CAREFUL WHERE YOU POINT THAT THING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MUTUALLY AGREED-UPON NAMES FOR THINGS THAT WE HAVE ALL USED “FOREVER” can become quaintly inaccurate over time, as their original descriptions lag behind their gradual re-purposing. Thus, over a century into the age of the internal combustion engine, we still measure the output of an automobile in units of “horsepower”. Similiarly, fifty years since the discontinuation of the rotary telephone, we still refer to numbers that we are to “dial” in order to place a call. And nearly two hundred years after the introduction of photography, we still have only two labels for the orientation of a camera frame…”portrait” and “landscape”.
It once made sense to talk this way. In order for film to become a mass-manufactured medium, some standards had to be established as to the size of a frame, and so P & L were solidified as really just one set of dimensions for all pictures recorded on celluloid. The “two” orientations were effected by simply twisting the camera around to shoot either vertically or horizontally. Likewise, all images we got back from the film processor were standard in measurement, with only the print industry or those who developed their own pictures regularly altering the frame through the editing process that came to be known as cropping. Digital imaging and processing democratized a practice that had formerly been proprietary, with cropping becoming as widespread for billions of shooters as clicking. Final frame size became a creative tool rather than an arbitrary limit.
Each year, fewer and fewer of the photographs we shoot arrive at their final version in the same dimensions in which they were initially shot. The word “portrait” thus describes any image of any dimension that centers upon a face, while the term “landscape” can be applied to any generally linear subject arranged along a horizon line. Beyond that, all bets are off, with photographers using frame size to not only create according to very specific personal styles but to re-create or optimize pictures long after they are first snapped, as witness the above picture, which had nearly half of its original height chopped off the bottom almost a year after it was shot.
Even more importantly, cropping can now be done in multiple optional “takes”, the way some shooters used to make several trial prints of a single shot by re-processing the same negative in a variety of ways. Certainly, camera manufacturers may stubbornly stick to the words “portrait” and “landscape” just as we all continue to “dial” phones, but in reality, a frame is damn near anything we decide it is. Cropping is now an executive decision, just like color correction or exposure compensation, and there is no limit to how tall or how wide an image is “supposed” to be. Like so many other side benefits of digital technology, cropping in the present era has placed more choices in more hands. And that’s as it should be. Every great leap forward in photography across time has granted people wider decision-making powers. This is always a win for everyone. Because, once you can technically do a thing, you are free to choose to do it, pretty much at will, and your photographic vision has a better chance of getting from your eye to your hand intact.