The proportion of an image’s frame (or aspect ratio) is a fundamental part of the statement it makes. Aspect ratio influences the way both the photographer and his or her audience sees images. Many photographers choose particular camera formats (35mm, 645, 21?4, 6×17, 4×5) because they reinforce particular ways of seeing. For instance, square formats emphasize neither vertical nor horizontal motions and reinforce the geometries framed within them, while panoramic formats encourage the eye to sweep across images in long strokes, typically, but not exclusively, horizontally.
There are photographers who prefer to standardize the aspect ratio of their images. Many documentary photographers crop none of their images to indicate the objective stance with which they attempt to approach their subjects, signaling a host of other related practices and above all that they have intervened in and interpreted the events their images portrayed as little as possible. Other photographers standardize the aspect ratio of their images to draw attention away from the proportion of the frame to other aspects of their images. Repetition typically deflects attention from an image element, while variation draws attention to itself. Still other photographers standardize the proportion of their images to make matting and framing easier and more economical. Some do it simply out of habit. No matter what type of photographer you are and what your standard practice is, I recommend you explore your options.
With Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, you can nondestructively crop your images so that pixels are hidden rather than eliminated. This is now the default behavior of these software applications. Later, if you wish to change the crop of an image, you can reuse the Crop tool to reclaim these hidden pixels and make modifications without having to re-process the original RAW file from which they were derived.
Few photographers explore distorting their images to change aspect ratio. In large part, this is because distortion is a practice so new that not enough time has elapsed for it to become a habitual part of our tradition. In some cases, the practice of distortion is discouraged; it’s not appropriate for the creation of forensic or documentary images. In a few cases, it’s encouraged; many portrait photographers squeeze their images horizontally, making their subjects look thinner (a transformation of as little as 5% to 10% is often undetectable to the casual observer, but nonetheless highly flattering to the subject, and some think it takes off the 10 pounds the camera adds on). Whether you’re influenced by force of habit or respect for tradition, remember that both lead to learned behaviors, which can be modified. Distortion offers extraordinary expressive opportunities. You owe it to yourself and your images to explore this option. Whether you choose to do this often or infrequently, a little or a lot, is something only you and time can tell. There are two principal ways to distort the aspect ratio of an image in Photoshop: uniformly or nonuniformly. The Photoshop Free Transform command will uniformly distort an image’s frame and everything in it. (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 an image nonuniformly, applying more distortion to less detailed areas of an image. (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 duplicate the Background layer and distort the copy. 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.)
These distortion techniques are so powerful that you can dramatically change the aspect ratio of many images, fluidly moving between square, horizontal, vertical and even panoramic formats, with staggeringly few limits. It seems the only limitations are the limits of believability—if you want to maintain the photorealism of your images and your viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
Should you use these powerful techniques? A more useful question is what happens when you use them? Depending on how you apply distortion, you may enhance your images only very slightly or alter them dramatically, so much so that you may change the nature of your photographs. Whether a practice is appropriate or not depends on the use to which you plan to put your images and the types of statements you’d like to make with them. To gain some additional perspective, remember that the question of whether an image has or has not been altered is a misleading question. Every image, whether documentary or artistic, has been altered, but to different degrees, in different ways and for different reasons. The real questions are how has an image been altered, and why? Questions of method, extent and intent are far more interesting and revealing.
My recommendation is first to make the strongest images you can and then honestly tell the story of how you made them. But before you commit to a final solution, explore all of your options. Your work will be stronger for it. So will your vision.
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 hundreds of lessons and his enews Insights at www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.