Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Bumper Crop

Since time immemorial, photograph orientation has been described not by the purely objective terms vertical and horizontal, but rather by the functional terms portrait and landscape. These terms implicitly make a the value judgment that a horizontally framed image is the best manner to showcase a landscape and that people are best composed within a vertical space.

Photographers have ignored these suggestions for framing almost as long as the terms have existed, of course.

However, one type of crop I absolutely love has been considered somewhat gauche until very recently: a horizontally-composed headshot.

You'll see this sort of crop commonly in my work: sometimes I'm even more aggressive and crop across the forehead for a very tight framing that emphasizes the expression. By the "classical" standards of portraiture, this would be considered wrong. However, I'm not the only photographer that has started to embrace this look. Why is it that this is now becoming acceptable and even often (in my opinion) desirable?

Television and movies are to blame.

Scarlett Johansson in the film Lost in Translation

Movies and high-definition television programming is all filmed in a 16:9 panoramic aspect ratio. Cinematographers do not have the luxury that we still shooters have to select an aspect ratio and orientation that best suits the subject matter. Thus, whenever you see a closeup on TV or in the movies, you will typically see the person's face framed tighly in a horizontal frame, and usually if you split the frame into 1/3ds in a row from left to right, the subjects face will be one one of the two 1/3 lines. Because we as a society get so much of our cultural and artistic (perhaps using the term loosely in some cases) information from a television, we are conditioned to look for emotional content (such as one would usually look for in a movie "closeup") in this form.

Gerard Butler
in the film The 300

Its fascinating to me to see the way one artistic medium has influenced our tolerances, expectations, and receptivity to forms in another. Motion pictures have long been maligned for various deleterious effects on our society: I find it only fair to assign credit where it is due for opening the eyes of the world to a crop that had previously been out-of-favor.


Hoffer Photography said...

Cool thought. There's power in negative space that is easy to forget in an effort to fill the frame.

In fact, I'd be up for a challenge involving shooting a job only in 'Landscape' mode. Especially since I usually shoot in 'Portrait'. I think a study like that would certainly open my eyes and hopefully yours as well. Thoughts?

Reese said...

Film and TV definitely have had an influence on how photographs come out, but perhaps it also has to do with photographers wanting to try something new. With the advent of all the digital technology involved in photography, it's pretty crazy how some "photos" look these days! All these new techniques, new methods. The basics never seem to go away (good lines and form, and the 1/3 rule), but it sure seems that everything else is up for experimentation.

For me, I really like the horizontal frame for potraits, but it also depends highly on the person, the scene, etc. There are some people and scenes I would always shoot vertically, but others I would use horizontal. It all depends on the situation I suppose.

Post more of these philosophical blog entries please. Maybe you can write one on the popular trend in wedding photography for documentary style photos, and also the use of wide angle, another unconventional technique.

Reese said...

Oh... and one more thought. I've noticed that people tend to shoot all their photos in a particular orientation. I've known people who mostly shoot in horizontal, or mostly shoot in vertical, just depending on how they like to see things. That's always pretty interesting too.

Evan Baines said...

Thanks for commenting guys!

Tony: Interestingly, John Michael Cooper shot an entire wedding "cinematically" cropping every single shot to 16:9. Its a different way of thinking to be sure.

Reese: I think you're right that there's more to it than JUST the media influence. I also notice that some shooters just tend towards one or the other. I have a predilection toward horizontal crops, I know. I'll do my best to keep up the philosophical posts!

Reese said...

You know, there is that huge trend right now on Flickr where everyone does these cinematic type shots. Crop the top and bottom to 16:9 and then desaturate and slightly unfocus to give that old film look to it.

It seems also that people go between wanting very crisp photos to the softer look, and also from bright colours to more muted tones. Gawd, you could write a whole series of posts on just how a photographer's aesthetic changes in the span of just a couple years!!

Sam Hassas said...

How fascinating. I'm really not much of a TV/movie guy myself but it came clear that my love of horizontal portraits might have come from the tube and/or the silver screen. Kinda had an Epiphany of sorts. Bravo on the write Evan.