angle of view for a given focal length to be maintained when changing crop; the main one of these is the Panasonic LX series of cameras. Put one of these on a tripod, slide the aspect ratio switch on the lens barrel and you’ll notice that the horizontal field of view gets wider than the 4:3 option, even though this is the native aspect ratio of the sensor. (It also means that you don’t suffer as much of a resolution decrease as you’d expect when changing aspect ratios). There is no point in shooting in another aspect ratio if all the camera does is throw away the extra pixels; you’re better off capturing as much information as you can at the time of shooting and then deciding later what crop would work best (assuming, of course, that you didn’t compose correctly at the time.)

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Filling the frame – native 4:3 of the Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, uncropped. 45/1.8

Now that’s out of the way, the aim of this article is to focus on understanding the compositional impact of different aspect ratios, and more importantly, how to pick the right aspect ratio for a given subject.

There are two ways to go about this – either you shoot only one aspect ratio (for instance 3:2 because you have a digital SLR) and arrange the contents of your frame around it, or you keep an open mind and match the aspect ratio to respect the subject and the dynamic of your composition. For instance, you might use a 1:1 square for a round object if you want a balanced frame, or you might use 16:9 and just focus on one curve if you want to highlight a particular detail in a cinematic manner – you never see movie shots showing the whole of Earth, for instance; it’s always a hemisphere with the sun rising in just the right place. This is not a coincidence!

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(Nearly) symmetric, but visually balanced. The two are not the same thing. Leica M9-P

Most people will stick to the aspect ratio that is native to the camera, and either do nothing else, or crop to fit later. This is compositionally very, very sloppy – not only do you not get the best frame for the shape of your subject, there’s a very good chance that you probably won’t be able to fill the frame properly, either; 3:2 is a bit of a compromise aspect ratio that lacks the organic intimacy of 5:4 or 4:3 for portraits, or the drama of 16:9 for more expansive scenes.

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Symmetry. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G

If you crop to fit the subject exactly, then chances are you’ll probably also land up with a very boring frame – this time, because the composition is too balanced. It seems counterintuitive, but the reality is that such compositions tend to use the space around the subject as a frame, and nothing else; there is no context, secondary subjects or points of interest added.

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Balanced, but not at all symmetric.

Don’t despair too much if this situation seems a bit damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The good news is that the one obvious remaining strategy usually works the best if done correctly: learn to fill your frame. For the most part, this is how I operate unless I know the final output (usually client work) is going to be of an certain aspect ratio, or if the scene itself just cries out for a certain shape.

What does filling the frame entail? Well, for one, you should be able to identify your subject – that’s composition 101. The remaining space should be filled with elements that either echo your subject, strengthen the story, or give the subject context. But in no way should they distract the eye from the primary subject. And each smaller element should be placed in the remaining space in a balanced manner.

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The leading space of anticipation. Depth of field control and lighting make it clear what’s part of the foreground/ subject, and what’s part of the background and is context.

Here’s a visual example, using dots to represent compositional elements. The big red circle is the subject. The lighter color/ lower saturation dots are the secondary, tertiary and other filler.

First we place the main subject; where exactly in the frame is up to you, but in general, you leave leading space in front of the subject’s orientation if you want to create expectation (i.e. if a person is in profile, then put most of the space in front of their nose); trailing space if you want to create urgency or drama; or alternatively, let the supporting background elements dictate where to put the primary subject. For this example, let’s just pick an arbitrary starting location – all dots look pretty much the same. I’m going to pick 3:2 as our example aspect ratio.

3-2 composition example primary

Now the secondaries – put them in the white space, with balanced space around them to create both an isolating/ highlighting frame, and a buffer zone between them and the main subject so they don’t get confused or overlapped:

3-2 composition example secondary

And the same for the tertiaries.

3-2 composition example tertiary

The other filler rests wherever it rests, but just make sure that distracting elements – say a huge point highlight like the sun, in this case, the blue dot – don’t go in distracting places.

3-2 composition example fluff

There – a balanced composition. There isn’t any odd empty space that doesn’t have an equivalent mirror along a given horizontal or vertical (or for that matter, any other orientation) axis. Let’s try this again for 1:1 and the same size original subject:

1-1 compositional example complete

And finally, 16:9:

16-9 compositional example complete

Notice how for the 16:9 example I didn’t show the whole subject; you don’t always need to. Just so long as you can identify what the subject is, you’ll be fine. In fact, it’s quite easy to imagine this particular frame as say a sunrise over the edge of earth (using our previous example) with a fleet of spaceships in the foreground…
(Oops, I’m getting carried away. Perhaps I should take up modern art, or perhaps designing colorblindness tests.)

More seriously there’s a secondary subject intersecting the main subject – does it matter? Only if the intersection causes some perceived division of either, e.g. a horizontal line running through somebody’s head would tend to suggest decapitation to a view, and consequently looks rather odd for a portrait. However, there are also examples where such intersections or juxtapositions can create interesting images in their own right.

Notice how each composition is balanced, but you still instantly know what the main subject is.

Want to make this exercise more realistic? Okay, let’s go back to 3:2 and do one for wide angle, with emphasized perspectives and huge relative size differences in dots:

3-2 wideangle

And another one for telephoto, with the foreground and background dots blurred to replicate shallow depth of field:

3-2 telephoto

Once again, notice how your eye is still drawn to the main subject in each composition. Of course, real life isn’t quite this easy; subjects aren’t dots, the white spaces aren’t always uniformly white, and most of all, you almost never have any control over where to put anything else except your main subject; most of the time it’s about waiting for the secondaries to move, or you moving (for immobile subjects) to get the vantage point that works. The only time you have full control is when you’re shooting still life in a studio.

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Note how the empty space serves to highlight the (highlighted) subject. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

One interesting thing I’d like to bring up at this point is our very restricted use of verticals – almost always, verticals are in more square aspect ratios; 3:2 is about the slimmest vertical aspect ratio you see. You almost never see 16:9 or anything wider; my theory is that it’s both to do with how our eyes natively see, and how content is presented. Since human eyes are horizontally tandem, we tend to see in a wider horizontal field than vertical; a tall image forces our eyes to scan up and down its length, which means that such images are difficult to compose because they must be broken into zones with complimentary transitions for the composition to work. (The same is not true for horizontals, because we can take in the image at a glance and instantly recognize the surrounding areas as context.)

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The secondary subject reinforcing the primary, empty space creates anticipation. Nikon D700, AFS 28-300VR

Making things worse, almost all displays are geared towards this ergonomic trend – as makes sense – when was the last time you saw a vertical monitor? Furthermore, we get subconscious reinforcement through other means that horizontal is the way to go: most cameras only have one grip, and even those that have two make shooting landscapes much easier than portraits; even after we shoot, when we view the images on a monitor, the verticals take up about a third of the space, but the horizontals nearly the entire area – obviously, the larger ones look better, so we tend not to be as influenced by the vertical images…

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We needed to have at least one vertical in here. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar

However, with practice, you’ll learn to see this way – and with more practice, you’ll learn to see this in the instant you identify what you want to have as your main subject; along with lighting, focus, exposure etc. Fortunately, visual pattern recognition is something that human brains are very good at, even for things that have zero fixed quantitative parameters. For example, we know something is a dog even if it’s in a different orientation, different size, a line drawing or a photograph, or a stylized graphic silhouette. Try programming a computer to do this, and you’ll soon realize both how impossible a task quantifying the distinguishing parameters of a dog is, and what an amazing piece of hardware our brains are. (If you disagree, what marks the difference between a wolf and a dog? Or a dog and a cat? Or a dog and a cow? They’re all four-legged with tails and pointy ears.)

Once again, it comes down to practice. The more you shoot and the more images your brain sees, the faster it becomes at picking out compositions in a live scene that work against ones that don’t. I know that isn’t a concrete answer, but shouldn’t you be out shooting now? 🙂 MT

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Comments

  1. I like to create square format images, but shoot natively in-camera, while keeping in mind the vertical framing of the subject. Then, in post, I can carefully crop horizontally to complete the 1:1 image. This gives me much more time to carefully consider the composition than what I’d have shooting 1:1 in-camera, especially fast-moving subjects.

  2. A great essay on a topic few photographers really understand. I often wonder why the DSLR has not morphed to a more square aspect ratio than 3:2, but now wonder if in our wide screen world it is better than 4×5 or whatever. Sometimes I shoot my 3:2 camera with a view to cropping later, or I set it for the 4×5 mode and get more manageable files without the softer corners lenses like my 70-300 produces.

  3. I typically compose at the time of making the photo if possible and most often use a 1:1 ratio. I just like it best as I prefer the harmony.

  4. Off topic but I thought the first image was taken with a medium format due to its IQ. A quick search revealed a CCD sensor.

  5. Martin Fritter says:

    I hope it’s ok for me to make a some further comments on this. I find my self thinking about your posts for days.

    1. The finder. Curious about your opinion on various choices. I quite like the frame lines on the Leica viewfinders. You know, being able to see outside the image frame. I also like being able to frame with both eyes open. WLF on Rolleiflex or Hasselblad because the reversed image makes one look anew. The traditional SLR finder is the worst, I think – it’s like looking through a tube. What is your experience with and opinion of EVF? It seems like a well designed one could give a tremendous range of visualization options. The one’s that I’ve seen seem horrid.

    2. Ergonomic and hpatic issues in the act of composition?

    • “The one’s that I’ve seen seem horrid.”
      Try Olympus OM-D E-M1, E-M10 and E-M2 MkII, they are terrific! 🙂

    • I like a good EVF because it’s easier to focus with and also precisely maximise latitude by using the exposure zebras plus compensation in small fractions of a stop; you can’t do this without iterations for an SLR and that might cost you the moment…

      • Martin Fritter says:

        sorry to be pesty (I’m old, so there’s that), but an example of a good EVF, please? I know you’re unhappy with the viewfinder of the D800e for manual focusing – as in Thom Hogan – and have in fact modified it.

        • I’d say the E-M1 and X-T1 are both pretty good. The D810 + Zacuto is not bad. An iPhone 6+ is actually very fluid because the screen is both huge and high resolution compared to normal LCDs and EVFs.

          • Does the the D810 + Zacuto solution work handheld?

            • For me yes, but with a caveat. First, I’m using a Kinotehnik LCDVF4N so that I can use the LCD magnifier without removing my RRS L-plate. The Zacuto uses a big plate attached to the tripod mount, or there is a stick-on frame that blocks too much of the LCD screen.

              The Kino’s metal frame replaces Nikon’s plastic screen protector and mounts in the same body tabs, and the magnifier attaches to the frame magnetically and self-aligns. The Kino also shows you most of the LCD screen. It’s very handy for me as I have the magnifier on a lanyard around my neck, and it’s easy to attach the magnifier and bring the camera up to my eye quickly.

              Anyway, the caveat is that the D810’s display jellos, and when used with non-stabilized long-lenses, like the 180/4, makes precise focusing very difficult because of the magnified hand shake and resulting jelloing. It’s definitely possible, but annoying and slow. 180 was at the limits of my skill and patience. 135 is doable, and the 70-200/4 with VR turned on is very easy, though the AF on that lens on my D810 is pretty much perfect.

              The battery drain when you shoot with liveview on all the time is pretty severe. I get somewhere between 200-300 shots on the standard battery. I haven’t measured it yet with AAs in the MB-D12 battery grip.

              But as a way of working, I love it. I have frames for my GR and DP3M too and use an LCD magnifier on them.

              • Andre -it uses the existing protector mounts? I need one, pronto. This clip on/screw off base thing is driving me nuts.

                Why would you use the 70-200/4 VR with LV handheld though?

                • Yes, it uses the existing protector mounts. I always have my L-plate on, which helps retain the mount. I haven’t used it extensively without the L-plate to see how well it hangs onto the body.

                  If you remember, Ciao had some kind of quality issue with his, but I don’t remember what. Mine has been perfect so far. I also use a protection film on the LCD screen since the frame doesn’t have a cover anymore.

                  Good question about the 70-200. I’m still paranoid about focus, so I always zoom in 1:1 to check the focus after AF. It’s stupid, but that’s what I do. If I do run-and-gun, I’ll stick to the OVF probably.

              • Thanks Andre. I have seen a few folks using the on trails etc… Sounds like a good choice on the Ricoh GR as well…

            • Absolutely. Very, very well in fact.

        • Olympus: E-M1, E-M10 and E-M5 MkII. Tried also Fuji X-T1 once or twice, but I have used for many months only the Olympus ones.

          • In stores the EVFs can look really bad because of the artificial light… Sounds like you have used them outside though. The Fuji XT1 is really nice. In particular with the rule of thirds grid and EVF level (not that I like rule of thirds 🙂 ). They really put a lot of thought into it. And if you shoot raw but select B&W for jpeg and even 1:1 crop etc. It all shows up properly in the viewfinder. And the view finders are all 100%. I wish EVF were an option on Nikon DSLRs….

            • “In stores the EVFs can look really bad because of the artificial light… ”
              Yes, unfortunately the flourescent lights can worse the view. In real life, tough, they are VERY good.

  6. Very interesting and toughtful post. And please forgive me for a little bit of nitpicking 🙂
    “Four Thirds and Micro Four thirds are the larger consumer formats to use it”
    There is no thing as a “micro 4/3 format”, the term refers to the newer lens mount to differentiate it from the mount used on the older Olympus E1, E3 etc… The sensor format is still 4/3.

  7. for a beginner there is quite bunch of things to grasp still it deserves a high plause! I hope to learn just half of it

  8. stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Wonder why nobody as I know. makes a high quality anamorphic attachment for stills. It would give an instant Hasselblad XPan to ones camera with interesting aesthetics. It`s in fact two stitched left-right shifts.
    Of course, there`re some for film cameras making most most of 4:3 format, you name it: Zeiss, Hawk, Cooke- expensive like hell too.

  9. The adoption of 16:9 by phone makers means that a lot of people have a 16:9 vertical display in their pocket now. A lot of news reading, Facebook viewing, etc. is now done holding the phone in a vertical position. This should make for more of an audience for 16:9 vertical images than there was a few years back.

  10. Eddie Hawe says:

    Have you thought of doing an instructional photography book? There is definitely a lot of food for thought here. Perhaps even something similar to Zack Arias book “Photography Q & A.” Or perhaps this might even be suitable to release in ebook format.

  11. Whenever I read this article, I think you wrote it for me! Thank you!

  12. Martin Fritter says:

    Exemplary piece of technical writing and presentation. Quite remarkable.

  13. A couple of remarks.

    The idea of a “subject” as a thing to be placed in the frame seems to be unique to photographers. We’re pointing the camera at something that has caught our attention, and we think of that as The Subject, and everything else is stuff to be managed. This is bad. The subject should be the entire frame, which needs to be managed holistically. It’s a subtle change in thinking, but I think it is vital.

    Secondly, balance is indeed important, but it extends well past the management of things in the frame. The things in the frame, sure, but also tone, also color. All things can be in balance, or not.

    Thirdly, balance is not a universal virtue. It is merely a property. An appealing, soothing, pleasant-to-look-at frame will usually exhibit balance (and “breadth” and “variety” and “unity” and some other, generally considered less important, things). A deliberate unbalance can be a powerful tool, however. As can monotony, disunity, and so on.

    • To a large extent I agree, but it’s also important to be aware that these are simplifications brought on by a) limitations of language and b) making this understandable to the audience in terms they are familiar with…

  14. Lucy March says:

    Glad to see this article (and its wonderful images) reappear, Ming. As someone new to photography, I do love the aspect ratio switch on the LX7 and the way it facillitates using the frame that suits the compostitional elements of a scene.

  15. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a preference for a square format. And I do try to compose in camera for that ratio (subject permitting of course). Your points on being more deliberate on all aspect ratios depending on the subject is well taken. Experience and shot discipline, as you demonstrate, are key.

  16. Homo_erectus says:

    I love your site for the articles like this, Ming. Thanks.

  17. Very informative. Personally I’m a bit stuck in using the 3:2 aspect ratio and I see now that I have to expand a bit. Try different things.

  18. When was the last time you saw a vertical monitor? When was the last time you read a horizontal letter, or a horizontal magazine or newspaper? Reading your article on my screen, I notice the white open space left to the text and images. Information is more easily ingested when it comes in a familiar, culturally preprogrammed format ?

  19. Interesting stuff, as always. I just wish I had a camera that would let me compose in the viewfinder to 5 x 7. I find myself frequently cropping to that in post; it’s the most pleasing ratio to my eye, at least in the horizontal. I know, it’s close enough to 2:3 that I shouldn’t care, but I do. (If circumstances were different, I would dearly love a 5″ by 7″ view camera, and simply contact print them. I’ve never understood why that ratio is so little used; glad that Lightroom at least has a preset for it.

  20. Wonderful article.There is wealth of info here and I will have to bookmark it to go over it multiple times… and you make it look so simple with your pictures. 🙂

  21. Thanks Ming! I am fairly sure I have read this article at least 10 times and now 11. 🙂 Very helpful in understanding balance and composition. Glad that you came out with Making outstanding images EP-2 also as it helps a lot.

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