Some experiments in 2.4:1 widescreen

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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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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.


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