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Aspects Of The Landscape

Exploring aspect ratios beyond your camera’s default can lead to a new creative direction

One key “aspect” of composing landscape photographs is the ratio of the sensor or film frame. Most cameras have a standard 3:2 dimension, much like a 35mm film camera. Most of us accept that standard, use our cameras to frame the landscape, and present our work in print or online at those dimensions. Beyond that standard shape, your choices of the aspect ratio of your images can provide your portfolio with a distinct style, a visual signature that helps your work stand out.

Dogwood and Merced River, Yosemite, California, 2017.

For example, master black-and-white photographer Michael Kenna is known for his moody, long-exposure, square-format images. Many landscape photographers use the panoramic format for its ability to capture the full breadth of a scene. With digital cameras, the ease of stitching multiple frames together opens the door to many creative possibilities. When I used a 4×5 camera, one of my film holders was modified so I could expose a 2:1 section of a sheet of film. Of course, I could have just cropped the full 4×5 framing later as desired, but by forcing myself to work to “see” the pano shape marked on my viewfinder in the field, I could better design my photograph and be decisive at the time of exposure. As a result, and continuing more recently with digital stitching, I’ve managed to assemble a decent portfolio of pano images. Given the large film size and resolution of 4×5 inch film, I felt comfortable cropping to the pano shape or sometimes a square shape.

The dogwood image here was captured with my 42-megapixel Sony a7R II, intending it to be a full-framed, 3:2-proportioned print. However, after working the photograph in post-processing, I began to see how this image would work more strongly as a square. Given the high-res sensor I was using, cropping would not be a significant compromise on image quality. The lines of the two trees on each side of the frame connect visually to the curved flow of the river rapids.

My Antarctica panorama shown here was created in the early morning during my 2014 journey there. From the deck of our moving ship, hand-holding the camera, I made five frames across the breadth of this amazing landscape. One of my co-instructors on the trip, Kevin Raber, wisely advised us to be sure to try panos to capture a sense of vast expanses of wild landscapes we would see. I used a 200mm focal length to reach out and bring to life this distant scene. During the cruise, I made many successful pano sets that add a great deal to my “Antarctic Dreams” portfolio. Since it is not possible to perfectly align side-by-side exposures when hand-holding a camera, I composed more widely than usual around the edges, knowing that the stitching software in Photoshop would require cropping.

Neumayer Channel, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, 2014.

Neumayer Channel, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica 2014

For me, the choice of aspect ratio is open-ended. I mostly try to maintain my camera’s proportion, but if I feel cropping is needed, I will lock down that same proportion when I crop. However, if I find during image processing that I can improve the photo’s composition with an entirely new ratio, I am open to that creative choice. I won’t compromise an image for the sake of a predetermined and standardized dimension.

For photographers who might wish to explore a new format, the extra discipline of using one format to frame all subjects with could be creatively invigorating. To fully launch oneself to see squarely or whatever shape appeals to you, set up your camera’s viewing format to see that format if possible (not available on my Sony) and give it a go for a few field sessions. If you like the results, keep at it to fully explore the possibilities.

Regarding cropping, I don’t recommend being too dependent on it to resolve image design issues. I’ve had students who compose casually in the field, saying any problems with their captures can be “fixed” in post. Compositional skills should be learned, refined and applied in the field where one can most affect the subtle adjustments needed for excellent design. Don’t let post-exposure cropping be a crutch. It is especially difficult to correct for poor camera position, where lines are not aligned well or important forms merge.

Some photographers believe in not cropping their images, wishing to preserve their vision at the moment of exposure. I fully respect that position and adhere to it most of the time myself. However, with a clear understanding of its limitations, cropping can be done wisely. Assuming your goal is to make the best possible image, and you have an image that can be improved with cropping, then do so judicially.

When we look for ways to improve our photographs and add depth to our portfolios, looking around for new ways of seeing and framing the landscape can energize our creative process. Experimenting with a new aspect ratio may be the ticket to move your portfolio to a new plateau. Enjoy the journey!

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.