The wonder of on-screen editing of digital images is the ease of trial and error. Instead of darkrooms, trays of chemicals, drying times and for color work, even more complexity of temperature and chemical selection. Now a person can start with the captured composition and go hog-wild with filters, effects, multiple crop renditions, and various other post-processing expressions. Ansel Adams, trained originally as classical pianist, spoke of the captured image on negatives as a musical score containing all the information a person would need to carry out various interpretations in the live performance. In other words, while vision to composition and capture was essential, what mattered as much or more was the next part, producing a final print for others to see.
Taken to the extreme, one might wish all locations, subjects or events to be portrayed in 360 degree spherical capture, thereby producing an inclusive moment. The difficulty is not so much technical as human: too much information (all inclusive context) can be as unfriendly as too little information (out of context). Possibly a middle ground is the panorama, not 360 spherical degrees, but 145-180 degrees to simulate the human eyes’ field of view; produced not by peculiar optical formula, but instead by software stitching multiple frames into a single fabric, based on the proportions captured with a ‘normal’ focal length (35-65mm, expressed in terms of a 35mm film camera).
As a photographer or an audience member develops an eye for light, line, composition and significance of social observations, the ability to identify a picture in its surrounding context grows wider. That is to say, a beginner may require a tightly cropped presentation to see a subject in its glory. But an intermediate, serious enthusiast, or full-time amateur (leaving aside the constraints on professionals) may instead be able to see a subject in its splendor and wonder without that tight frame. The well-developed vision allows a person to see the subject together in its context and then convey this wider field of view while still centering on the subject itself. In other words, the crop lines can grow ever wider as experience or expertise expands. In the picture above, the suggested crop lines make a simple statement: children view sunny harbor. But the original image, outside these crop lines, in fact is Whitby harbor on the North Sea coast of England in middle February, mid-week during the half-term school holidays. On the horizon is St. Mary’s on the left and the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the right. Surely this wider context adds much meaning to the image. To give the verbal context with the narrowly cropped picture does restore some of the meaning excluded in the suggested crop lines, but still this central subject of the cropped lines can still be observed in the original, wider frame of the image. However, depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s visual faculties, little of note may stand out without the aid of the crop lines.
In summary, in photographic vision as in living, daily perception, experience in reading a scene has its rewards. No two people will see things the same way, of course, since they bring their store of words and images to their reading (of book, scripture, film, social engagement, problem-solving deadlines, etc). But to this difference in standpoint we can add also a difference in depth of experience. The tighter the crop lines and more simply centered the subject, the easier it is for a person to perceive the significance. The simplest of all is a subject isolated from background. This corresponds to the syllable or word or phrase level of expression: worn out tennis ball on pavement, for example. The opposite extreme is a composition that seems to invite an entire episode or series of events within its frame as the eye travels along the several compositional lines from near ground to background, and from corner to center and side to side, passing between image and one’s own internal landscape of memories, associations and imagination. A private version of just such a vision is a “memory place” (Pierre Nora c.1993 wrote of “les lieux de memoirs”), but a shared or public version is a composition that invites a viewer to explore its detail again and again. In between the “word level” and the “story level” are most photographers’ work – sometimes expressing a single subject, other times giving a measured but small context. By adding narration (audio) or caption, the verbal layer can weave threads of meaning to the form a bigger context. Therefore, when admiring a picture, consider also what lies outside the crop lines – not just distraction or competing elements to the main subject, but a native setting in which the jewel that first caught the photographer’s eye can be found. The more that one can appreciate the gem in the natural setting (not just set into a platinum band, polished and displayed in a velvet box with track lighting spotlights), the more likely one will be able to spot other treasures in their own daily life, too.