Thinking Inside the Box


When I was first learning photography, I was often disappointed by my images. I’d go to a beautiful place, and take many photographs. Later, when I’d examine the results on the monitor, I’d find that what had been so appealing in person wasn’t captured by the camera. Sound familiar?

One cause of my disappointment was that I hadn’t yet learned to think inside the box. Much of what makes a place beautiful or interesting to us, cannot be captured by a camera. The camera is deaf to the sound of the rushing stream. It can’t smell the scent of the firs. As I’ve discussed before, it can’t fully capture the depth that our eyes perceive. The camera will produce only a small box containing a silent, scent-free, two-dimensional replica of what we experienced. What’s inside that box is all we’ll be taking home.

We all know this in the abstract, of course, but we don’t always apply that knowledge in practice. We must learn to ignore the overall beauty of a scene, and see the scene in terms of the boxes that it offers. The two things can be quite different. I have repeatedly tried to photograph my favorite creek in Arizona—a wild and remote place—with little success. As much as I love the place, it doesn’t box well. Conversely, some places that I like much less look fine to a camera.

A viewer cannot tell that when I took this photograph, I was standing about twenty-five feet from a fairly busy, noisy road. The viewer cannot see the trash I walked through to get to this spot, or the fishing line tangled in the tree behind me. To the camera, what was outside the box didn’t exist.

What Goes in the Box, and what Doesn’t

Let’s assume that we’ve chosen a subject to photograph, and that we’ve selected a point of view.  How do we decide exactly what to include in the box and what to exclude?

The best general advice I ever received on this question was to include what is essential to the image and exclude everything else. That requires making judgments. If the details of the subject are critical, we’ll usually want to frame the subject tightly. Consider these artichokes, which were blooming recently in my backyard garden:

The context was irrelevant. I eliminated what was left of it after I framed the shot tightly, by holding a black foamboard behind the blossoms.

When the subject’s context is essential, we’ll want to frame the shot so as to show the context. In the next image, the details of the musical instruments were irrelevant. What mattered was their appearance in an unusual setting:

We can frame the shot intuitively without giving conscious thought to what’s essential and what isn’t. If we do, and if we’re reasonably competent, we will usually get the framing mostly right. When I frame intuitively, though, I almost always wind up including visual elements or space in the frame that shouldn’t be there. Those weaken the impact of the essential ingredients by diluting their impact. We can do better by making careful, conscious decisions about what to include and what to exclude.

We can, of course, frame generously and crop out what doesn’t belong during processing. That causes a loss of resolution, though, and I like to have all the resolution I can get. Besides, why postpone a decision we’ll have to make eventually?

Where to Place the Visual Elements

We can place the subject anywhere in the box—dead center, at any edge, or even partially cut off. If we make the choice intuitively, many of us will place the subject according to the rule of thirds, usually at a so-called power point.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach. Most of us use it because it works. If the rule-of-thirds approach becomes habitual, though, we may go wrong in several ways. We may place the subject in a way that makes no sense in light of that which is in the remainder of the frame. We may fail to recognize situations in which a different placement of the subject would produce a better and more interesting image. Sometimes we can produce an interesting image by cutting off some of the visual elements—or, in this case, all of them:

When we do this, the viewer’s mind must engage a little more to make sense of the scene.

There are also times when centering the subject is appropriate. The next photograph is of the top of a cactus, photographed from above.

The subject is essentially circular. It resists being boxed. I made the image as circular as I could by using a circular selection, and cutting out all else, but the software still placed a black box around my circle, as I knew it would. One reason why photographers must think inside the box is because we can’t get out of it.

What the Dimensions of the Box Should Be

My camera’s aspect ratio is 3:2, so it places every image in a 3x2 box. Why those dimensions? Because, as I understand it, an engineer at Leica happened to choose those dimensions in the early twentieth century. The 3x2 ratio bears some resemblance to the golden ratio of roughly 1.618x1, but to my taste the golden ratio is more pleasing.

If the world always offered optimum compositions within my camera’s 3x2 boundaries, I would never need to crop or create panoramas. But it doesn’t. We should freely choose other dimensions for an image when the composition calls for it. Otherwise, our images will contain visual elements and spaces that don’t belong. With the photograph of the cactus above, for example, the shape of the subject demanded a box with fairly square dimensions.  In the following image, there was absolutely nothing above or below the subject that belonged in the photograph. When I took it, I knew that I’d be cropping it.

Unless we’re creating panoramas, altering the dimensions of the box will need to be done by cropping during processing. We nonetheless need to be cognizant of what the final dimensions of the image are going to be when we frame the shot. Otherwise we may unconsciously arrange the visual elements in a way that best fits the camera’s aspect ratio rather than the image we intend to produce. In some circumstances, areas that appear in the viewfinder which are destined to be cropped can also throw off the exposure.

Remembering the Big Picture

Sometimes we become so absorbed in the details in the viewfinder, that we lose sight of whether the overall composition is satisfactory. In the field, I sometimes adjust the focus to blur the scene, so as to obscure the details, and then I examine the blurred image critically. That may sound odd, but if a composition doesn’t look appropriately balanced and tonally varied when blurred, it usually won’t hold up for me when the details are sharp, either.

In photography, thinking inside the box doesn’t mean being conventional and unimaginative. It means coming to grips with the fact that boxes are all that our cameras can produce. Our decisions about the contents, arrangement and design of those boxes need to be made as carefully and deliberately as circumstances permit.

You can see more of Don's work at his Smugmug.

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Simply amazine visuals! The photos look like paintings.

I like the comment on the waterfall.  I have been watching a sunflower field for them to reach their peak and will have the save issues.  A well shot photo can definitely make a beautiful shot in an ugly area.  

Thanks very much for the kind words, Guy.

Would love to know which creek in AZ you're shooting.

Steven Monck, thanks for the comment.

SteveA, I usually don't disclose locations of areas that aren't well known, but this place is well known and heavily visited, so I'm not giving anything away.  It's Tonto Creek near Kohl's Ranch. 

This is awesome Don, what's your camera of choice

Michael, thanks for the comment.  My camera of choice awaits sufficient funding!  These were all taken with a Canon Rebel XTi.

The small, light grey type, on grey, makes it very uncomfortable if not impossible to read. What are you thinking? I ultimately just give up and do without reading what may be an interesting article.