The vast majority of cameras provide a set, rectangular image frame. However, photo editing software enables you to access other formats too, including square and panoramic shapes or combinations of images in montages.
Different formats lend themselves to different scenes and compositions – practice capturing the same portrait using a range of different formats to see which you prefer and why. Over time, you will soon become able to judge which format will work best before even lifting the camera to your eye.
Portrait or landscape
Despite the latter’s name, both portrait and landscape formats can be used in portraiture. In fact, some portrait photographers use the landscape format almost exclusively. Sometimes this is based on personal preference, but landscape shots can also offer some marketing advantages – they display better on digital media and on some screens, where the viewing area is better suited to landscape format images.
Take a look through your recent images. Do you naturally incline towards portrait or landscape format? Or does your work have a fairly even mix of both? Your choices may depend on your subject matter, or you may wish to develop a distinctive style by predominantly featuring one format.
This format is ideal for emphasising visual balance and symmetry by placing your subject in the centre of the frame. Alternatively, for a more arresting portrait, you could position your subject off-centre or with an extreme crop.
To achieve a square format shot, shoot a portrait or landscape photography loosely, with plenty of space around your subject. Then, carefully crop your shot in editing software.
This format takes longer for our eye to travel across and absorb the whole scene. It’s harder to take in everything at once, particularly if the image is large, but this may be to your advantage.
Some cameras offer a built-in panoramic function, while on others you can take several shots (using a tripod to ensure consistency of viewpoint) and stitch them together in editing software. Alternatively, if your camera offers high enough resolution, you could simply crop a regular shot into a panoramic format.
Montages enable the photographer to tell a story through a series of photographs. The word ‘story’ doesn’t imply a detailed plot here, but rather a journey or experience brought to life through its visual details. The relationship of the different images may be clear, with each of them featuring the same colours or the same subjects or the same lighting conditions, for example. Alternatively, the relationship could be implied simply by the grouping of a selection of images for the montage. The story’s narrative could be as simple as ‘our day at the beach’, ‘our child’s first year’ or ‘a fashion shoot in the factory’.
Montages allow space for shots that might otherwise not be considered standalone display material, but which add depth to the photographic story, such as close-ups of seashells, a tiny newborn fist or a macro shot of a heel amongst rubble. They could include images which are not portraits, strictly speaking, but these shots provide space for creativity and variation that can give the viewers a visual rest between images that may otherwise be too similar.
Two popular configurations are triptychs – three images presented side by side – and montages of nine images, often in a three by three square. However, there are limitless variations, including the choice of the width of borders and gaps between images (if any), and whether the image formats within the montage are the same (e.g. all portraits) or mixed.
Considerations when choosing a format include:
– What do you intend to use the image for? A social media profile or music album artwork might necessitate a square crop, whereas an image intended for a book or magazine cover may need to be portrait.
– Will one format cut out extraneous clutter more effectively than another?
– Which format will make better use of any lead-in lines/perspective lines/background details?
– Do you want to give a sense of space or capture a tight crop? Landscapes also lend themselves towards shots where you want to include space or background details around your subject. On the other hand, the portrait format can work better for tighter crops, as its dimensions mirror those of a seated or standing human.
The exact shape of images from your camera will depend on which aspect ratio it has. This is the measure of the width and height of the image frame expressed as a ratio; common aspect ratios include 3:2, 4:3 and 5:4.
When taking photographs that you intend to print, bear in mind that standard print sizes won’t necessarily correspond to your camera’s aspect ratio. In this case, your image may be cropped to match the print size. This may result in details positioned near to the edge of the frame being cut off, or unintended adjustments to the overall composition of the image. If print crops may be an issue, shoot ‘loose’, with slightly more space on both edges of the image frame. Then, when you take the shot into editing software, you can crop it to the precise aspect ratio you need for printing, actively choosing where the crop occurs.