They stole our choice of aspect ratios. Now we’re getting them back
By Kirk Tuck
When I started taking photographs, back in 1978, I picked up a 35mm camera because that's what matched my budget and, I thought, my needs. I spent some years trying desperately trying to confine my vision of what a scene or portrait should look like into a long and stringy frame that never quite worked. When I needed to shoot horizontally I always needed to slice off all the junk that showed up on the either side of the "good part" of the frame. When I shot vertically there was alway twenty five or thirty percent of the top or bottom of the frame that needed to be chiseled away to calm my eyes.
Gradually I became habituated to the long, skinny and mathematically clumsy frame and tried my best. I figured that having a photographic vision that was fluid and smooth and easy must be for people with some innate, natural talent. Like those lucky bastards who can just pick up a guitar and make wonderful music after a handful of lessons.
Then one day a friend who was also interested in photography showed me a camera he'd just picked up. It was a twin lens YashicaMat rollfilm camera that shot 12 square frames on each roll of 120 film. Square frames!
My friend couldn't warm up to the reversed image in the waist level finder and suggested that I give the camera a whirl. I reached down and pulled the finder apparatus into position, flipped up the little attached magnifier, looked through and focused. And, in an instant, something somewhat magical happened: Everywhere I pointed the camera a perfect composition sprang into being. I could point the camera at the intersection of a concrete curb and the asphalt of a street and, there it was, perfect composition.
And the joy I felt when I lined up my first informal portrait was wonderful. It eclipsed everything I'd done in photography to that point.
I felt like I couldn't afford the camera. I was still in school and working a part time job. But when I started down the stairs of my apartment, intent on returning the YashicaMat to my friend, I realized that I couldn’t afford not to buy it. The effect was that powerful.
When I decided to pursue the rigorous and noble undertaking of professional, commercial photography I went right out and bought a used Hasselblad 500 CM and 150mm Sonnar Lens. Every time I looked through the finder of that camera I knew the one thing I wouldn’t have to worry about would be framing. I had found my perfect aspect ratio.
And I found, when looking at the work of others—even masters—I have always had a prejudice for the calmness and formal structure of the square. I have friends who've used panoramic cameras and all the other formats. I've dabbled (mostly unsuccessfully) with 6x7 cm, 6x9 cm, 6x12 cm 6x4.5 cm, 4x5 inch, and 8x10 inch cameras and almost every time I find myself chaffing at the aesthetic discomfort of all that wasted space.
"No Problem." I thought. "I'm happy just shooting these marvelous, magical squares of color and black and white." And I did. Cartons and cartons of Fuji and Kodak films. Mostly Tri-X, but other flavors when the menu called for them.
And then one day it all collapsed.
We made the transition to digital. Clients loved it. You could shoot quick. You didn't need Polaroid. Etc., etc. We’ve heard it all a thousand times before. But the thing that really never got talked about was the most important thing we lost: aspect ratio choice.
If you bought a professional level digital camera you had no choice of aspect ratios. You got stuck with the nasty old 35mm, 3:2 ratio whether you liked it or not. And my battle with wasted and unusually configured space returned. And it was nasty. One maker of digital backs offered a square back but it was priced for people working for jumbo clients in world class markets. I was stuck with mainstream.
I'm sure there are those among us who can look at a 3:2 frame and immediately, and comfortably divine the "presence" of the square without assistance. Good for them. I'm not one of them. I like a little assistance from my camera in the form of clearly defined boundaries. Edges. Guide posts. When I look into the finder of my camera I want to see a square frame and I want everything not in the square frame to be excluded from view. And given the popularity of square frame cameras from the 1950s right up to the age of digital, I'm sure there are many who agree with me.
I suspect that rigorous boundaries are helpful because they eliminate one variable of choice and so let us concentrate on composition in a different way, regardless of which format you favor. Cropping after the fact is not the same.
One of the reasons I have been so passionately enamored of the mirrorless cameras is that removing the optical finder from the equation means camera makers can give us back our freedom of choice when it comes to the configuration of our framing via the electronic viewfinder. I bought the Olympus E-P2 with its electronic viewfinder largely because I can set the camera so that, when I bring the finder to my eye, I see a square image framed by black. And every EVF capable camera I can think of strikes the same blow for Freedom of Choice.
If you like wide, they give you 16:9. If you like that pedestrian and ubiquitous 35mm frame they're happy to give you the option to "3:2 it" all you want. And, true to most of the sensors in the mirrorless cameras I tend to use, they also offer the stodgy and boxy 4:3 ratio. You are free to use any of these "lesser" aspect ratios or join me in re-embracing the most intoxicating of formats, 1:1. It even sounds uniquely balanced. One-to-one.
Given the quality of camera files these days I've come to believe that flexibility in setting your preferred aspect ratio is one of the most important factors for overall photographic success and, that the move back to a gracious banquet of aspect ratios is a sign that we're moving past the gnawing hunger for more pixels and less noise into the more lofty sphere of actually thinking about the content and artful arrangement of our images instead of just their legibility.
If you are consistently uneasy composing images I would suggest that you and your present camera format may be at odds. If you have access to an electronic viewfinder camera with changeable aspect ratios you might want to take it out for spin and see what works for you. One size fits all is rarely a good plan in the mystical world of art. Or in the pragmatic world of photography. And if you really love the 3:2? Well aren't you just as happy as a pig at the trough?
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.