I’ve been experimenting with panos. So what follows are some not-terribly-scientific thoughts about how our eyes and minds react to aspect ratio in general and to panos in particular.
First, let’s start with the common 4 to 3 format, which originates in the golden ratio or golden mean (or on your old-fashioned TV)
It’s derived from Greek mathematicians, including Plato and Euclid. From the Golden Ratio a rectancle can be created from a square (figure 1). Notice how much the upper rectangle looks like an 8x10? That is not an accident! (Image from Wikipedia)
This Golden Rectangle was seen to have specially satisfying qualities by the great Renaissance painters. And it DOES work wonderfully for portraits. It became a standard for a couple of hundred years.
So, early movies were set to this ratio. Hence your old-fashioned TV set was set up to project them. And early computer monitors were just like your TV…. This is the persistence of a paradigm and will hijack this essay if I let it.
Where were we? Ah, yes, panos. Recently I got curious about the aspect ratio of normal human vision. How do we naturally see things? How does that affect the way we react to and interpret photos?
The closest I could get to working this out was that we normally see in a ratio between 1.5 to 1 and 1.6 to one. This is pretty darn close to 3:2, about the same as 35 millimeter film format, which gives a 4x6 print.
What’s magic about this aspect ratio? A rectangle shaped like this holds all the information we can see at a glance. You don’t have to scan it to get what’s going on. If you do keep looking at it, your eye will sweep it from left to right, but basically, you can get the gist of a 3:2 image all at once. This gives images greater impact, makes them easier to decode.
At 3:2 or narrower we "get" most of the picture at a glance. This perception is much more a matter of shape than size; large or small prints will work the same way, up to about 10 x 15 or a little bigger (depending on how far from your eyes the print or computer screen is situated).
As ratios start getting wider, the way we see the picture changes. There’s much more decoding going on. This example sheet makes the point.
Even though the image starts as a portrait of a cattle egret, as the aspect ratio widens, the picture changes from a portrait to a story – first we see the bird. Then we start seeing bird and water. Finally, the picture is less about the bird itself than the journey it’s on – more about the bird flying over water to someplace unspecified.
When we see a wide aspect image, with a ratio greater than 3:2, we have to stop and ask questions --- what’s happening here? How does this bit on the right tie into what I see on the left side? In extremely wide examples, 3 or 4 to 1, you simply HAVE to stop and figure out the image. Such images become “puzzle pictures” as often as not. Decoding them (and appreciating the contents) is a slow process, far from the instantaneous grasp of the 8x12, or even 8x10.
Here is a night view of Cincinnati, shown as a 3:2 and then as a 3:1 picture.
The 3:1 is much harder to grasp – and that’s true of simple pictures as well as complicated ones. It’s even true at very small sizes, where we can physically see the whole print at once, but we still stop to decode.
I’m not making an argument for or against panos in this essay. It’s just that they work differently, create different kinds of impact and story telling. In panos you exploit the relationship between material at either ends of the scene, as in this image of a boy holding back the tide. The aspect ratio of the image reinforces the tension and story in the picture.
So have a ball playing with panos – but don’t expect them to have the same effect on people as a 4:5 or 5:7 would do at a similar physical size.