When you are out with your camera do you compose your images through the viewfinder or with your eye? Probably it’s a bit of each. If through the viewfinder then it may be that subconsciously you look for compositions that fit the shape of your viewfinder. If with your eye then perhaps you are more aware of compositional possibilities that do not neatly fit those dimensions. And have you ever wondered why the viewfinder is that shape, anyway? Thank, or blame, Kodak.
A bit of history: In 1934 Kodak introduced the 135 film standard, which rapidly overtook the 120 film format and came to dominate the industry. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the adoption of the 135 film standard dictated the construction and engineering of all 35mm cameras thereafter. Based on a film width of 35mm including the sprocket holes, individual full-frame images on 135 film are 24mm wide by 36mm long. I bet anyone reading this will have a few packets of colour prints along with their negative strips in a drawer somewhere – and those negative filmstrips will be of 135 film.
This format has been carried over into the digital era: the sensor size on full frame dSLR cameras being 24x36mm.
The dimensional ratio of 135 film is 2:3 or (for easier comparisons) 1:1.5. Why was that ratio chosen? Was it for aesthetic reasons? What were the driving factors – were they creative or optical engineering? I don’t know the answer to that – maybe one of you reading this does.
If you have a DX dSLR camera or a digital compact the ratio of images you capture may be slightly different. But most will be in the range 1:1.33 to 1:1.5. Digital photo papers in the UK (and maybe elsewhere) are based on the A paper series and all sizes within that series are based on the square root of 2 (meaning a ratio of 1:1.41). That’s pretty close to the 135 standard. The consequence of that near match is that an image prints fairly easily on A series paper (commonly A3 or A4) with a minimal trim.
That match between image and paper makes life easy but it also makes a huge assumption: that we usually see images with a dimensional ratio of 1:1.5 or thereabouts. But who says the world around us is that shape compositionally? It isn’t always. We’re back to the first paragraph of this post. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of viewing the world through a viewfinder and seeking images that fit that frame, rather than finding the images that work compositionally and concentrating on capturing them with room to spare and cropping the image when it is processed.
Sometimes those compositions can be long and thin – images that are called ‘Letter Box’ shape – where the dimensional ratio may be 1: 3 or even 1:4. It takes courage sometimes to fiercely crop an image, but the impact of those compositions will be lost if what is irrelevant or extraneous isn’t cropped from the original image.
The three images in this post have all been taken in my garden. I saw them all as ‘Letter Box’ compositions. You’ll have to take my word for that. In the first two images all that has been cropped out was more green foreground and background that added nothing – it just diluted the essential composition. In the third image, the top half of the original image was burnt out sky above the top of the boundary wall of our garden that forms the background to the image – that sky added nothing, it distracted. The composition I saw was purely the shaft of late evening sun that was highlighting a thin line of long grass in our orchard.
The message is: don’t be a slave to the viewfinder or the 135 standard. Think outside the box. You will find great images that break all the rules. Do click on the images to see enlarged versions of them