Tag: seeing

Some thoughts on cropping…

Rock and Light VII

Late last year, there was a rather protracted exchange on a photography forum regarding sensor/film aspect ratio and cropping. A couple of photographers were quite adamant in defending the point of view that the aspect ratio of the camera is sacrosanct and that all photographs should conform to the sensor proportions and not be cropped. So, if you have a 2:3 sensor (most APS and all full-frame sensors) then all your photographs must be printed or presented at 2:3 (e.g. 12″x18″ prints or 1200x800pixels on screen) and never be cropped. Perhaps most confounding was that they also felt that if one was to crop anything from the photograph, it would be regarded as a “failure” to properly compose in the first place. Needless to say, not everyone agreed.

Now, I understand completely where they were coming from – image quality is maximized when the whole sensor/film frame is utlised. What was surprising to me, however, was the vehemence expressed in the posts in support of the no-cropping point of view.

Baraka and his extended family

Being a small-sensor user, I know first-hand the importance of making best use of the sensor to maintain image quality. What’s the sense of cropping on-screen or in the darkroom if all I needed to do in the first place was move closer to my subject? This “fill-the-frame” concept has been around for almost as long as photography and became particularly important with the adoption of the Leica Standard in 1932. Small-frame 35mm film now had to compete with medium and large-format cameras which were the standards of the day and had much larger film surfaces which meant much higher image quality. To maximize the quality from a 35mm frame, the photographer had to make maximum use of it without cropping. This notion developed a near cult-following with photojournalists and street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson leading the way. To prove they did not crop, they went as far as filing away the edges of negative carriers to allow the edges of the film to show in the prints.

Basically, supporters of this notion have carried forward Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (and others’) technique by making it their own. One can’t quibble with personal choice of style. However, is it right to impose that style on other photographers as “the only way”? Shouldn’t photographers be free to make their own decisions about style without having one imposed on them? And, while 20/20 hindsight is wonderful, to call cropping evidence of a failure to compose properly in the first place seems misplaced to the point of verbal bullying.

Precise composition in the field is essential. It’s part of the art of seeing. However, does the world fit nicely and neatly into a 2×3 rectangle? Or a 6×7 rectangle? How about 6×6 or 4×5 or 4:3? It can, if one forces the issue, but should photographers be tied to a rectangle with proportions determined by engineers and camera manufacturers?

Approaching Front, Winter

I have a sensor that is 4036 x 3024 pixels in dimensions: a 4:3 ratio. However, I recognize that some compositions “work” better as a square, a 1:1 ratio. Other scenes benefit from being closer to a 16:9 ratio or even 2:1, letterbox style. I’m not going to ignore a scene I visualise as a square format just because I’m carrying a rectangle! I shoot it with my rectangular sensor and crop to what I originally saw: a square. However, when doing so, I maintain image quality by carefully composing to make best use of the width of the sensor. For most of the images I choose to crop, I do so because that’s the way I saw it in the field. I made the exposure knowing that the scene before me doesn’t fit the format I’m using.

I suppose I could force each and every composition into the 4:3 rectangle of my camera, but, to me, that seems wrong. My goal as a photographer is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” not to force nature into the proportions of a pre-determined rectangle. While making that forced composition is, in itself, an excellent exercise in seeing, it shouldn’t dictate every photograph one makes.

From my perspective, the bottom line is this: if one is pursuing photography as a visual art, a creative outlet for self-expression, then one should not be constrained either by the legacy of previous photographers or by the technical absolutes imposed by sensor or film proportions. Art, in itself, is a vehicle for free-thinking, not a recipe book for re-creating what others are already doing or have done. “Rules” such as, “compose for the aspect ratio of the viewfinder” and “never crop” (or, for that matter, the “rule of thirds”) were created to guide us, in particular those who are developing their talents and style; they are not meant to be absolutes.

Pushing Yourself – Visually

This past Saturday morning I led my Landscape Photography class on a morning field session down in the hamilton Beach area. We started off right under the Skyway Bridge at the canal leading from Burlington Bay to Lake Ontario – not the prettiest place at the best of times and this was October 30th: grey skies with the temperature at about 3°C, and few leaves left on the few trees in the area which was mostly aged cement and steel.

“Why are we here?” was the first and often-repeated question.

I believe that if you want to stretch your vision, you must work in visually challenging places. Once you have the technique down, it is relatively easy to make great landscapes in beautiful places. But are they visually dynamic images? Perhaps, if you have learned to create visually dynamic images. That only happens when you have truly challenged yourself.

What do I mean by “visually dynamic images”. These are images that visually “pop”. Images that show a different perspective, a different way of seeing. Images that make use of visual elements in the landscape and portray them in a creative way.

You can do all this in pretty places, but often we don’t because we are not forced to. There are plenty of beautiful photos that you can take just by standing there. Visually dynamic images often require a different perspective, a perspective that we may not consider if we are busy capturing the obvious.

I try to get photographers to think in terms of good, better and best. In a beautiful place, you can take good to better photos without working very hard, but what about the best photos – they are the ones that require a new and different perspective.

Going to a location that is visually challenging to begin with forces you to go beyond the obvious because the obvious is not very photogenic. Consider it a “sketching” outing: you may not come away with a photo contest winner, but what you are doing is exercising your brain, forcing it to see beyond the obvious. I tell my students that this is the practice that allows you to hone your visual skills so that when you get to that grand location, your images will be well beyond the snapshots everyone else is taking.

While I generally prefer to photograph alone, in this case it helps to go in a group so that you can feed off the different ideas and perspectives that others think of.

So, find a nearby location that is not visually stimulating and see what you come up with. Try going back more than once at different times of day and throughout the seasons.After a couple of years of this I will bet that you have more than few images worthy of showing.

Father’s Day 2010

As I lay here on my lounge enjoying a lovely Father’s Day, I couldn’t not think of photography – so here’s the view from where I’m lying.

It’s important to be constantly on the look-out for images – at least that’s the way my brain works. Even when I don’t have a camera handy I am assessing scenes and views for their photographic potential – Where would I stand/crouch/lie for this image? What lens would I use. What compensation would I need given the lighting situation? Does this feel like a black-and-white image? What leading lines do I have to work with?

It’s the seeing of photographs in the oddest of places with questions like these that become the mental exercise of creating photos that leads to more critical thinking that soon becomes second nature – and that’s where you want to be.

My View on Father's Day

“…a wonderful story.”

This is Part Two of a blog I started yesterday (It is the final image…that counts) based on a quote by Tom Millea (p13 of Photo Technique magazine):

It is the final image standing alone that counts.
How we go there is simply a wonderful story.
— Tom Millea, Photographic Artist

It’s his second sentence that opens the way for all the photographic techno-literature that we spend many pleasurable hours reading. Unfortunately, that means excruciatingly little of the photographic literature deals with the final image. It’s all about “how we go there”. Yet, both are part of “the journey”.

This is not a bad thing entirely. For many “it’s the journey that counts, not the final destination” and photographers seem to have taken this thought to an extreme with respect to equipment. Is there another art form out there that has as many websites, blogs and magazines dedicated to pixel peeping? No, although those making crafts may come close. And, certainly, as hobbyists, our fishing friends, computer geeks car enthusiasts and gamers have perhaps as much, if not more written about equipment than photographers. To be fair, though, I think it speaks to photography’s popularity as a hobby – a popularity that seems to be growing with digital photography. It may be more like fishing or golf than”art” (however one wishes to define it), but it is popular and with every new photographer there is a learning curve that needs to be met.

Let’s face it, talking about the journey (equipment and mechanical/chemical processes) sells ad space. There is a carrot for talking about equipment ad infinitum; there is no similar carrot for discussions of technique. I’ve even noticed that there is very little discussion of photographic approach, method or “seeing”. Equipment aside, much of the “technique” discussions revolve around pushing buttons (for the digital camera user), film and paper combinations, ink and paper combinations, darkroom chemistry combinations, etc. These, too, are helpful discussions for those learning the craft and all of us are always learning.

But where’s the discussion of approach, vision, mindset, creative process and, beyond publication and earning money, motivation?It’s an area of discussion that is far more nebulous. In lacking the concrete it is far more difficult for that average person to “get into” and it doesn’t sell equipment. But from my perspective, that’s where I would like to see the discussion of photography go.

In this latest issue, Photo Technique has done an admirable job of continuing this discussion with a few quite different portfolios. However, another magazine photographers should be looking at is LensWork. It is devoted entirely to looking at images and learning about the motivation behind those images. And, the photographs are all reproduced in beautiful duotone black-and-white.

It is this part of the journey that we, as photographers, need to explore further. Why do we photograph? What is it that catches our eye and captivates our imagination? What motivates us to point the camera in one direction and not another; to portray our subject with wideangle rather than telephoto? Stay tuned…