The photographer excludes

Brief but excellent essay over at Luminous Landscape: “The Photographer Excludes,” by Peter Cox.

There’s a saying: “The painter includes; the photographer excludes”. A painter will include only those elements in a composition which they expressly want. A photographer, on the other hand, must work out how to exclude distracting elements. This is a large part of the challenge in making great images.

I liked Cox’s example of how he took a photo that he initially thought was no good and, by cropping it further, turned it into one of his favorites. I learned the importance of cropping decades ago when I was editing my college yearbook. Time after time I turned a bad photo into one that was merely mediocre by cropping tightly. I was less often able by cropping to turn a mediocre photo into a good one.

I wrote about cropping last year (“Crop rotation“). When I shoot a wedding or other event, I tend these days to include a bit more of the scene than I think necessary. I do this for a simple practical – one might even say commercial – reason: I want to make it possible for my clients to crop the photo to whatever print size they prefer.

But I have to confess that I feel guilty about this. We don’t have an infinite number of print sizes available to us or anything like, but we do have a variety of sizes and aspect ratios. And it makes sense, at least in terms of artistic principle, that a photo that, say, ought to be presented at a 1:2 aspect ratio, should be so presented and that I should be insistent about it. This photo from my daughter’s dance studio, for example, is only interesting at 1:2. At the camera’s original 2:3 aspect ratio, the effect of the photo – the chopping and distortion created by the long and wide mirror – is almost completely lost. To print (or display) this at any other aspect ratio would be a mistake.

I wish I had the nerve to tell my brides that a 2:3 photo may be printed at 4″x6″ or even 8″x12″ (which is one of my pro lab’s options) but that it definitely should not be cropped to fit a 5″x7″ or 8″x10″ frame. If the frame is indeed the essence of the photo – and I believe it is – then monkeying around with the frame ought to be regarded as a no-no, as doing damage to the photo.

Ah, but I make more from an 8″x10″ print than I do from a 4″x6″. And if the bride’s mother wants an 8″x10″, I’ll do what I can to accommodate.


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