THE CREATION OF A SINGLE PHOTOGRAPH is the result of a series of decisions about organizing the raw materials or elements at our disposal. These decisions are the grammar of our expression, the way we move the words around to say something in a unique way. Even when the light is beyond our control or the moment happens so quickly we barely have time to react, it is our choice and that’s what gives it the potential to be art. Art, my friend Jeffrey Chapman says, must have something of the artist within. That something is the series of choices we make in what we say and how we say it. We decide what to include and exclude, we decide which moment to capture from which angle, and with which settings and optics. Ultimately, when an image succeeds it is to our credit, whether or not we feel it was made entirely through dumb luck.
When an image fails, it is we who must take the responsibility. “But,” I hear the voices protesting, “the light just didn’t cooperate, there was no room to move forward or to the side, and the moment just never happened!” Fair enough, but it is we who still insist on making the photograph. If the elements don’t line up, it is still we who choose to make, or not make, the image. If we decide to make it and it fails to line up with our intent, it’s not the elements or the constraints that held us back that are to blame. Recognizing the role of our decisions in stringing together the words of our craft leads us to greater mindfulness, and that mindfulness leads us to photographs that are increasingly in line with our intention. If we’re still in agreement that a successful photograph is one that best expresses our intent, then this approach gets us closer to creating those photographs.
When I speak with my students about a photograph, one of the things I ask them for is as complete a description of that photograph as possible. That includes consideration or description of the frame itself, and although students roll their eyes at its obviousness, it’s important. The decisions we make about the way we use that frame are not mere details; this is the moment, before the painting begins, when the painter chooses his canvas and sets it on the easel. The frame is the stage on which we tell our story. If it’s in the frame it matters and means something; if it is not in the frame, it doesn’t exist. More than just the thing that holds the content of our photograph together, the frame is a part of the photograph itself and defines how the story is told. The crop, orientation, and aspect ratio of that frame determines how the story is read.
What’s in the frame—and what’s out—is important to the implications of this photograph, notably the absence of the face of the woman. What her anonymity says in the presence of these elder men—as though her sole purpose is to serve them or stand silently by—is directly implied by the way her face is cropped from the frame.
Our choice of crop—the things we allow within the frame—tells the reader, by excluding all else, “Look here.” It says, “I could have included other things, gone wider, turned to the left, but I didn’t. I photographed this exact scene.” This is where photography begins, pulling life from its context and presenting it in vignettes and memorable moments by pointing with greater specificity. It creates new implied relationships and pulls the eye to new details by excluding all else. It’s for this reason that objects partly in and partly out of the frame are jarring to us. They don’t seem to belong either to the world of the frame or the world outside the frame. This isn’t about right and wrong; the permeability of the frame can be used to great effect. What’s important is simply to be aware of the frame. Implying a world beyond the frame can lead us to be more aware of the photograph itself, or to question what we do not see just outside the frame. But it must be done judiciously, and with intent. Readers seldom forgive or are engaged by sloppy storytelling.
The direction of the frame, whether vertical or horizontal, determines the direction in which the image is read. The way the image is read will either reinforce what you want to say with your photograph or it will work against you.
Orientation of the frame tells the reader, “The story takes place this way.” We look at vertical images differently—up to down—from how we look at horizontal images—left to right. If your goal is to create a photograph that says what you want to say, and also does so for the reader, then beginning with the right orientation matters. When the story is better told vertically, a horizontal orientation of the frame diminishes the impact of the photograph, or even prevents the story from being told completely. Everything matters, and making a photograph is not unlike making a painting. You start by putting your canvas on the easel in the way that makes the most sense, not merely because “that’s the way you were holding the camera at the time” or “to fit more stuff in the frame.”
The horizontal frame is often a better storytelling orientation because life, for most of us, happens this way. We relate horizontally, move horizontally, and get our stories horizontally in the most prominent storytelling medium of our time, the movie. But when the story happens vertically—whether that’s a rock climber scaling a long tall ridge or a man looking at a plane in the sky—the vertical frame will emphasize that by directing the eye of the reader.
My friend Dave Delnea hates the 2:3 aspect ratio of the normal 35mm frame. Drives him crazy—especially when oriented vertically. He loves 4:5 and a square crop. They suit his vision and style much more. Frankly, the 2:3 aspect ratio is a hard frame to use, and the more my own voice evolves, the more space I find for alternate crops, which has pushed me to begin exploring the 4:5 ratio much more. Sometimes choosing an aspect ratio is something we do in the camera—sometimes we’ll choose a camera based entirely on the aspect ratio—and other times it’s something we do with the conscious intention of cropping to a more appropriate aspect ratio later in the darkroom. But it always matters, because it determines how the image is read.
I made these two photographs seconds apart on the waters of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. The horizontal frame was my first sketch image, but as I played around with the forms in the frame it was the vertical orientation that worked best for me. It forced me to change the relationship of the shapes to each other, allowing me to make the cliff on the left much larger and looming while also forcing me to include less of the landmass on the right, diminishing it in relative size. No amount of horizontal framing would have allowed me to achieve a composition with this same scale and the resulting sense of looming. The frame itself forces relationships on us, and we read the photographs differently.
Whereas the orientation of the frame tells readers which way the story flows, the aspect ratio tells them, in a sense, how powerfully it flows in that direction. The square frame says that the vertical world within the frame is as important as the horizontal world, and the reader’s eye will move differently within that frame than it will in another. A 16:9 horizontal frame will flow strongly from left to right, creating a powerful wide feeling with little sense of height. Turn that same frame vertically and use it to photograph a towering redwood tree, and the photograph will be read straight up and down with little to none of the horizontal world included, which implies its absence. The same tree photographed in a 1:1 square or 4:5 would not create the same towering feeling. The orientation of the frame is part of this, but how towering that tree feels is in part due to the aspect ratio of the frame.
This photograph was shot at 4:5 (A) and cropped afterward to both 1:1 (B) and 2:3 (C). Forget how much these aspect ratios allow into the frame—that can always be changed by moving around as you compose the image—but look instead at how the proportions of the frame change the weight of the elements and their balance and relationships within the frame. A good place to begin that study is with the appearance of the horizon and elements between the horizon and the top of the frame. Look, for example, at how the mountains and sky change in prominence as you move from 1:1 to 2:3. Subtle differences in this image, yes, but each implies something the other doesn’t.
Second to how we read a frame in terms of its length is the proportions within the frame. The choice of a 4:5 aspect ratio over 2:3 allows us to frame elements with more width, and although this seems obvious, it’s important to remember that this increased width will completely change the relationships in the frame, and therefore change the meaning of the photograph. A 4:5 ratio, for example, will allow an S-curve within a photograph that winds its way deeper into a vertically framed image, along a wider diagonal, than a vertical 2:3 ratio will allow. If you have an interest in further exploring aspect ratios, I can think of no better resource than my friend Bruce Percy’s excellent ebook on the subject, which you can find at www.brucepercy.co.uk/. Bruce discusses some of the challenges of aspect ratio and its effect on the form and meaning of our photographs. For now, in this book my purpose in briefly discussing it is to make you aware of the fact that aspect ratio is a choice—not merely something you must use because of 35mm convention—and that choice affects the way the image is read.
Being mindful of the way in which we want the image to be read, and therefore experienced, will help guide our decisions about the kind of frame we use.