The world around us doesn’t naturally conform to the restrictions and confines of a rectangular or square box. But getting the landscape to fit within the boundaries of a particular photographic format and at the same time make for an attractive image is a challenge that photographers face every time they take out the camera to record the scene before them.
However we don’t have to be limited to the shape and format of the sensor that our cameras come supplied with. For example, my Olympus OMDs (as with all mirrorless cameras) offers other options so I can not only take but also pre-view my images in 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1 ratios. This makes composing in a different format so easy. And if you’re shooting RAW and JPEG formats then you can change your mind about cropping later as the RAW file is untouched. And the resolution of most modern cameras means that any cropping employed no longer severely limits the size of prints you can produce.
When considering the best ratio to choose the key is always to match the cropping selection to the subject. There is no one ideal format for landscape photography and not every possible format works with every subject. The skill of the photographer is in choosing the most appropriate combination of the two.
The aim of this article is to provide guidance on the strengths and advantages of rectangular, square and panoramic aspect ratios.
RECTANGULAR FORMATS (e.g. 3:2, 4:3)
The rectangular aspect ratio is the one most familiar to photographers. It’s a dynamic format that is ideal for creating bold and dramatic compositions full of energy and movement.
This is particularly true when the camera is turned on its side for upright compositions (i.e. ‘portrait format’) when the viewer can be made to feel that they are able to step into and move through a scene from foreground to background. This makes them an active participant in the landscape we’ve photographed. The impression can be facilitated by composing the image so the lines of a path, road or weathered planks of old jetty entice the viewer into scene. Diagonal lines in the composition are particularly effective in creating a sense of movement and energy.
Selecting a strong foreground with lots of interest for the viewer e.g. a textured rock or fallen tree trunk or a pool of water reflecting the sky can also add depth to the photograph – important when trying to represent the three dimensionality of the landscape in a two dimensional image.
Alternatively, used in horizontal orientation, the rectangular format is ideally suited to landscape vistas creating more restful, peaceful images. Here the viewer is more likely to feel like a passive observer of the landscape recorded.
Whether in landscape or portrait format the photographer must give consideration to the use of line and shape (e.g. using ‘S’ and ‘Z’ shapes are particularly effective) to move the viewer around the frame and encourage them to explore the whole image area. Most importantly these compositional devices should take the viewer to the image’s focal point – the element in the image that gives it interest and provides the photographs purpose. The so called ‘Rule of Thirds’ can be used to determine the placement of the focal point (see ‘Expert Tip’) to give it maximum impact.
However like most rules – it’s made to be broken. My advice is learn about it, understand it but don’t follow it slavishly because to do so leads to formulaic and predictable (i.e. boring!) photographs. The great American photographer, Edward Weston once said, “to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk”. I like of think of the so called ‘rules’ as guidelines only.
The Rule of Thirds requires you to imagine dividing your viewfinder horizontally and vertically into three and connecting these points with a grid to create nine equal sized parts. According to the rule, placement of key compositional lines along the grid and the positioning of a focal point on one of the four intersections creates a visually appealing design that is balanced and dynamic. The grid can also be applied to locate and counterpoint areas of tone & colour within the frame.
An implication of the Rule of Thirds is that we should never place our main subject or focal point dead centre of the frame – advocates of ‘the Rule’ argue that doing so creates dull and static compositions. That is certainly true of rectangular formats in most (but not all) cases. Sometimes placing the main subject centre stage just feels right. It’s something that I do quite happily when I want to produce an image that is less dynamic; where simplicity and a sense of stability are my goals. And these characteristics feature a lot in my photographs.
Which is probably why I’m a great fan of the square format – it’s a very symmetrical and balanced frame to work within and placing the main subject centrally (a so called ‘bulls-eye’ composition) often succeeds. When utilised successfully it can result in harmonious images – great for emphasising a peaceful, tranquil, serene mood.
I find that it’s a format that also works well with minimalist images. As a photographer who takes a reductionist approach to composition – stripping photographs down to the bare essentials – I like the cleanness, the unfussiness of the square image.
And I wouldn’t want to give the impression that square photographs cannot work with more complex subjects or are not capable of producing powerful and dynamic compositions. For example, take a wide angle lens, get down low, fill the foreground for photographs with loads of impact.
Undoubtedly it’s very different to working with rectangular formats and it does take some getting used to. A lot of people find it a difficult aspect ratio to deal with and many give up but I would urge you to try it and persist until you can utilise its undoubted strengths.
One way of learning the strengths and weakness of the 1:1 format is to look at a sample of your existing images on a computer screen and experiment with cropping them square – does this tighten up the composition and improve their impact? Getting to grips with the square format is much easier if you can preview the image at the time of taking it. Over the years I’ve shot the square format a lot so I usually have my Olympus OMDs set to 1:1 ratio as default.
One format that has grown in popularity in recent years is the panoramic (or ‘letterbox’) photograph – most commonly a 3:1 or even 16:9 ratio. It’s a great format to use when the image is trying to tell a story about the landscape – well composed panoramics contain a great deal of information that can convey so much about place & time. And it’s a shape well suited to landscape photography, particularly wide, sweeping vistas – minimising sky and foreground can help to accentuate the impression of space.
Like the square format, some people find panoramics difficult to work with. The shape requires the photographer to look at the landscape differently – instead of looking down to find foreground interest the eyes need to be trained to scan across the image, looking for lines that take the viewer across the frame.
As people in the west read from left to right then (if that’s where the majority of the viewers of your images are located) it helps if the lines move in that direction and if there’s a focal point then try and place that towards the right hand side of the picture or even in the centre. Placing a focal point on the left means the viewer reaches it before the rest of the image has been digested. And don’t ignore foreground interest completely – it’s still important to give an image a sense of depth.
Where the foreground is particularly strong then think about using an upright panoramic format. The vertical orientation is great for emphasising depth in a photograph and because it’s a less common use of the format images can be particularly striking and different. Try and find lines that move upwards and through the frame leading the viewer from front to back.
Again, if your camera offers a 16:9 aspect ratio option choose that to familiarise yourself with it and to learn when it’s the best format to use.
Cropping a rectangular image to panoramic format is one option but this can limit ultimate print size (depending on the resolution of your camera of course). But if you’re looking for larger panoramic prints consider taking several individual images, moving the camera across the scene between each shot and then stitching them using software. This gives large files that can be printed to huge sizes. Although there are dedicated stitching programmes available recent versions of Photoshop make a good job of the task. You can help the software do its work by ensuring that the camera is level for each exposure and that there is an overlap at the edges between each image you want to stitch.
Experiment – take the same scene in rectangular, square and panoramic formats; analyse the results and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each format.
Restrict yourself to one format – use one format exclusively for a while, actively searching for subjects that work well with it. Understand it, master it before moving on to do the same with the other formats.
Cut yourself some card masks in the various formats – keep these in your pocket to view the scene through them before you even take the camera out of your bag.