The term ‘format’ has come to represent two things in photographic parlance – firstly, the aspect ratio of the capture area or composition (e.g. 3:2, square, 16:9) and also the physical size of the recording medium (compact, APS-C, M4/3, ‘full frame’ etc.) – to the point that we have somewhat generic terms like ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’. How medium is medium? Is that 44×33, or 6x9cm? How large is large – 4×5″, or 20×24″? Capture medium choices are more of a continuum than anything, and all other things being equal, to see a significant difference a good rule of thumb is that you’re going to have to double the linear dimensions – i.e. 4x overall area. But what does all of this have to do with the actual making of images, and is it possible that larger isn’t necessarily better for some things? Absolutely.
Let’s deal first with aspect ratio, because this is independent of recording medium size and actually the simpler of the two definitions to contend with. Personally, I think the aspect ratio should be fluid. Whilst I tend to stick to fairly established ratios such as sensor native, square or 16:9 because I find it easier to previsualize or clients request certain sizes, for my own work, I actually try to respect the shape of the subject. This means that if my overall composition only fits within something slightly wider than a square, I won’t try to find something to stretch it to 4:3 to fill my sensor, or force it down to a perfect 1:1. Why should we? So long as the final intended composition is clear at the time of capture, I don’t see any compositional or visualisation penalties in changing aspect ratio in post. Just remember that the shape of the subject isn’t necessary determined by a single element: a standing person may not necessarily be only a thin vertical if you include their shadow, too. That L shape made by the person and shadow then needs to be balanced out by something inside the L, or sufficient space to the non-shadow side to avoid one side overbalancing the other.
Unfortunately, most hardware seems to make it rather difficult to change aspect ratios on the fly, or buries the option deep inside a menu. Why would we want this? Simply because until you do it enough, it’s tricky to previsualize where a square or 16:9’s boundaries might lie in a 3:2 finder. In fact, digital is – and should be – quite forgiving simply because we can always record the entire sensor area anyway, then just append the desired aspect ratio crop to the metadata for interpretation later in Photoshop.
We are now treading into dangerous territory. This sounds rather a lot like cropping, doesn’t it? (And yes, remember there’s a difference between trimming and cropping, too.) I believe the difference is intent:
- Murder one (post-capture cropping): You are hunting for a composition in a frame whose purpose and edges were not well defined at time of capture; it is in effect trying to ‘save’ the image. You knew it was probably wrong to take the shot because you don’t know how the composition would work, but you did it anyway. Off to the chair.
- Murder two (pre-capture cropping): You had no choice because the composition was there, but you didn’t have a lens that was long enough OR the native aspect ratio of your camera simply didn’t fit the subject. But you do know exactly what you wanted to include, and not. You had to take the shot, and it would have worked as you intended it to. No death penalty for you.
- Manslaughter, self defense and accidental death (trimming): Mea culpa, Your Honour. I didn’t see him coming at the edges because my finder only shows 95%, and I composed in good faith but had to axe him later.
Moral of the story: get the intention right.
This takes us neatly to the second part of the article: hardware formats. We have sufficiency (for most intents and purposes) at pretty much every sensor size from 1/2.3″ onwards. This means, for typical output – web and screen viewing, moderate prints – the limitation isn’t going to be the hardware; providing the user is careful about how they use it, camera limitations aren’t going to be the first thing the audience notices. The days of badly clipped highlights, odd colours and missed focus are mostly passed. Even though technological advancements are mostly level across the different sensor sizes and pixel pitches, the rest of the ecosystem around the sensor means that the choices and tradeoffs aren’t quite as simple as they seem. Since smaller sensors are generally deployed in compacts and smartphones, and very large ones only in professional tools, taking all things into account, it’s quite easy to make an assessment like the following:
And this is before we consider other things like system completeness, lens quality, AF tracking ability, ergonomics, reliability etc. Actually, I think the biggest tradeoff is that we must remember both ends of the curve are really an exercise in diminishing returns: smaller formats don’t necessarily mean significantly smaller hardware because there are limits to how small a screen is comfortable to view and the size of buttons our hands can handle; larger formats don’t mean dramatically better image quality all the time. I certainly don’t think there’s much point in having something at every point along the continuum, though. If you want, can afford and can deploy the difference, then it probably makes sense to divide your hardware by practical deployment and physical size: something pocketable, something that fits into a small bag when volume or weight is at a premium but you still want something a bit more flexible, and then something for when you get serious and bring the whole cow. In each category, pick whatever works best ergonomically and offers the best performance.
But what if your needs are a bit more specific?
That’s the tough part. I actually think there are good situations in which you use different bits of hardware. You have to put blinkers on, and be objective: if you want to have everything in focus, then smaller formats are the way to go. If you always want some depth of field separation, no matter how fast your lens, a small format camera is never going to be as good as a larger one: these are limitations of physics. More specifically, I find that there are certain styles or genres of photography that are better suited to different formats – street/documentary/reportage and painterly photography both tend to work better with smaller formats, but for very different reasons.
Reportage work favours small sensors to a certain extent because of the favourable tradeoff between size, stealth, effective light gathering ability vs depth of field and sensor low light performance; too small though and you can’t work in more interesting light. Painterly photography doesn’t matter so much because you want everything in focus, a somewhat postercolor palette is desirable, and you don’t really need extended dynamic range anyway: it’s fine to see black in a painting; after all, that’s very much the entire gestalt of chiaroscuro. High ISO performance is academic because that’s what tripods are for. Cinematic work favours larger formats; you need to have some separation between different planes in the frame to control the perceived level of participation of the audience. The problem is that most hardware tends to be smaller format, which means using very long lenses to compensate for this, and this in turn limits your camera placements because of the physical distances required.
One could always take the corollary argument that by doing something out of convention, a different result can be achieved – large format for documentary work, for instance – this is true, but be prepared to deal with the associated challenges and a lot of missed images as a result. The same goes for chasing diminishing returns: moving up a size does increase ultimate image quality potential, but that’s assuming that deployment requirements are the same (e.g. minimum shutter speeds) and the rest of the system stays constant (AF ability, lens performance etc.). You may well find that there is no improvement at all, or worse, effectively a step backwards. The images in this article were chosen specifically because they are examples of where the format (and aspect ratio) matched the artistic intent and subject matter. As the photographer, you know where this was the case because you know a) you ‘got’ the shot at the time of capture, and b) it’s not the hardware that’s holding you back or frustrating you. Is medium format the ultimate in image quality? Yes, but not for every situation. And recognising when to use what is important, too. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing first – execution follows intention. There is probably a ‘right size’ for your both your intended visual impact and output medium – are you using it? MT
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