The four most important lines of any image are the ones that are often least recognized consciously: the frame itself. Second only to these are the lines that divide the frame, creating frames within the frame. Becoming more aware of how the frame can be used and how it can be divided will help you make more successful compositions.
There are many ways the frame can be divided. You can divide the frame horizontally, vertically or diagonally; in each case, the layers included define the virtual space presented. Different areas in an image can be divided differently. You can divide the frame (or a frame within the frame) multiple times; the more times the frame is divided, the more packed and dynamic it becomes, progressively growing more design-oriented and finally being reduced to pure texture. Each operation has significant consequences.
The only way to understand this intuitively is to explore your options. The development of new possibilities encourages us to ask new questions and develop new habits.
One of the most significant results of dividing the frame is the creation of specific proportions. The combination of the individual aspect ratios of each element creates a new unified aspect ratio. Much has been made of the Rule of Thirds. Dividing the frame into three parts (left/center/right or up/ middle/down) is a simple and often useful strategy for making images more directed, by prioritizing one element over another, and dynamic, through imbalance. Too little has been made of other ratios. What of fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths or eighths? No musician would be content to only divide an octave into halves and thirds. Every proportion produces particular effects, which are further modified by placement (high/low or left/right) and content. Rather than a rule to be adhered to, proportion is a force to be explored expressively.
When it comes to controlling the division of the frame in your images, you have more options available to you than you may think. You can crop, composite, retouch or distort.
Cropping, either through placing the frame during exposure or by eliminating framed information during postprocessing, which changes the aspect ratio, has been the most traditional way of dividing the frame.
Compositing to extend the frame is a comparatively new practice that has become widely adopted, typically used to produce images with panoramic formats, but not exclusively.
Retouching, either to complete or extend the frame or move elements within the frame, is also a comparatively new practice that has been adopted more in some genres and markets than others.
Distortion, by comparison, is far less frequently practiced. Whether this is due to lack of awareness, force of habit or ideology varies with each individual. Whatever the case may be, each and every one of us would benefit from carefully considering our own positions. Ask yourself a few questions. Why do we accept the distortions lenses create, but rarely think of enhancing that distortion or creating new distortions in our photographs expressively? Why accept an unintended mechanical by-product, but not a consciously intended effect? Why take such a powerful tool for expression off the table? You may need to do a little exploration and try a few things for yourself to find out where you stand.
There are two principal ways to distort the aspect ratio of an image or an area of an image in Photoshop: uniformly or nonuniformly. Photoshop’s Free Transform command will uniformly distort everything within a selected area. (Go to Edit > Free Transform or press Command T and push/pull the sides or corners of the bounding box. Press Enter to apply or Escape to exit without change.) Photoshop’s Content Aware Scale will distort everything in a selected area nonuniformly, applying more distortion to less detailed areas. (Go to Edit > Content Aware Scale or press Shift/ Command/Option C and again drag either the sides or corners of the bounding box.) You even can use Quick Mask to manually specify areas that you’d like to be less affected than others. (Press Q; paint the area to be masked with a black brush; press Q again; and apply Content Aware Scale.)
Neither Free Transform nor Content Aware Scale will work on a background layer. Double-click the background layer and change its name before distorting it. Or, better yet, duplicate the background layer and distort the copy. This way, you’ll be able to quickly compare states before and after the distortion. If you want to distort more than one layer, merge multiple layers into a single new layer. (Press Option before choosing Merge Visible from the Layers palette, or press Option/Shift/ Command E.) If you want to distort only one area of a layer, first select, copy and paste it into a new layer.
The four aforementioned practices—crop, composite, retouch and distort—can be used in combination with one another. For instance, you may decide to first crop an image and then distort it to a standardized aspect ratio. Or, while maintaining a frame of the same aspect ratio, you might increase the scale of a selected area only and in the process crop a portion of it. Many other permutations are possible.
If you find these many new possibilities dizzying, you get it. The only way to understand this intuitively is to explore your options. The development of new possibilities encourages us to ask new questions and develop new habits. For what effect are you dividing the frame? To that end, how many different ways can you think of dividing the frame? My advice? Develop the habit of exploring your options before settling on final solutions to help you create your strongest statements.
John Paul Caponigro, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, is an internationally renowned fine artist, an authority on digital printing, and a respected lecturer and workshop leader. Get access to a wealth of online resources with his free enews Insights at www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.