Eye 1: The Frame Shape

This article is part of my series on the study of ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ by Micheal Freeman.

Michael Freeman starts out his book, The Photographer’s Eye, by defining the shape of the image we will spend the rest of our study discussing. We call this, the Frame Shape. When we refer to the Frame, we are referring to the area of the image or the dimensional space that the image will occupy. It does not matter what the image is shown on – a camera lcd screen, a monitor, paper, film, etc. The Frame, or Frame Shape, represents the same area.

So what shape is the Frame? There are at least four common shapes. Three of these shapes are rectangular and one is square. The most common of these shapes is the 35mm format from shooting images on film. Digital cameras offer multiple format sizes, though, so whether 35mm remains to be the most common only time will tell.

35mm Frame Size

A 35mm negative has a size ratio of 3:2. This means that for every 3 measurement units across that the negative has, there are 2 of the same measurement units going down. In actuality, a 35mm negative is 36mm x 24mm, but it is referred to as 3:2. Wikpedia has a very good article on 135mm film, more commonly called 35mm film. Note that while 35mm film was introduced in 1934 for still images, it was actually introduced in 1892 by William Dickson and Thomas Edison, according to an article on 35mm film for cinema. In any case, the 35mm format was created to balance the cost of making the film with the quality of the image obtained. This balance was struck well enough that the 35mm format has maintained it’s presence for over 100 years.

However, the balance of cost vs quality of image does not necessarily provide an optimal ART format. Creating an image that has meaning and impact may not work as well with a 3:2 format as some other size. For example, many framed images, many art paintings, many magazine and book covers are all some other size ratio than 3:2. So if an image was created in 35mm, it had to be cropped for these uses.

There are images that favor a 35mm format, or a 3:2 Frame. Tall images, like images of the Redwood Forest, favor a 3:2 format because of the long, narrow subject. Buildings, tall waterfalls, long horizons and other length oriented subjects favor the 3:2 Frame.

4:3 Frame Size

It is no accident that many digital cameras now include a 4:3 aspect ratio. As Michael informs us, this ratio or Frame Size “accurately reflects the real world sizes.” The 4:3 Frame is much closer to representing the types of images noted above. In fact, the large format camera uses negative sizes that are 4×5. While this isn’t an exact representation of the 4:3 Frame Size, it represents an area just a little larger. Thus, cropping to a 4:3 ratio from a 4×5 negative doesn’t remove much of the image. This is no accident.

The ratio of 4:3 represents a decimal of 1.3333. That of the 4×5 (which is 5 divided by 4) represents a decimal of 1.25 and 35mm formats (3:2) represents a decimal of 1.5. These decimals can be equated to percentages and represent the increase of the longer side of the image from the shorter side. Since the shorter side of the image must be used to maximize the negative used when cropping, this method of comparison is valid.

Thus, if the best presentation ratio is 4:3, or 133%, then the 4×5 negative at 125% is only 8% less whereas a 35mm negative is 150% or 17% more. The only point here is that to go to a 4:3 Frame Size, a 35mm negative will have more of the image cropped out than a 4×5 camera. Unfortunately, the cost of 4×5 photography is generally far greater than 35mm photography. That is, until the use of digital photography came about providing multiple ratios available with the same equipment.

Wide Image Format

The wide image format, normally using a 16:9 ratio, has also become a common option on digital cameras. This format is increasingly more popular for landscape and panoramic type photography where wide area coverage is desired. Without the ability to stitch multiple images together or capture an image with a wide digital sensor (CCD), the ability to create quality images of this type is limited and potentially much more difficult. Due to the limited application of this Frame Size, we will not discuss it further. However, for specific applications, this format can produce stunning results.

Square Formats

Square formats are not very common because not many images capture a subject which is square in nature. As we will learn going forward, having too much extra space around a subject may detract from the subject itself and not provide a very pleasing image. That being said, there are certainly applications for square images or a square Frame. Circular subjects, square subjects, diamond shaped subjects and subjects grouped in these shapes all lend themselves to a square format. Film and digital formats do not include square negatives, however, and to produce a square Frame, cropping will need to be performed.

Conclusion and Exercises

For an affordable film format, 35mm is the most common. When using a digital camera, frequently the 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9 formats are available giving the photographer a choice of Frame Size to use. Whatever medium a photographer chooses, there will inevitably be cropping involved. Remember to first shoot the image for the composition and crop later. It is better to crop an image than never have captured it to begin with.

For a first exercise, take a group of images shot with any format. Arrange three views of each image cropped to the following ratios: 3:2, 4:3 and square. Print these out in three separate prints or all on one piece of paper. Make notes on them about which Frame you like the best. Note the problems, if any, with the other Frame sizes in presenting the overall image. Use this group of images to create your portfolio for this study of The Photographer’s Eye so that you can go back through it as a refresher from time to time. If you are using an electronic program like Adobe Lightroom, you can start a group of Collections and make this the first collection.

I hope you find this study valuable to you and keep watching for the next essay!

Leave a Comment