Can Cropping Save And Image?
Last week Knut Skjærven opened a
discussion on Facebook about the
cropping a photograph into either
a square or a Divine Rectangle. By the
time everyone chimed in, the field was
split. There was no clear winner, but
no one had touched on the geometries
that govern each shape.
Before I explain the breakdown of the images, I wanted to share the images with overlays made on Photoshop. Most photographers are visual people and learn well from example. Instead of launching right into the explanation and spoiling all the fun, I thought everyone could look at the images and start to re-evaluate how they view the inherent properties of a square (1:1), the negative (1:1.5) and the Divine Rectangle (1:1.618). One thing to consider when cropping images, is that unlike the film days, we pay through the nose for digital sensors. On a Leica M9, we pay about $8.11 per square millimeter. To put that in perspective, cropping an M9 image from a rectangle to a square removes about $2,300 worth of usable sensor. That is a serious reduction, one that might convince photographers to stick to the 1:1.5 full frame.
And very quickly I want to thank Knut Skjærven for taking part in this little experiment and allowing me to run through his images. I will be posting the explanation of the breakdowns on Friday.
Update: What Do We Want
When we take a picture, what are we trying to accomplish? Unless you are a conceptual artist who is deconstructing a photograph, by breaking all of the rules and conventions, the aim of picture take is simple. We use a camera to create the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional plane. In order to move the viewer’s eye around the image, we must acknowledge the frame of the negative. The proportions of a negative or digital sensor are the first step in understanding how to compose an image.
In art school we were encouraged to “be creative, explore, and resist convention.” This is a guaranteed way to spin your wheels and find your photography stuck in a rut. Learning classical composition is the dirty little secret that most photographers do not want to discuss. Without an understanding of the geometry of rectangle or square, it can be challenging to produce consistent results. But how do you know whether you understand a rectangle or a square? Its easy. If you have heard that composition is a matter of using the “Rule of Thirds” and “foreground, middle ground, and background” then someone has cheated you essential knowledge about image making.
My personal belief is that the rule of thirds was a scam proposed by the publishing industry to keep amateur and aspiring photographers off the trail of success. Why would they do that? Because if you are your own best critic and truly understand composition you will not need their lists about “How To Take Better Pictures.” An educated viewer will spend less time at the news stand and more time studying Master Artists. If you live near New York City, the Metropolitan Museum is pay as you wish. Giving a quarter to the museum is worth more than a 10 year subscription to any photo magazine.
If its good enough for Henri…
Within the Leica world, Henri Cartier-Bresson might be the only thing photographers agree upon. It seems like he is an influence for almost everyone. His compositions are magnificent. Why is it that the son of a French sowing thread empire became the grandfather of all street photography? A little discussed fact about Cartier-Bresson is that he was a classically trained artist. He studied painting and drawings with Andre Lhote. Lhote was a painter, sculptor, teacher, and critic who ended his career teaching at Cambridge University in England and authored a famous Treatise on Landscape Painting. Bresson, unlike the other Magnum founders was educated as an classical artist. The theories of composition were drilled into him as a child. Later in life, short quotes of Cartier-Bresson, give us a glimpse of his background. He knew, from Lhote, that geometry is essential to photography. And this type of geometry is not some abstract notion of space or a God given instinct. It is just like the mathematical times tables, the are learned. Students are given exercises which they practice. After years of study as an apprentice (often 10 years) they are ready to start making their own art.
“If the shutter was released at the decisive moment,
you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without
which the photograph would have been formless and lifeless”
Master artists are infamous for making their students struggle to learn their lessons. Statements are made with essential information missing so the student learns to fill in the blanks. If we look at this Cartier-Bresson quote we can see what he is really saying if we understand his background with Lhote.
Put into less abstract language he is saying the following:
“If”: Notice how he starts the statement with If. He is not even giving the reader the credit of saying “when”, because as far as he was concerned most photographers would never take a properly composed image.
“Decisive Moment”: Cartier-Bresson hated this quote. Originally it had some meaning, but has been so over used that it is almost meaningless. The decisive moment is a fraction of a second where the moving geometry of the world align into an exact composition. It is the momentary capture that mimics the efforts that classical artists would put into their paintings. Weeks, months and even years of sketches would go into a single painting. For Cartier-Bresson about ten times a year he would find a scene that matched the compositional strength of a painting. If Cartier-Bresson could see photographers shooting pictures from their hips he would be turning in his grave.
“Geometric Pattern”: Here comes the heavy stuff. Without understanding the geometry of the film negative, taking successful images is no different that playing roulette. It is true that if you never play, you will never win. But with some formal training the odds will be in your favor.
The Original Analyzed
The 3:2 Negative
The ratio 3:2, can be reduced to 1.5:1. In classical art it is referred to in reverse, 1:1.5. This ratio is not a Golden Ratio, it is not a Root ratio, but it has proven itself very useful over the years because it is made from a square (1:1) and half (.5:1). Without going into a lesson on the Root Rectangles, I will leave that to Myron Barnstone, I will say this. The way to compose with the 1:1.5 rectangle is to use overlapping Root 4 rectangles. The Root 4 is the only rational Root Rectangle because its ratio is 1:2. By overlapping one Root 4 over another, we get the grid that was used by Cartier-Bresson for the majority of his images. Its encourages us to compose on the diagonals and use the reciprocal diagonals to strengthen our work.
In Knut’s image, if we overlay the Root 4 rectangle we notice an immediate problem. The dock, which runs to the horizon line is stronger with any of the diagonal elements in the picture. The girl on the left and the man and women on the right are not repeated anywhere else in the image. But the dock appears in the center of the picture and there are radiating lines that support the dock. When we think of composition, repetition is a tool to emphasize a point. If we assume the dock is the most important feature we see its shape repeated on the line of the jetty walk way, the border of the jetty and the water, the line from the top of the photographers head to the horizon and the horizon itself. These lines all radiate from a common point in the center of the horizon. Mathematically the dock is repeated on six different lines. Its is has the most support of any geometric shape in the image and will be hard to overcome, even with cropping.
Composing on the Diagonal
Horizontal and vertical lines create predictable images. A wide open seascape runs from left to right and telephone pole goes from top to bottom. They are similar to one line jokes. Once you understand the joke, its over. We want to make compositions that are dynamic, that pulse, and move us. There should be a clear understanding of depth and most of all there should be a clear focus. In art we create hierarchies. If not, it is impossible to tell what is important. One of the first elements to understand is how to use a diagonal for composition because it is the link between the vertical and horizontal lines of the negative. The diagonal lines allows us to move from the ground to the sky and back again. It is essential to understanding composition. When it is misused it is so powerful in fact that no other element can dominate it. In this case we see how the dock and its supporting lines draw our eye to the horizon and all other elements are secondary. Even if we had Cartier-Bresson’s “Puddle Jumper” on the left and Eddie Adam’s Execution on the right, they would still be no match for that dock. Its simply too strong.
The Square Crop
By cropping this image to a square, a new set of compositional rules are introduced. The square possesses its own geometry which is different from the 1:1.5. Truth be told, we can use two Root 4 rectangles stacked side by side to create a square, but trying to envision a square while looking at the rectangle of the viewfinder is a challenge. In most cases the square crop is a postmortem fix. Because the image was not conceived with the square in mind, any parts of the picture that work are accidental. We can compose for the rectangle or the square, but not both at the same time. If you find yourself attracted to the square, try shooting a Hasselblad because the negative will be square.
Once the image is cropped we see how the major diagonal line becomes steeper as it moves from left to right. It starts to emphasize the relationship between the girl and the photographer. Though the alignment does not quite work. Aside from the parallel intervals formed by her pony tail, the line of her arm, the line of her right leg and her left ankle, there is only one point that coincides with the photographer. The line between her ankle and his lens are the only points occurring on the same line. Cartier-Bresson suggested we “…count the points and rounds, rather like a boxing referee.” In this case the score is Dock 6 points, the People 1 point. The Dock still wins.
The Divine Rectangle Crop
The Divine Rectangle
Knut deserves to be given some credit. Having one’s picture critiqued can be a dicey proposition and I commend him for looking into the options of the native 1:1.5 rectangle, the square, and the Divine Rectangle as options for his pictures. He is searching for answers to his format. The curious mind will find it essential to understand why certain elements work and why others do not.
I can only assume the seduction of the Divine Rectangle or the Rectangle of the Whirling Squares as it is often called, came whispering in Knut’s ear. The geometry imbedded in this rectangle is mystical. Its has been found on major alters across the globe and is present in living forms from flowers to mollusks. When it is divided along its diagonal in creates a square and another similar Divine Rectangle. This process can be repeated into infinity. These divisions which alternate between vertical, diagonal, and horizontal eventually create a logarithmic spiral. This is dynamic. We will have a curve that spins around the frame of the rectangles and has been employed by artists for centuries. So why can we use it as photographers? We can, but as Knut found out, it requires we trim off the top of every image. The ration of the Divine Rectangle is an irrational number and goes on forever. For simplicity sake it can be shortened to 1:1.618. Does this mean we should trim the top of all of our negatives to match this rectangle? Absolutely not.
A Word Of Caution
There is one major caution against using the Divine Rectangle for composition. While looking at a 1:1.5 it is awfully difficult to picture the lines of a 1:1.618. They are close enough in size to just give you a headache. Its best to reserve the Divine Rectangle for drawing or painting where you can set your canvas size. And in this case we will see that even applying its shape to a normal film negative will not change to conflicting elements of the photograph. In this case the Dock will not be overcome by the Divine crop. It will maintain its position as the dominant force in the image. In the “Competing Composition” images we see the orange section where the division of the rectangle overlaps the triangle of the dock. This orange zone is where the two elements are fighting. The result is that while we are drawn from left to right on the diagonal of the girl and photographer, we are pulled off course by the dock. The dock and the horizon win again. Why is that a problem? Since I have not spoken to Knut, maybe he wanted the dock as the most important part of the picture. Its possible. But even if that were the case, it still has one direction. The dock runs to the horizon and then the story is over. If the dock were supposed to be the dominant feature, it should relate in some way to a diagonal. If it relates on a diagonal it will bounce our eyes back into the frame and continue the story of three dimensional space and the illusion of depth.
While the cropping of the square and the Divine Rectangle start to emphasize the people with greater strength in the image, the crop never quite overcomes the power of the dock. The primary triangle will forever own this image. It is a case where the background became more important than the main subject.
What Could Be Done In The Future?
When we look at a scene, we might see a dominant feature like a tunnel, a dock or a long road. The best thing we can do is acknowledge the strength of the feature and use it to our advantage. For Knut, if he could have stood 45° from center of the dock, he might have been able to use the line of the dock to “point” at either the girl or the photographer. This way the setting can be used to further emphasize the subject. Otherwise the scenery will take center stage and the figures will be lost in the field.
To close this I wanted to add a few images by Cartier-Bresson which show how he uses the Root 4 rectangle to connect his figures on the diagonal and make them the clear focus of the image. In the end, no matter how the image is cropped the picture cannot be saved. The original capture can be tweaked, but it will never come alive. In the coming weeks I will be discussing in greater detail how to use the proportions of the 1:1.5 rectangle to your advantage. If you are interested in having private teaching sessions, I tutor a small group of individuals and there are a few available spaces at the moment. If you are intersted please email me here (email@example.com) and I will send you the details.
Thanks again Knut!