Whenever we look through the camera’s viewfinder we instinctually begin our process of composition within the imposed frame. That search inside the frame for an appropriate placement of our subject is the crucial task of all artists. Even though there are theories and systems on how great composition is achieved, no two people really ever approach this issue in the same manner. Even intentional imitation can’t approximate the personal charismatic arrangement of another’s clear artistic process.
Rectangular format seems to me to be a most popular and versatile fundamental shape in which to compose our photographs. We grow up looking at rectangular shapes in the form of windows, paintings and books. Subconsciously, that experience assists us in creating in our own pictures something I call personal visual order. Before there is a picture made in our camera, there is a psychological impression of the actual scene. The final composition exhibits the impact of your ideas and decisions about all the relationships in your composition, perceived initially as subject/frame.
The primary important choices with the rectangle are your options concerning horizontal or vertical orientation. The horizontal display describes the world in a representational manner. It gives the viewer opportunities to navigate laterally through your frame. Whether you are working in 35mm, 120mm or large format, the rectangle consistently embodies characteristics that emphasize and employ height and width as basic tools in pure display. A full-length portrait set in a vertical format strengthens the height, intensifying the feelings behind the vertical choice. A horizontal format would tend to lessen or integrate the tall figure into the world instead of displaying or exaggerating height.
Whereas a square-shaped frame emphasizes the central drama it contains, rectangles are more eccentric in their operation. There is more space to choose from left and right or over and under the center. That space does not have to simply surround it, but drama can happen there as well. Those adjacent zones operate independently from the central activity without distracting the viewer from the central impact. Tension is still created when placing elements close to the edge of the frame, but there is more room than in the square.
You can effectively begin to implement all this information in your portraits by first becoming familiar with the camera itself. Confusion with the camera is a guarantee for less than excellent results, technical and aesthetic. Second, by creating a comfortable climate for you and your subject, you can allow some time to make the important decisions about composition that will assist you in efficiently telling your story.
Our own personal experience, style, and knowledge offer us most of the artistic genius needed for personal photographic expression. That stated, we all have one particular frame that we are more comfortable working in than others. That is probably why we love the camera that we do, relying on it to assist us in clearly seeing where things go, and how to simply and efficiently go about our business of making our pictures.