Camera-less Seeing and the Art of Cropping

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera“. Dorothea Lange

1:1 crop from 1:1.25 original

I don’t need an Xpan to make panoramics, and I don’t need a 501CM to make squares. For me the real beauty of using a large format view camera is that the image is conceived in my mind and not restrained by film size; by viewfinder shape or coverage; or by the format’s aspect ratio. Unlike medium and small format cameras (including D-SLR’s), it is nearly impossible to hoist a view camera to the eye to frame an image. Further, because the large format image is rendered upside down and laterally reversed on the ground glass (the image is as ones eyes perceive it before the complex brain corrects it), the ground glass view is difficult to reconcile for all but the most experienced users. This very nature of the format requires the photographer to learn how to see and frame exclusive of the viewfinder. For some this is a serious challenge and shortcoming of the format; for others, like myself, it is pure liberation. My photographs are bound only by the limits of my imagination and never by any constraints imposed upon me by a camera or tradition.

approximate 1:1.5 crop from 1:1.25 original

During any given week, I view a great number of photographs that I believe would be strengthened by a simple crop. Although most photographers shoot with the 1:1.5 aspect ratio of D-SLR’s, this does not mean that one is required to visualize or process/print the full 1:1.5 frame. Even more, too many photographers are caught up with the issue of pre-cut mats being available only in this size and pre-made frames being available only in that size – stop it! Aren’t your photographs considerably more important than their finishing? If your photograph is stronger by cropping it square, crop it square! It may cost more to finish the print by doing so, but aren’t your photographs worth it?

approximate 1:1.75 crop from 1:1.25 original

You’ll find in this article three of my photographs. All originated from 1:1.25 negatives (or 4×5), but take note that none were finished with that aspect ratio. All three images and their framing were visualized without a viewfinder, and I deliberately framed the three important edges and in post-production cropped away the remaining unwanted edge (regardless of the final print’s inability to fit off-the-shelf mats or frames).

If you’re not already seeing and framing your images without the assistance of your camera, here’s a challenge for you: Next time you think you’ve got a photograph, resist the immediate urge to set up and start firing. Consider this pre-exposure editing. Set your camera off to the side and become one with your subject. Study it carefully and quietly, and determine your framing and edges before grabbing your camera. Take as much time as you need; rarely are great photographs made in haste. Once you’ve gotten this figured out, then get out your camera and capture the image that you’ve already created in your mind (and crop at will).

Free your mind and your camera will follow.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.


13 thoughts on “Camera-less Seeing and the Art of Cropping

  1. Sound advice, Michael! Our training to “fill the frame”, compose tightly, avoid the need to crop, etc. have too often dictated the output. And how did we live before they brought out the pre-cut mats for “digital “13×19 paper!

  2. Michael,

    I enjoyed the article and totally agree. I judged a photo contest yesterday and one of the winners was a cropped “odd” size image that I loved and voted high. Kudos to you and that photographer for taking your vision past what can be seen in the view finder. Why limit our creative!

    Harold r. Stinnette

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  4. Hi Micheal,

    My first comment, though I often browse your blog. This is also one of my favourite gripes: In my days at tech college (long ago) there was this notion that it was poor craft to have to crop an image. If you did you obviously did not compose the image carefully enough in the viewfinder. What bilge — the world we photograph rarely fits exactly into a 3:2 ratio (or whatever aspect ratio ones camera is). Why should we be dictated to by an engineering decision made decades ago. By all means maximise the use of the format by careful composition: but crop to suit the image – as you point out.



  5. I enjoyed this post. You make many good points that are helpful to learning photographers, which hopefully is nearly all of us. I like the idea of freeing your creativity through the composition and framing, not worrying about the standard mats, which if you buy wholesale you have them cut however you ask anyway, and the idea of composing outside the camera rather than firing away at a subject and picking the best picture. Even though I generally agree with you, I will play devil’s advocate in one way: sometimes the restrictions and discipline of having to fit the image into a certain shape is also instructive to learning. Any form of art that is contained in a certain container is still just as freeing. Otherwise, why use a camera at all? There are people who hang out in the darkroom and expose paper in various ways directly and make all sorts of great art without a camera. The idea of the camera itself was an evolution and the various formats are merely the limitations you agree to when you make the purchase. I agree, some images are better cropped, that is certainly true, but try cropping to the same shape, or rotating the shape 90 degrees and see how the crop looks. Frankly I feel that many panoramas today are a form of cheating. It is some photographers’ way of circumventing the process of finding an interesting foreground, or even worse, heaven forbid, a foreground that is mundane or uninteresting, or not as colorful as a candy store. It is quite hip today to crop square, but consider that under some circumstances this can dilute the collector experience many years later. I like the idea of being able to tell when someone used a large, medium or small format camera, based on the shape. It immediately sent a message to the viewer what kind of photography they were looking at.

    All of that said, I feel your advice to compose outside the camera more is an excellent takeaway from this article. The idea of banging away at a subject hoping that one of the random images is a good one, is not as effective a creative process as slowing down and quietly seeing deeper and more observantly what is there.

  6. HI Keith and David: Thank You for your comments!

    David: I disagree with you on the pano comment on this level alone: I’m likely in the minority, but I believe that automatically including foreground – even when it doesn’t work well with the midground and background – is a tired convention of landscape photography that also needs rethinking. If the foreground has a logical connection to the rest of the subject matter, then by all means use it. But I too often see photographs that have intentionally included a foreground subject that I believe detracts from the overall image.

    I don’t think any photographic decision should be committed by rote, and that the construction of EVERY image needs to have decisions made independent of others before and after it. If one has a too beautiful foreground object that ties wonderfully to the rest of the scene, by all means use it. But to by convention stick a gangly tree snag or discordant boulder in the foreground can work in ways opposite the photographer had intended, regardless of what is stated by the “rules of composition”.

    As for square cropping, regardless of its hipness, the 1:1 aspect provides symmetry and tension that cannot often be gained by any other means.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  7. Your points are all excellent, Michael. I probably took a position that nobody else would agree with anyway. I was curious to hear what you and others might say in response to my nostalgic ravings against change. Great post.

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