Thursday, September 17, 2009

Choosing the right format

BY SUZANNE WILLIAMS

It seems like choosing a vertical or horizontal image format would be such a simple thing. It is the first choice a photographer must make before taking a picture. But I have found that people tend to get in a rut with one particular angle and so neglect the other. The choice ultimately comes down to your subject. What are you trying to capture?

Horizontal images lend themselves to horizontal subjects, which again, comes across like a simple statement. Landscapes are a primary example, especially if the scene does not contain any other obvious elements. In the image below, the line of the mountains move from left to right. There are no large trees or other subjects to be considered.

The Appalachian Mountains, Brasstown Bald, Georgia
The Appalachian Mountains, Brasstown Bald, Georgia

Another reason for choosing a horizontal image is the use of "negative space". Negative space is the "empty" area in a photograph around or in front of the subject and every image has it. However, often it is the placement of this space that can make or break an image. A moving object needs space to move into, as in the image below. A vertical image would have eliminated this space and made the action feel too "cramped".

Wild Water, Ocoee River, Tennessee
Wild Water, Ocoee River, Tennessee

Negative space is not limited to moving images. Negative space can give a subject more contrast with its surroundings. When there is less or more space around an object it will change the effect of the image and draw the eye in in a different manner.

It is also not limited to horizontal images. Vertical images can also be more effective when the negative space is placed correctly. In this photograph of a dove, I deliberately left the area behind the bird open. My first reason was that the bird had turned it's head in that direction. My second reason was to give more of a feeling of the open area (field) in which the bird was sitting.

Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove

I will choose a vertical image format for a number of reasons. Most usually it is because the subject leads itself more to an up and down direction, tall flowers or lanky birds (herons and egrets) are good examples. At other times, I am trying to eliminate something from the scene that will be distracting and concentrate the viewer's eye in a particular direction.

Vertical worked better in the picture below because the angle of the leaf's stem drew the eye deeper into the image.

Bamboo
Bamboo

But vertical images are not limited to macro photography. They can also be effective in landscape images. Here I wanted to capture to length of the palm trees as well as their distance to each other. A horizontal image made them seem shorter and "flatter" and included too much empty, or negative, space which became distracting.

Sabal Palms
Sabal Palms

In short, consider your subject when choosing a format. If you are unsure, take two images, one horizontally and one vertically, and compare them. This is often the best way to learn to recognize which will work best in each situation.

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Suzanne Williams Photography
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Florida, USA

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.

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