Some thoughts on cropping vs framing.
What are we doing when we compose an image? What are the defining factors that determine or justify our selection of what to include within the frame? Is subject sacred? Or does form trump content? Or is it all about the message? What dictates to the brain to select or organize these subtle nuances?
That we are constantly searching for meaning, probing our senses for input to help us “construct” that which we think we hear, feel and see before us, comes as no surprise. Construction being the appropriate word here, as Ramachandrun (2007) says when talking about perception, “…it is clear that the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum and will apparently supply whatever information is required to complete the scene.”.
We certainly do visualise and construct scenes, and “fill in” missing information in our heads, pre and post image. This is part of the creator’s intentions, and the participatory role of the viewers when they conceptualize and interpret an image respectively.
The fact that we are pattern seeking animals which allows us to see shapes and structures within the frame (and when looking without a camera of course – which does actually happen) is, I suspect, one of the reasons why we even consider taking a shot in the first place. This need to construct an understanding of our surroundings through the senses is a truly wonderful, and well documented phenomenon (and, undoubtedly, one of the many contributory factors as to why we are even here today as a species thinking about this).
There can be no denying the truth of the Golden Section, Fibonacci‘s spiral (phi grid), or the Rule of Thirds as aids to composition/placement whether consciously aware of their existence or not; they are beautiful insights into the workings of the mind.
Although, personally, I tend to get a more visceral feeling; a pleasing alignment of lines and forms inside my head (and subsequently within the camera) without really being aware of some (admittedly fascinating) divisional device or paradigm within my brain.
Not that that should be any justification for not actually being aware of those criteria, I might add, or for denying their existence. By having an awareness of the guidelines mentioned above, as tools to create harmony, moods, and balance or tension in the frame, we are applying a totally beneficial and possibly sacrosanct practice with which to adhere to.
Bresson may never have cropped more than a few images, (his 1932 Gare Saint Lazare shot ironically being the glorious exception that confirms his own rule), whereas Evans believed in a healthy crop. We could probably list the photographers who have and haven’t cropped ad nauseam, but I won’t. Question is, which of these aesthetic choices, or philosophies, should we go with? And why?
Photographers have always been constrained to the size and format of the camera they choose, whether that be 3:2, 4:3, 16:9, 5:4 etc, or a circular Brownie, a tiny/huge Daguerrotype, or 20×25 cm ultra large format, the truism remains: every photograph is prisoner to the confines of the image capturing format and its boundaries (just as every photo interacts socioculturally with the viewer(s) beyond those boundaries).
When talking about the frame, Szarkowski (2007) also notes that “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” and how “The photographer edits the meaning and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.”
So, technically, when you look at it that way, has every single photo that has ever been made, simply been a crop? Or did I miss the meeting where they revealed to the world the format/frame that encompasses the whole of reality and perception as we can perceive it?
Every single picture has been cropped when it was framed and the shutter button released.
I think that that should stand alone as a sentence. It carries weight. It shouldn’t be cluttered and smothered by other words or punctuation, or distractive discourse markers or linking devices and subordinate clauses: it needs SPACE. However, it cannot stand totally alone and still requires context if not co-text; it may seem to stand alone on the page, but it is made up of many elements all of which have their reasons to be here: to create meaning (and understanding). Likewise, a photograph (and its content) often needs space to exist, although rarely does it exist alone for its own sake (even if that can frequently be the case also). Placement of a subject within a frame needs justification; there needs to be rhythm and stability, or energy and dynamics, or feelings and moods, and the position of the subject(s) is fundamental in determining which effect, or affect, the photographer wishes to convey.
It’s a rather old adage, but still true, I believe, that framing should always be done in the mind’s eye first, and then the viewfinder/LCD screen later. But who is to say that we won’t see another, ‘better’ picture within the framed shot? Maybe we won’t, and this is why there is, granted, a need to compose and frame our photos with criteria and thoughtfulness beforehand.
However, and this is where the beauty of digital photography comes into effect, we can now simply choose another position for a subject in a photo by experimenting and teasing out alternative meanings in post production through cropping (not ot mention the ability of brands like Lytro and Panasonic to be able to use post focusing technology within a frame). I honestly cannot remember how many times that has happened to me. It is definitely NOT a crime, just another manifestation of creative vision. Or luck. Or arguably both.
A fortuitously seen gesture, or fragmentary abstract hidden within a framed shot is not something we should disregard simply because we didn’t intentionally frame it, or even see it, through the viewfinder the first time round. How limiting is that?
This hindsight is, in fact, an insight, and can be a very powerful creative weapon of sorts; a weapon that can mislead, engage, move, and inform the viewer, and consequently needs caution and intelligence when being applied.
So there we have it, every single picture has been cropped.
Szarkowski, J. (1966). The photographer’s eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art; distributed by Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y. (p70)
Ramachandran, V.S., Phantoms in the Brain – Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, Harper Perennial, London, 1998, pp. 89-112
Freeman, M, The Photographer’s Mind – Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, Focal Press, 2010, pp. 100-5
Panasonic.com. (2016). Post Focus – Panasonic. [online] Available at: http://www.panasonic.com/global/consumer/lumix/feature/post_focus.html [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].
Blog.lytro.com. (2016). Lytro Blog. [online] Available at: http://blog.lytro.com/ [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].