Formats and creative intent

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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.

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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.

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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:

format tradeoffs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. Hi Ming
    I thought it a bit odd that you chose worse to better as the relative performance (y scale) on your diagram, as compared to say less- more. There are many people with a gear-head mentality that will not agree that less depth of field is worse.
    I would agree that less/shallow depth of field is more often worse than better, however that is because I have seen too many photos of ‘bokeh’, rather than something interesting, complete with some nonsense description about looking pro.

    If I take a photo that gives a first impression of ‘technically good or impressive’ at screen res, it usually means I have failed to communicate any intent or visual interest.

  2. “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?”

    Do you think this is one reason why GAS is so prevalent? People trying to cover all the bases even if they don’t really “need” it. Perhaps thinking, if I have this, it will make me more content and feel better about their ability to cover all sorts of situations! Or alternatively it is just a material purchase to make them feel better….I’d guess a bit of both. BTW I’m not referring to professional photographers who make their living from their tools.

  3. El Aura says:

    I think you are being a bit too strict here in regard to changing aspect ratios in post. An extreme example would be a movie: you have the director, the director of photography and further down the editor. Now they are not changing aspect ratios (only very rarely) but might shift a crop off-centre and do a lot of other things. Ideally, the director has single vision and everybody is following it very closely but in reality, even just the visual side is the result of one person starting something and then handing some of it off to other people.

    In short, I reserve the right to be my own editor and consider the collaboration between me the capture framer and me the editor as a fruitful endeavour and not let the editor role of mine be constrained by the deficiencies by me the photographer. 😉

    • In cinematography they’re also in full control of the set, so you can reposition the props to fill the holes…that doesn’t usually work in real life 🙂

    • I agree with both Ming and El Aura.
      Ming, you are surely correct in that you can (usually) only get the best image if you “do it right” from the start: a working composition is undoubtedly a big part of that. If you start weak, then it is highly unlikely that you end up strong. And what is the point of photography anyway, if you don’t make the best picture you can when you are doing the actual photography?

      On the other hand, what El Aura says is also true. There may be instances when you do not need that perfect picture you think you took at the point of shooting, but a different, specific one. The video editing example is correct, I believe. My fiancée, who is a TV editor, certainly confirms it.
      I had a similar situation recently when I put together a photo book of a short holiday. I had taken a number of images I was happy with, they had pretty consistent style and looked good overall. I had taken care to compose diligently and I believe that I mostly succeeded. Heeding your advice, I now crop very little and my images have improved. However, the book was supposed to be a visual narrative of the trip and the situations portrayed. The format of the book is fixed and the narrative pretty much fixed as well.
      I had taken a landscape oriented 3:2 shot (of a vineyard) that I was quite happy with. The narrative for that section was about wine, so I wanted it to start with a field, then show the production process, then the end result – a bit like your Sushi project, expect of course not as great.
      Now there just was no way I could fit the landscape-oriented image on the portrait-oriented page. So I made a square crop, changing the composition pretty drastically. And it works.
      What I needed for the finished presentation of the series was a square or portrait-oriented image of the subject. At the time of shooting, landscape-orientation seemed the suitable choice for the scene. How could I have known that I would need something else in the end? I couldn’t have.
      I feel that this situation is different from “saving the image”. I consider prints or books the end result of shooting and so I wear a double hat: I am the photographer and the editor. And the editor might need things that the photographer cannot anticipate.
      Sure, these situations remain the exception: I can and do shoot multiple versions of a subject and I can shift images around in the process of creating a book. Yet sometimes, I need and image for a specific place that I don’t have and then I will crop and change the original compositions if I feel that the resulting image can still give what I need.
      Considering the alternative, I think that it is not a bad way to do it. It seems a bit silly to me to scrap an entire section of a book just because one image needs to be cropped.

      I don’t really feel that I have failed as a photographer in that situation but rather that I have given my best as an editor. 99% of the book from my example have profited greatly from not cropping and sticking to your advice. The other 1% has benefitted from ignoring that advice.

      • Oh, and sorry to sidetrack the discussion here: I realize that this is not the article about cropping. But El Auras comment made me think…
        On the topic of sensor sizes, I think that your observations are right on the money again.
        It’s interesting that you haven’t indicated where the typical sensor sizes would be in your graph. Is it so that everyone can see their system right where they think the curves look best? 😉 I feel that 35mm should be about 2/3 of the way towards “larger”, right where the shooting envelope starts going downhill. Would you agree?
        Cheers and thank you for yet another great piece of photographic writing.

        • That’s because changing technology moves where ‘typical’ sits – that plateau might have been APS-C say five to eight years ago; it’s FF now, it might well be 44x33mm in another few years…

      • Photography itself is an art of contradictions and exceptions: images that stand out do so precisely because they are not the same as others…

  4. I’m still green enough that it’s hard for me to visualize in anything but 3:2, and I’m guilty of cropping-to-success all too often. Good thing is I know I have those issues and I’m actively working on them – US great plains sunsets should be excellent cases to use other aspect ratios.

    As for the different sensor sizes – what a useful graph! I keep thinking FF is where I should want to go (marketing at its most sucessfull) but then I remember how much fun an a6000 + D7100 are, and I realize FF for me is silly, at least until I can use its benefits.

    I’m curious to see Ming Thein photography using Hassy on a running toddler 🙂 . My a6000 has enough trouble keeping my 19 month old’s face in focus when he’s in the yard running, I can’t imagine using any less effective powerful system. Even the well-regarded DfD system in the GX8 was helpless in the face of a motivated child.

    • Manual focus is actually easier – you just trap focus at a certain distance and time the release when the subject passes it.

  5. If you drew the same graph for film photography, would it be different?

    • Yes, because the threshold for ‘good enough by today’s expectations’ lies with much larger film formats, and image quality is directly/linearly proportional to film area – we don’t have the same inequalities in the pace of development of technology due to market economics…

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Off topic, I’m afraid.

    Your nr.2 photo.
    I find it interesting, that *this* size of angles of the images (in the upper part of the photo where the lines are strong) of horizontal lines at right angles to each other is very common in good architectural photography as well as in paintings with architectural content.

    • I think it’s because our eyes don’t normally have a ‘reference’ line like a frame edge – so it’s not obvious if it’s off; and our ears provide balance/horizon cues otherwise. Levelling the horizon is generally more important than the verticals, so long as the verticals ‘add up’ to straight…

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    That graphic says it all.

    Almost no camera reviews (with only a few exceptions including yours) say more than these graphs say!

    Thanks for another of your excellent articles, with very apt illustrations (as usual).

    • Pleasure! 🙂

    • Kristian,

      Actually, the graphs only express in general terms what could be expected by what we already know, or could infer, from different sensor sizes. Other than this, they don’t tell us much. There is no value for either the x or y axis, and the parameters indicated by the graph lines, where relevant, are all subject to ISO values and aperture settings, sensor resolution and/or pixel pitch, and the only things that can be measured are actual resolved resolution, noise, dynamic range and depth of field. The practical tests would have to be done at every aperture and ISO setting. The rest are subjective as there are no accepted objective measurements for overall image quality, practical shooting envelope or portability. Is it any wonder why camera testers simply don’t have the time?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        But the test values have a sense only in comparing to other cameras, so values on the axis are uninteresting except a a reference.

        “.. what we already know, or could infer, from different sensor sizes ..”
        And even those few sites doing a more thorough analysis seldom say more than that, as variations in sensor quality doesn’t seem to be so large as a few years ago.

        Except to report when they have a lemon in hand, or an example of a new sensor development .
        And – occasionally – LENS performance in compacts and other fixed lens cameras.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    But I seldom see precise frames (before grabbing the camera) when I shoot.

    Yes, the intention should be there from the start.
    And yes, a variable aspect ratio in the viewfinder is a good idea.

    I grew up the other way around.
    First with a small optical viewfinder with uncertain borders (but good rangefinder) and a fixed lens on square format.

    So I had to frame with margins and clean them up and trim (or crop) to the aspect ratio the motif asked for under the enlarger, and often crop for lack of a longer lens (6×6 being large enough).
    A bit similar with my SLR (bought for easier close-ups), as the screen was too cluttered with focus aids to allow me to judge the composition well enough.

    ( I have often done “manslaughter” and “murder two” – and “murder one” when experimenting, as a way of learning.)

    So for a long time my shooting was in two stages, seeing-capturing and saving the (precise) framing till post – and I came to hate the length (24 or 36) of films and often preferred my 6×6 (12 frames).

    With my present DILC I can quickly switch to a completely clean screen which finally allows me to compose in the screen loupe (at least when the aspect ratio fits).

    [ >> WHY isn’t the camera info displayed OUTSIDE the imaging part of the screen? <<]

    But I find that I still mostly *see* (i.e. before grabbing the camera) in the same way, i.e. a motif with a more or less approximate frame, even though I now can frame at least one dimension precisely in the camera – if it is a still.

  9. As always, great to read your reflections!

    I think the article is not clear one issue which is associated with a lot of confusion. Depth of field and sensor size correlation is an outcome of speed of lenses supplied by manufacturers for particular sensor size, a practical issue. This correlation is not an outcome of law of physics. There are just few very fast lenses for smaller sensors and very slow lenses for larger sensors. Exceptions in the first category are some existing, manual focus, f/1 lenses for MFT or 1.8 zoom from Sigma for APS-S. Their depth of field is the same as f/2 or f/2.8 lenses for full frame respectively. I think few people know or remember that f stop needs to be corrected by the crop factor before it is compared across sensor sizes.

    Regarding the practical issue of why supply of lenses is such that larger sensors offer smaller depth of field, I think it’s one or both of the following. First, smaller sensors offer lower quality and more convenience, value offered by larger, faster lenses to customers using these smaller sensors would be less that to users of larger sensors. Second, I lens manufacturers are benefit from customers believing they are getting very fast and very compact lenses for relatively low prices. Introducing f/2 or faster full frame equivalent lenses for smaller sensors and educating consumers about crop factor correction could result in some consumers valuing current f/2 or faster lenses (not FF equivalent) less, being less willing to pay for them, or even less willing to buy them and associated camera systems. Just a note, I am not saying it’s a conspiracy :), I am saying it may be manufacturers offer what people want and don’t invest in educating them.

    • That wasn’t the aim of the article at all…

    • Per Ming, this article doesn’t attempt to approach the topic you’re bringing up. Which is just as well, because it’s making some common, but IMO misguided, assumptions.

      Assumption #1: Shallower depth of field is what you pay for. Lenses are much more than their aperture measurements. And still, a wide aperture is worth more than a bit of bokeh. It’s faster shutter speeds and lower ISO, and usually means you can stop down for optimal image quality without strangling out too much light. It is true that faster lenses cost more, but it’s the complexity and cost of the glass, not the shallowness of the DOF, that adds to the expense.

      Assumption #2: Shallower depth of field is better. It really depends on what you’re photographing. More often than not, I’d prefer to have more DOF than less. And while that’s going to vary by photographer preference, style, and subject, I do think shallow depth of field is often used as a shortcut to photos that look quote-unquote “professional,” which is why it’s valued so highly among camera gear fetishists.

  10. Brett Patching says:

    Good article Ming! Your graph is an excellent, concrete way to shift the discussion of cameras over to that of a tool, so that the focus is on intent. You haven’t touched so much on the style of an aspect ratio here, but I know you have in the past, i.e. something wide (16:9) makes you think of cinema; black & white in square aspect ratio reminds me of the 60’s.

    • Thank you. I think what you’re thinking of is largely influenced by the use of those formats dominant in popular culture/ media of the time…

      • Brett Patching says:

        Yes, I agree. But isn’t it important to be aware of this as you try to understand your audience and the way they’re most likely to read your image(s)?

        • Yes and no; I’ve always found the tricky part to be balancing one’s own creative integrity with not losing the audience. Chicken and egg, I suppose – you want the right audience for your work, and you can’t shoot somebody else’s expectations.

  11. Ming, from your graph it appears that M4/3 is the format that gives the best compromise of all factors and therefore is perhaps the best tool for non-specialist photography.

    • I actually think it is for most people, but if you want ultimate image quality…no. 🙂

    • Give me another stop of ISO, DR like my a6000, and better moving AF (toddlers in room light aren’t easy subjects!) and I’d be right there with you. I love the tiny lenses I’ve used when I’ve rented MFT cameras, and the longer depth of field even versus my APS-C main cameras has been helpful too. Too bad the only camera with PDAF is the EM1. I didn’t get along with DfD in the GX8.

  12. Said AZIZI says:

    Excellently written article. A joy to read !

  13. Ian Moore says:

    FYI – just read interesting book on 18C artists , including Geoffrey Kneller who ‘invented’ the 36″ x 28″ portrait format , christened the ‘Kit Kat’ format after the club members portrayed in the pictures – so it’s a 9:7 format, close to the 3:2 format we know so well…the artist claimed it allowed the sitter to be placed more ‘forward’ in the picture , and was usually a half to three-quarter image , seated, including hands….the resulting portraits are striking, handsome images……

  14. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I love your graph, Ming – and even more so, I love the night shot in Venice.
    Great article – comprehensive discussion, sensible, practical, helpful, and should assist many readers in selecting their gear.
    On the subject of the recording format, I was thinking only recently that it would be VERY helpful if manufacturers included an easily accessible option to “choose your own”. While it may not change what the sensor can record, it would frequently be of great assistance in composing the shot.
    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge, experience and wisdom.

    • Thank you – yes, I agree with you: Canon implements this the best; the finder masks off different formats (on my 5DSR, everything from 3:2 to 5:4 to square and 16:9 and APS-H and APS-C) but only tags the crop so you still have the option of changing or adjusting it afterwards. Nikon doesn’t save anything outside the crop area.

      • Terry B says:

        Sorry to disagree, Ming, :D), but Canon does not implement it the best, IMO. Panasonic has long championed direct access to format changes in its range of Lumix small compacts by the simple expedient of a little switch on the lens. From the earliest models one can select 16:9, 3:2, and 4:3. A later firmware update added 1:1 before this was physically incorporated into the switch. But the big beauty of these cameras is the fact that they maintain the FoV of the focal length set, relative to the format chosen.

        Love image #1.

        • True about the switch – but the whole image area isn’t preserved, so you can’t change your mind later or adjust the edges…

          • Ah, but you can, Ming. Both the LX3 and LX7 can be set to capture all formats at once with one shutter button press via a setting in the menu. I’ve owned all the little Lumix models, except the LX5, and whilst my memory now about the LX1 and LX2 is vague on whether they had this capability, my 3 and 7(currently owned model) certainly could. In fact, I nearly always shoot this way, except when I know I shall need RAW capture which can only handle one ratio at a time. The multi shot feature is jpeg only.

            • I don’t believe they ever recorded the whole sensor area, though – I tried and don’t remember seeing it, but it was some time ago…

              • That would have been difficult as they used a circular sensor. :D) But I believe you are missing the point, Ming. The LX could shoot, and capture all aspect ratios simultaneously with the same focal length for each. Setting the lens to 24mm equivalent, for example, it provided the same effective focal length for each aspect ratio, so no conventional cropping of a 4:3 or 3:2 sensor that leads to longer effective focal lengths when cropping these aspect ratio sensors down to 16:9 or 3:2.

                • I understand that – but I like to use the whole sensor 🙂

                  • Terry B says:

                    Ming, that’s one way, but that means you shoot in 3:2 and then crop to whatever you want. Aren’t you “murdering” your own corner that you set out here? Two disadvantages with this, 1) you lose a fair number of pixels if you later crop, more in total than would be lost using the Panasonic approach providing identical aspect ratios are being compared, and 2) wide angle lenses aren’t as wide. Whether this matters or not, is down to the subject and if one doesn’t mind losing the wide end of that expensive lens one has purchased. With the LX7 the lens is fixed so I am unable to go wider than effectively 24mm, but this is a “true” 24mm view of the world. Now one can get over the FoV issue by using a lens wider than 24mm, say 21mm, to counter the loss of FoV, but there is no way one can avoid the loss of pixels by image cropping in post processing and no matter what lens one uses, it won’t afford its native field of view.

                    We are not comparing actual sensor sizes or pixel count, but we can be sure the Canon will produce a higher quality image. No, this discussion is how both achieve the respective aspect ratios. The Panasonic can capture them natively, and the Canon can’t, if I’ve understood your comment on the Canon. It shoots always in 3:2 ratio, although you say it tags the crops. It seems what you like about the Canon is that its viewfinder can act like a Leica M, for example, where, say, using a 90mm lens on an M3 leaves the whole view visible but displaying the frame marks for the lens.

                    Thinking about it, this could be where your new Hasselblad could score. Its sensor is much larger than FF, and assuming appropriate adapters become available for it, you may be able to use you 35mm optics in crop sensor mode, and still achieve native FoV and even allowing for the loss of pixels, given the 50mp to start with, you would still end up with a lot of pixels to play with. :D)

                    • No, again it’s a question of visualisation – there is also something arbitrary out sticking to a particular FL/FOV/aspect ratio combination. If the composition works at 26mm 16:9 diagonal vs 24mm 3:2 diagonal, does it matter?

                      And yes, I’ve been experimenting a bit with the 2.6:1 Xpan crop of late… 😉

        • Ming is right, from my experience the whole image area isn’t preserved on Lumix cameras (GX7). Olympus does this right (M5 MKII), you can change aspect ratio while preserving the whole image area for post processing (simply click on the crop tool in ACR and the whole area will be revealed).

          • Rosario,

            I am not familiar with the M5 MkII, but the GX7 is a poor choice in this discussion. It uses a 4/3rds sensor, so whilst it offers 16:9, 3:2, 4:3 and 1:1 aspect ratios, these are merely crops so they impact on the effective focal length of any lens attached and WHATEVER that lens is, you can’t record more of the scene on the horizontal plane than the number of pixels, in this case 4,592. And, of course, as you point out, if you select an aspect ratio other than 4:3 it will only capture the cropped image, you have no full image to fall back on. As far as I am aware, but would be pleased to be corrected, this is how all other, none dslr, cameras work with aspect ratios. From what Ming has said, his Canon provides framing for 16:9 to assist with the picture taking, but other than tagging this image to allow instant recall in software, the Canon does nothing more than shoot a normal full frame 3:2 image.

            Ming hasn’t elaborated on what the Nikon does, I assume it must provide some form of frame guides for 16:9 shooting, but does it then only record the cropped image in a conventional way? If this is so, then the Canon is the better of the two. But then I raise the question again, when confronted with the proposition that one has the original full image to fall back on, why not simply shoot full image in the first place and crop in software? One can do this with every camera available. So what is really ground-breaking by what the Canon does? And I still stand by my guns and say none implement it, aspect ratio shooting, as well as the Lumix LX range, especially from the LX3 onwards, and which maintains the lens focal length whichever is chosen. With these latter models it is a red herring to say that they do not preserve the whole image for post processing, as though one was comparing them to the Canon. If one is being pedantic, no they don’t, but considering they are marketed as 10mp cameras, and the unique way they capture images, I would ask you to contemplate this:

            16:9 3968 x 2232 pixels at 9 meg
            3:2 3776 x 2520 pixels at 9.5 meg
            4:3 3648 x 2736 pixels at 10 meg
            1:1 2736 x 2736 pixels at 7.5 meg

            Clearly the sensor height is 2736 pixels max, but is capable of 3968 pixels in width, although not at the same time, as it has to maintain a constant diagonal for the lens.

            The difference in shooting 16:9 as opposed to 3:2 is only 0.5 meg, or 5.1%. Now with my FF A7, which will permanently crop in 16:9 mode, the loss is 4 meg, 1/6th of the available pixels, or nearly 17%, which will be so for the Canon image in software, and I will have lost some of the wide angle capability of my lens to boot, not really something beneficial if one really wants to take advantage of the 16:9 format. At the sensor resolution used in 4/3rds mode, were I to crop this as per normal, you will readily see I’d lose out more, and I’d end up with the ever present loss of wide angle focal length into the bargain. Because of the way the LX3, 5 and 7 models capture images, they do get much closer to the ideal capture tool for multi-format shooting (albeit the system isn’t perfect) in that lens focal length is maintained, images get wider with aspect ratio (which is better, surely, than a simple crop) and with negligible loss of pixels compared to any other camera.

  15. Horses for courses as is often said. I have the luxury of being able to shoot regularly with three different different formats and own enough gear to know that it is not my primary limitation. Shooting in different formats is a lot like owning different vehicles. There are days when I need to haul lots of equipment or people, others when compact and efficient are appreciated, and others where I am need to head out with a fun toy. Know what tool to use when seems to be the key, and knowing how to use an inappropriate tool when that is all that is at hand also helps. I do sometimes wonder if we would focus a bit more on our intentions if the upgrade cycles (and subsequent advertisements) of hardware were fewer and further between. Less noise, more signal so to speak.


    • Bingo – though I do find that cameras which at least show some indication of different aspect ratios (either by gridlines or complete masking) to be very useful in both tightening composition and encouraging experimentation…

      • One of the appealing aspects to me about the X1D is the optional 1:1 and xpan ratios – any feedback you have on using those options in future posts on that camera would be greatly appreciated!


  1. […] via Formats and creative intent — Ming Thein | Photographer […]

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