Master Class
Dancing Around The Format
...And Loving It!

Some photographers who for years have been using the square format are having a difficult time adapting to the "new" 35mm rectangular format that comes out of most digital cameras. For the life of me I can't figure out why. Although I was a little skeptical at first, I fell right in with the new rectangular shape that I'm getting from my Canon digital cameras. As a matter of fact, I'm beginning to love it! Of course it's still possible to crop some of my images to squares, but I'm enjoying the shape of things to come and even reveling in it. It's added a whole new dimension to many of my images. Frames? Undoubtedly, frame manufacturers are getting on the bandwagon, too, and coming up with frames to fit the digital format.

Since I'm always composing through my viewfinder, I'm finding it easy to adapt as I shoot. I simply fill the space before making each exposure. As a means of demonstration here are a few images from a recent class in Atlanta that was sponsored by my lab, Buckeye Photo Lab. As you can see, several of the models were some of Atlanta's most promising professional dancers.

Use Arms, Legs, Or Whatever You Have Available
In these first two images notice how I've placed the dancer's hands on her hips, filling the space in both vertical and horizontal formats. Crop to any other dimensions? Possibly, but why? It's so easy to adapt most compositions to take advantage of the available space.

Lighting for these first illustrations was by a very large bank of windows. The subjects were at least 10 ft from them. There was no need to include the windows in the compositions, since they were used simply as a light source. They were not meant to be a part of the photograph. By keeping my subjects at a pretty good distance from the windows the light still had direction, but was not as contrasty as it would have been, had the dancers been right next to them.

Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

Negative Space Can Be Positive!
It's not always necessary to fill the entire framework of each photograph. At times it's actually advantageous to crop for space around your figures. Imagine, for instance, how crowded this image would be without the empty space around the subjects.

This picture, too, was made with daylight coming through the bank of windows, camera-left. Shadows from the flash? There weren't any. All available light with the white balance set to "shade." Should you use "automatic white balance"? Please don't! The color will be all over the place.

White Against White! Black Against Black!
Want to have your subjects jump right out from the picture? Blend the clothing with the background. See how in this picture the white shirt and the background become "one." You eye has to go to the dancer.

Similarly, with dark skin against a dark background your eye goes to the facial features. That's exactly why you need to have a light crossing over the skin, creating specular highlights on the edge of the face, nose, and arms. This studio portrait of another dancer is a perfect illustration of how you need to have "kicker" lights crossing over the subject to create a three-dimensional portrait of someone with dark skin.

Become aware of how light crossing over dark tones brings those areas out in great detail. Without the use of two lights coming from behind this man's portrait on both sides of his face he would be lost against a dark background. Watch for similar lighting when you're looking at television or a movie.

Taking Advantage Of The Rectangular Format Is Easy...And Practical
The rectangular composition is perfect for this portrait of a young boy with his instrument.

I've seen many portraits of people with their musical instruments. Sometimes, by size alone, the props overshadow the main subjects. Add to that the additional complexity of a subject placing his hands in "playing" position and you have all sorts of distractions.

Why not simplify? Why not use just a part of the instrument? By including just the edge of the guitar you get the message across. At the same time you can concentrate on the face of your subject. Once again, the elongated format works on your behalf. You see just enough of the guitar in this picture without it taking attention away from the main subject in the portrait.

Similarly, a man with his camera makes another interesting portrait.

The photographer in this portrait was in one of my recent classes. I found his profile very interesting. Notice how I placed the edge of his face almost in the center of the portrait, allowing him to look out into all that space in front of him. The camera and the back of his shirt were toned down in the final image. You look at the picture and see him. You look a little closer and notice that he's holding his camera. That's the way it should be. What's included in the portrait should be there, and that includes the empty space, too!

More White Against White...
Once you begin noticing light on the faces around you, you'll never be the same. Lunch time at one of my classes became a practice in observation. While eating at a nearby mall I noticed daylight coming through the atrium onto this white staircase. Our model was dressed in a white top. It was a foregone conclusion that this just had to be a location for another portrait.

Even the "setup" picture of how the portrait was made works as a picture in itself. The lines of the staircase were an incredible design to enhance her portrait. Notice how the rectangular format lent itself to the photograph. Then, cropping in to just the subject and the background made an equally effective portrait, don't you think?

Did I have a problem adapting to this format after shooting square for so many years? In my head I did, at least for the first five minutes. Then, after that it became second nature to me.

So, if you've been dancing around wondering whether or not you're going to get into the digital era, don't let the format get you down. As a matter of fact, if you try it, you're gonna love it--the same as I do!

In the meantime, I hope that you'll consider joining me for one of my classes or for one of the Shutterbug excursions to Alaska this summer or Miami in December. You can find out more details about my private classes on my website,