Beyond the Rectangle; There’s More to Photography than the 3:2 Ratio

This article was first published in the fall of 2010 in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine. Support a great photo magazine and get a subscription!

Beyond the Rectangle

When we think of a photograph, we envision a rectangular image. We capture our photographic vision constrained in rectangular frames with an aspect ratio of 3:2 (dSLR’s) or 4:3 (point-n-shoots). It’s a rare photographer that strays from the rectangle. Even the few photographers who use square format cameras most often crop their images after the fact to present the final work as a rectangle.

Scientists have determined that humans’ natural view of the world is a horizontal oval and as such a horizontal rectangular frame best approximates our world view. No wonder the vast majority of images are composed in horizontal format —  this is naturally the way we see the world.

The point of this article is simple: if you want to shake things up with your photographs, one of the easiest things to do is stay away from the everyday horizontal rectangle.

©Samanatha Chrysanthou - Flow Lake Trail, Kootenay NP

The image above shows the standard 3:2 format of most dSLR cameras.

Vertical Rectangles

Vertical images are less natural and less comfortable for us to view than are horizontal images. A vertical rectangle just by orientation creates visual tension so subjects that work with this tension will make the vertical photo all the more powerful. Most people prefer vertical images that are not too elongated; for example, the 4:3 ratio of the point-n-shoot or medium format camera better lends itself to vertical presentation than does the 3:2 format of 35mm. To really make a vertical image from a 35mm camera sing compositionally, you either need a naturally occurring vertical subject (human figure, trees, or tall buildings) or you need to have strong elements of design that take your eye through the picture space in a dynamic fashion.

For example in the photo below, the gravel path and the handrail create a line leading down the lake and to the large spruce tree on the left. The sense of movement in this image is amplified by the vertical rectangle which lends a powerful resonance to this photo.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Johnson Lake, Banff NP

Squares

The square is one of the most difficult formats to successfully make a composition within because it is a very stable and symmetrical shape. If you have a subject matter that lends itself to perfect symmetry like a mirrored reflection of a lake or a perfectly circular and symmetrical flower, then a square frame works well to amplify this symmetry.

It’s hard to escape a square’s powerful geometry which forces viewers into the center of the frame. One of the ways around this problem is to use two different portions of the composition like the right side of the frame and the left side of the frame to bring the photo into symmetrical balance.

For example, in the photo bel0w, the square frame is split in the middle vertically with the canoe on the right side balancing the mountain on the left side. As well the big portion of sky in the upper right balances the big portion of water and rocks in the lower left.

©Darwin Wiggett - Lower Waterfowl Lake, Banff NP

The most obvious way to make square images is to crop your rectangular images to a perfect square. We prefer not to crop away pixels but build them up into a square. To do this, we take two rectangular photographs and stack them together to make a square. For example, in the canoe photo above, we made one horizontal image of the canoe and reflections and another horizontal image of the mountain and sky. In Photoshop it was easy to stitch the two images together using layers and blending the two layers together in the reflection along the far shoreline of the lake. Sometimes we will use panoramic stitching software to get the same result. We find that “Photo Merge” in Photoshop CS5 or CS6 work amazingly well to bring together two overlapping images. The key for a successful square stitch is to pay attention to the overall composition and then in getting the technical details of the two frames the same (use the same exposure and overlapping the two shots as precisely as you can).

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Goat Pond, Kananaskis Country

In the photo above, the foregrounds rocks in the lower right visually balance the weight of the mountain peaks in the upper left of the photo.

Long and Thin Rectangles – the Horizontal Panorama

Many photographers make panoramic images which are photos that have a rectangular frame at least 2:1 or longer in format. The horizontal panorama replicates how we see the world by restricting our view vertically and forcing us to scan the horizon from side-to-side. For a panorama to work successfully, the composition has to pull the eye across the frame in one direction or another. For instance, in the three photos below there are variations in tones and subject that pull the eye through the frame in a horizontal flow either from left to right or from right to left.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Kicking Horse River, Yoho NP

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Prairie storm at sunset, Cochrane, Alberta

©Darwin Wiggett - Barn and wind turbines, Trochu, Alberta

Long and Thin Rectangles – the Vertical Panorama

A novel use of the panoramic rectangle is to use the format in vertical orientation. It takes a powerfully elongated subject to make a successful vertical panorama. Look for strong vertical lines in the landscape or sky to make a successful vertical pan. For example, in the photo below, the leading lines of the railroad tracks pulls the eye to the horizon and then up to the line of clouds in the sky.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Railroad tracks in the prairie, Saskatchewan

In the next image the foreground, the leaning tree and the clouds form a zig-zag shape bouncing the eye through the frame from bottom to top.

©Darwin Wiggett - The Glory Hole, Jasper NP

To create vertical panoramas, we mostly use the shift feature on tilt-shift lenses to create these kinds of panoramic images. We have the camera in vertical (portrait) format and shift the lens down to make one image of the foreground followed by shifting the lens up to make another photo of the background and the sky. The two images need to overlap by 20% to 30%. We then take these two overlapping images and merge them into one final image using the Photo Merge command in Photoshop.

©Ghost Lake, Alberta

The Circle

Like the square, the circle works best with symmetrical and centred images and with subjects which have a circular shape to begin with. We also like using circles on images of texture to imply a sphere-shape like we see in the photo below. Most image software programs do not allow circular crops but many programs do allow circular selections. For example, in Photoshop we use the circular marquee tool to make a circular selection (hold down the shift key while using the tool to constrain the proportions to a perfect circle). One we have our circle selected, we simply invert the selection and delete the rest of the image and fill the empty space with pure white. When the image is printed onto paper or in a magazine, the pure white area takes on the colour of the print or magazine paper and the image looks like a circular crop.

©Darwin Wiggett

 

Conclusion

Look at your body of photographic work; if the vast majority of your photos are horizontal rectangles, then it might be time to shake up how you present your work to the world. Moving beyond the rectangle might help move your work beyond the predictable. Give it a shot; hey, it’s cool to be a square!

©Darwin Wiggett - Whitegoat Lakes, Kootenay Plains, Alberta

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

12 Comments

  1. Alister Benn
    May 5, 2012

    Excellent article and so true. I like to start my decision making process very early (almost subconsciously) in that the subject dictates the orientation.

    Vertical subjects lend themselves to vertical etc.

    From there, it boils down to the intention of the photographer. I haven’t too many circles in my portfolio though 🙂

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 6, 2012

      Hey Alister, you are so right, let the subject dictate its framing; don’t be afraid to cop or build a frame that suits the subject AND your intent!

  2. Jerry Gilbert
    May 5, 2012

    Great images! I love the idea of a circular crop, that one you don’t see very often. Do you compose, in camera with the intent of cropping in post or find a given image would work better in a different aspect ratio during post processing?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 6, 2012

      Jerry,

      We try not to crop because we do not want to waste any of the pixels we have paid for from our cameras. Most often we build squares, and panoramas by capturing all the best data in the field (multiple photos) and then build them into the framing that works using software in post.

  3. Scott Martin
    May 5, 2012

    Thanks for the excellent post Darwin & Samantha and I can’t wait to build some square images.

    Reply
  4. Les Howard
    May 6, 2012

    You can also do an oval or elliptical crop using selections in Photoshop – similar to how you did the circle. You might also want to experiment with some non-symmetrical shapes. I’ve never tried this myself but I have seen pictures that used it effectively.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 6, 2012

      Great idea Les!

      I can see it now our next article is called; Beyond the Circle!

  5. Brad Mangas
    May 6, 2012

    Good article, I know for myself I need to be reminded on a consistent basis to think outside the box (or rectangle as in this case).

    Reply
  6. Patrick Stuart
    May 7, 2012

    Nice discussion with some great examples. I think the squares are my favorite of this bunch.

    Any suggestions on how to do vertical panoramas if you don’t have a T/S lens?

    Reply
    • Samantha
      May 10, 2012

      I made all my vertical images above without tilt shift lenses. Same principles apply; you just may have to crop in more. The software (like Photoshop) is pretty smart at figuring out how to merge the images together. Try to blend in areas without a lot of lines such as water or sky. The hardest things to blend are patterns or lines.

  7. The Spring Migrants Are Returning | Scott Martin Photography
    May 8, 2012

    […] photographers whose blog I follow are Darwin Wiggett and Samantha Chrysanthou and one of their recent blog postings talked a lot about using different crops to enhance images, including the square crop.  This White […]

    Reply
  8. 1 Week in the Canadian Rockies with a 50mm Lens - Day 1 | oopoomoo
    October 5, 2012

    […] (Me:) I don’t think so! YOU always make stitches with your lenses, so why should I be stuck with the 3:2 ratio of the camera? Eh? (To strengthen my point, I noted that I’ve still retained the near-far relationship of the 50mm lens and not a wide-angle type effect, so what is the problem? I say it takes ‘foresight’ to see ‘beyond the rectangle‘.) […]

    Reply

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