The Ins and Outs of Aspect Ratio

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It’s a story as old as time itself. Client orders prints. Client picks up prints. Client wants to know why the 5×7 doesn’t look like the 8×12 or why the 8×12 doesn’t look like the 11×14. I can even see it coming, as they look back and forth from one to the other, as if the sheer force of will can make the two match up exactly. When supernatural forces don’t resolve the problem for them, they all ask some variation of the same question– “Why are they cropped differently?” And thus begins yet another explanation of aspect ratio. Forget that we had this conversation when they ordered their prints. Forget that I pulled out a set of sample photos I keep on hand for just such a conversation. Forget that I showed them with these very same photos on the monitor when they ordered. Forget everything that happened before the moment they laid eyes on their own prints for the first time. All they know is that the different sizes don’t match up exactly and they want to know why.

At a time when our clients are becoming more and more familiar with the jargon of photography, this concept of aspect ratio seems to be one that never made it into their mainstream lexicon. They feel the need to ask, “Is that a full frame camera?” or point out that “My sister-in-law’s cousin’s neighbor’s son shoots with a Canon something or other. What about you?” Actually, my personal favorite is, “We don’t want albums or prints– just the RAW files.” Those are conversations which are usually pretty easy to navigate. but there’s still something about aspect ratio that leaves them scratching their heads. Unfortunately, I think part of the blame falls with us. Without making a blanket statement about all photographers, I think there is a sizable segment of us that either don’t fully understand the concept ourselves, or– more likely– simply have a difficult time explaining it.

Aspect ratio is nothing more than a size relationship, denoting the proportions of one side of a photo compared to the other. The most common aspect ratio in today’s DSLRs is 3:2, meaning that the long side has three units for every two units on the other side. A 6″x4″ photo is a pretty common example of a 3:2 aspect ratio. 6÷2=3 and 4÷2=2, resulting in the 3:2 ratio. This means that all multiples of 3:2 will crop or print with the same view (e.g., 9×6, 12×8). It is because 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, and 16×20 are not multiples of the 3:2 ratio that those print sizes will have obvious differences.

But how did we get here?

In the Beginning, There Was 4:3

It was Thomas Edison who in 1888 developed a movie camera using film that was 35mm wide. Adding sprocket holes along both edges of the film left a maximum of only 24mm of usable frame. The frame height of 18mm resulted in an aspect ratio of 4:3. Why those exact measurements? Actually, nobody knows for sure. Some say that 4:3 is a pretty close approximation of the human eye’s field of vision, which is probably why it became not only a movie industry standard, but also the standard for television and computer screens.

Then There Were 35mm Stills, and 3:2

The technology of still photography was growing by leaps and bounds at this point and inventors like George Eastman were using 35mm film that advanced horizontally, rather than vertically. This allowed them to double the size of the frame to 24x36mm– a 3:2 aspect ratio. This double frame eventually became the standard for 35mm photography, or what we now refer to in the digital world as “full frame.”

Modern Movie Screens Stretch it Wide

With the introduction of Panavision (and Cinemascope before it) in the 1950s, movie-goers were engrossed by images projected in a 12:5 aspect ratio. In an effort to standardize our viewing experiences, the 1980s ushered in the era of the 16:9 ratio. The theory was that it was wide enough for movies, but could also translate well into 4:3, thereby working well as a new standard for televisions and computer monitors. I’m not sure just how well this all worked out as a “standard,” since just about every time I sit down to watch a movie at home I am told that “this film has been modified to fit your screen.”

The Three Looks of APS (Advanced Photo System)

Did you have one of these cameras? I did. With the flip of a switch, you could change the aspect ratio, even in mid-roll. The film’s “native format” had a 16:9 aspect ratio, but could be switched to either a panoramic view or a classic 3:2. Those photographers shooting non-full frame sensor cameras have this early incarnation of the APS size to thank for their APS-C sensors.

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Traveling Light With 4:3

What goes around comes around and eventually a 4:3 aspect ratio found its way back inside our cameras, thanks to manufacturers like Olympus. The Four Thirds System was actually named for the four-thirds-inch video tube standard, which just happens to also have a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Instagram Goes Old School With 1:1

The square format– a true 1:1– originated with the 120 roll film of such classic cameras as the Relleiflex TLR, and was later used in a wide variety of medium format SLRs. Digital medium format has retained the 1:1 ratio, making framing and cropping perhaps a much more precise exercise than in cameras and formats with rectangular views.

Speaking of Cropping…

This is what got us into this conversation in the first place, so let’s get back to the issue at hand. In the portrait below, I’ve shown how four of the ratios we’ve discussed will affect the same image. The red crop shows the 4:3 ratio, while the blue crop is 3:2, the yellow is 16:9, and the pink is 1:1. So, the big question here is, “which one is right?” The answer is that it’s a dumb question– they all are! Photography is full of rules. Some make sense, some don’t. One of the things I stress time and time again to my students is that I don’t care if they break the rules, as long as I’m confident that they know and understand them before breaking them. That’s a bit less important here, because we are simply talking about personal aesthetic. The personal aesthetic, though, is very important, because it’s going to have an impact on how I frame the image before pressing the shutter button. The simple act of shooting a bit loose in anticipation of cropping different sizes has saved my ass more times than I can count.

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While each aspect ratio has an obvious impact on the portrait, each view still shows the important part of the image– the face. What happens, though, when we are faced with subjects like landscapes or other outdoor scenes where a different aspect ratio can mean the difference between keeping an element in the final print or cropping it out? In this photo of the Manhattan skyline, we see a much more dramatic impact of cropping and aspect ratio.

 

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But Clients Order Sizes, Not Ratios

The examples below are shown straight off the camera, as well as cropped to 5×7 and 8×10– two fairly popular print sizes. I’ve retained the entire right edge in each crop. This is one of the best ways to visually demonstrate to a client why they may find certain crop sizes preferable to others. Point out to them how each successive crop brings the left side closer and closer to the subjects.

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Wrap-Up

Ultimately, it is the subject matter and personal taste that should dictate the aspect ratio– and therefore the shape– of your photos. I’m a big fan of cropping in the viewfinder, but sometimes it’s a good idea to zoom out and shoot a little wider. With today’s high megapixel counts, cropping portions from your photos without losing image quality is easier than ever. It also gives you a little extra room to work with when the client wants a size that might not otherwise crop well. Standard frame sizes unfortunately keep us tied to certain print sizes, which is something else to keep in mind while composing your shots.

All photos Copyright Guyer Photography, all rights reserved.