Formats, framing, and the psychology of aesthetics

Disclaimer: this is not a scholarly treatise. No one is paying me to write this, so no extensive research is being done to produce it. Other than interrogating my own failing memory. More than 50 years of photographic experience and prior historical learning is all I’ve got to base any of this on. If you want more, look it up yourself. And good luck to you.

Quite a number of people, especially those venturing into film photography for the first time, find themselves wondering about how the standards for image sizes were arrived at. Was there logic behind it? Reasoning? Or purely arbitrary decision making? The answer is a bit of all three, and then some. The best way to examine this is by dividing the issue into two parts: the technological and the biological.

To start with let’s look at the general history of photography and what influence that had. The first photographs were made on glass plates covered with liquid emulsion. It was messy and difficult (says the man who did some experiments) and the size of the plates were determined by two factors: a need to get as large a picture as possible to preserve detail and the limitations of the existing glass-producing technology. Probably everyone reading this is too young to have ever heard the terms “full plate camera” and “half plate camera” but those were the beginnings. In those days (19th century) making large plates of glass was not easy, both from manufacturing and handling points of view. So here we start with 8″ by 10″ plates, and we recognize those beginnings in the 8×10 print sizes still standard today.

DadDad and his Cycle Poco “full plate” view camera

Now if you’ve done any darkroom work yourself or even just looked through the frames available at the local store you’ll see some other “standard” sizes, and begin to wonder how we got there. Okay, cut an 8×10 in half and you get … 5×7? What? Where did that inch go? Well we do (or did) have 4×5 inch (“quarter plate”) negatives and prints, so that makes sense. But 5×7 doesn’t. This is obviously a case of some arbitrary intrusion by someone saying “that doesn’t look right” and lopping off another inch.

Of course 5×7 cuts down to 3 ½ x 5 quite nicely. On the other end of the spectrum we have the obvious 16×20 quadrupling of the 8×10, but also the inexplicable 11×14 multiple of the 5×7. Uh, where did that extra inch come from on the 11 side? Must be what they cut off from the 8 to make the 7, eh? *LOL* I suspect another “doesn’t look right” intrusion, myself.

Yet these print sizes, when looked at as ratios, don’t always align with negative sizes. “Standard” film formats include 2 ¼ x 2 ¼, 2 ¼ x 3 ¼, 4 x 5, et cetera. Not to mention numerous ‘oddball’ roll film dimensions, including good ol’ 122 “postcard” size (which literally was created to make contact-print postcard images). Never mind the sub-miniature formats created for specialized purposes, like the Minox 9.5 cm rolls. (Brief note here: not all film is measured in Imperial; 6×9 cm and 9×12 cm were standard European formats for sheet film, for example.)


Minox B image by David Bruce via Camera-Wiki

Let’s take a side trip to the realm of 35 mm. As you know this was straight out of the world of cinema. What you probably didn’t know is that the so-called “half frame” 35s, such as the Olympus Pen series, are actually single frame; the size originally used for movie making. The 24 x 36 mm format now standard in still cameras is actually double frame. Here’s some more trivia: Kodak promoted a roll film size 828 for awhile which was basically 35 mm without the cog holes but with a paper backing. Their intent was to promote ‘professional grade’ photography for amateurs. Frankly some of the cameras they produced for this (look up Kodak Bantam) were quite good. Others (Kodak Pony) not so much so. But the amateur market took a liking to 127 instead, and 828 failed.

Ratios! It’s all about ratios. 8×10 is 1:1.25. 5×7 is 1:1.4. Yet if we look at the negatives we get 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ being 1:1 and 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ being 1:1.44 – pretty close to 5×7 – and 4 x 5 being 1:1.25 (same as 8×10). Why the occasional odd-man-out? In some cases it’s because a manufacturer had a specific goal in mind. In others it’s a mathematical fallout: 120-220-620 roll film is all basically the same but with different spool types and film lengths. However if you play games with the format it can produce eight pictures of one size or twelve pictures of a smaller size or even sixteen if you shrink the format even more. This can be marketed: same film, more photos! It was done extensively with cheap 127 cameras where you rolled the number first to the ‘A’ window, took a snap, and then rolled the same number to the ‘B’ window for the next shot. I also had a box camera, Agfa Shur Shot, which used 120 film and could be switched between ½ frame and full frame before loading the film by means of hinged ‘masks’ which blocked off part of the film plane.

How about a side note on 127 film? Have you ever seen a Yashica 44? Maybe a Sawyers or Nomad TLR? These little marvels shot square on 127 film, and if you could get your hands on some 127 Ektachrome (yes, they made it) you could make some “super slides“! They fit in the same 2×2 slide holders as 35 mm, but almost the entire space was image. This made for a spectacular interruption in your show, interspersed with the standard images. Unfortunately they were more fragile with their very large film area, and the heat of the lamps would bend them badly. Not much cardboard around the edges to keep them stiff.


Yashica 44 image by Voxphoto via Camera-Wiki

Okay back to ratios. Single 35 mm is 24×18 or 1.33:1. Double (or ‘normal’ now) is 24×36 or 1:1.5. Neither of these matches exactly with any of the old standard print sizes. It wasn’t until the 1970s when Kodak realized there were a lot of 35 mm shooters out there and began offering the 4×6 prints that gave you the full frame. Until then, and even now in most cases, something gets cropped.

You’re waiting for the biology part, aren’t you? Well here it comes. Part biology and part resultant psychology. Our wonderful stereoscopic full-colour vision gives us the ability to see the world better than any other animal. Oh I know people talk about having “eagle-eye vision” and they imagine flies see dozens of multiples of the same thing (they don’t; it would be useless to) and that dogs see in black and white (also wrong). How much anatomy do I have to explain here? Rods and cones? Stereoscopic depth-perception in predators vs. panoramic vision in prey? Colour perception as a means of identifying food and mates? Multi-lens vision for creatures too small to have eye muscles? Let’s just say our human vision gives us the best compromise of everything.

What it also gives us is rectangular perception of the world. Two eyes side-by-side inevitably means we see more on the horizontal than on the vertical. Now don’t go and hurt yourself trying to determine just how far your peripheral vision goes in each direction. Leave that to the professionals. Er, the determining not the hurting. The fact is we look at the world as a rectangle, and this shapes our aesthetic perceptions. I remember reading (in psychology – don’t ask) about the “ideal pleasing ratio” our minds are ‘programmed’ with. It tends to be 1:1.6. This is probably the vertical:horizontal aspect of human vision, I don’t know. But if you look around you will see we are creatures of rectangles, from our own general shape to the houses we build to the things we fill them with.

This filters down into the choices we make in reproducing our world in images. It’s why we have a natural tendency to choose rectangular formats for pictures, be they drawings or paintings or photographs. Some of you have just said “oh yeah? Explain why square images sometimes look better, then!” Okay, I will. It’s art. Sometime the purpose of art is to step outside the ordinary and wake up the mind. Things that are what we are used to seeing blend into the background. If you frame them differently the mind detects something “out of the ordinary” and pays more attention to it. You can duplicate this by putting a frame, rectangular or square, around anything; it suddenly stands out more, even if it’s a section of blank wall. Helpful hint: being able to see this effect in your mind’s eye will give you more insight in composing your pictures; you don’t have to fall for the movie-making cliché of using your hands to actually form the frame.

That said, sometimes the wrong rectangle irks us. When you’re fixing up a photo that wasn’t framed well to begin with watch out for that ‘just wrong’ ratio. It’s not always a case of “too wide” or “too tall” either. It’s more often a case of not being blatantly square or blatantly rectangular that makes it look odd to our minds. It seems we need at least a 25% differential to be ‘happy’ with the result, and square needs to be less than 5% different to be accepted.

One last historic note: the Universal Camera Company tried mightily to kick Eastman Kodak’s dominance of the film format dictum. They made their own sizes, such as ’00’, which were not simply different names for the same size (as some other companies did). They failed. Not because they made poor cameras, but because they were already up against a juggernaut. Curiously Kodak managed to fail themselves on new film formats that the public wouldn’t buy into. The Disc cameras, for example. They started out with very fine quality given the size of the negative, but in the end the quality went down and the public turned away. This was before the advent of digital cameras that ultimately proved the downfall of the company. They did not adapt quickly enough, in my opinion.

DSCN1376Universal Camera Univex AF which uses ’00’ film

Now on to digital. Here we have to introduce new influences. Influences that come from the world of … television! Yes, and curiously it starts with the limitations of glass making picture tubes ‘square’ (round, in fact) back in the early days of the cathode ray tube. Inject the ‘letter-boxing’, cropping, or ‘scan-and-pan’ of widescreen theater movies being shown later on TV and the industry desire to present the whole. Throw in the original computer screens with their 40 character displays. Stir well, and demand better. As with digital cameras, LED displays lack the limitations of primitive glass technology. Now we can make the format what we want: big enough to see Todd-AO movies! And now a whole new generation of arbitrary decision makers will adjust our aspect ratios.

My advice is to ignore them, and go with what you like the look of. Try different formats certainly, but always remember the end result should reflect the creator’s vision – and that means you.

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