The Vital (Un)Importance Of Aspect Ratio

Some 12 or 13 years ago, I had no idea what aspect ratio meant.

I was happily snapping away with my Sony camera phones, simply using the dimensions of the screen to find and frame compositions I thought fitted it best. In a way I miss these days of blissful ignorance!

Looking back now I can see the photos were 4:3. In other words every four units along one side, there were three units the other side.

Once I discovered 35mm film in 2012, 3:2 became the norm for me.

So much so that I switched any subsequent digital cameras to 3:2 also, like my Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q. My Pentax DSLRs were 3:2 by default anyway.

Even with my iPhone I used Hipstamatic to shoot 3:2 as there was no option in the phone’s standard camera app.

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My new Sony Xperia phone is by default 4:3. Which, despite my experience with it with camera phones years ago, now just doesn’t look right, and feels like an awkward love child between 3:2 and 1:1.

The Xperia also has 16:9. I’ve dabbled with this aspect ratio in the past (my Sony NEX had it as an option) but never really gelled with it.

Somehow on the Xperia though, where with the aspect ratio the photographs fill very last pixel of the screen, it makes perfect sense.

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Which has led me to a kind of minor epiphany.

It seems what is more important to me in composing is having the image fill the viewfinder or screen, rather than what the actual aspect ratio is.

Using 4:3 on the Xperia gives huge bars of black space either side and makes it seem unnatural. 16:9 fills the screen and feels exactly what it was designed and optimised for.

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I’ve also started using Snapseed for processing (the primary reason being as much as I like Hipstamatic, it’s not available on Android) and this has all kind of cropping options, including 1:1 and 3:2.

So I could easily take photos at 4:3 on the Xperia then crop afterwards slightly to 3:2 in Snapseed.

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But I greatly resist cropping of any photo. It’s just one of my basic rules.

Again it goes back to wanting what I see in the viewfinder or screen to be the same size and dimensions as the final photograph, and keeping things simple.

Put another way, I don’t like having to try to imagine where the edges of 3:2 might look be on a 4:3 screen, or what 4:3 might look like on a 16:9 screen and so on. It’s an extra layer of decision and thinking that would only get in the way of the flow and simple pleasure of making photographs.

(As an aside, I cannot fathom how people make an image in one aspect ratio then try half a dozen different crops afterwards in the editing stages. Way too many decisions for me! I just commit to the original composition and take another step into the depths of irreversible photography).

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So in summary, I think aspect ratio is important.

It helps our ability to compose well if we stick to one or two aspect ratios, and shoot with the intention of the final image being the same aspect ratio we original see it in.

But for me, it seems the specific aspect ratio is less crucial than how the screen of the camera/device presents the world to us.

I guess it’s like being in a quirky old building in a picturesque location. Each window may be a different size and dimensions, but when you look through, the edges of the window seems to perfectly frame the beautiful scene beyond.

I plan to stick to 3:2 with the Ricoh and Pentax Q, it makes most sense. With my Xperia I’m going to stay with 16:9 as that makes most sense and feels most natural for that camera. Beyond that, I can’t see the need for any other aspect ratio.

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How about you? How important do you feel the aspect ratio is when you’re taking photographs? Do you use a consistent aspect ratio across all cameras you use? When and why do you change it?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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31 thoughts on “The Vital (Un)Importance Of Aspect Ratio”

  1. I guess one of the considerations, is the media you intend to publish your images. For a long time Instagram was purely 1:1 square. They have changed that now and allow a couple of other ratios, none of which are 3:2 btw . But using instagram as an example, if that were where you published your images (my wife does), then restricting yourself to the ratios they permit you to publish when composing an image might be a good move …

    1. ps. By the way .. my Wife doesn’t actually concern herself with such nerdy things. She just takes pictures of things she has cooked with her smart phone, applies whichever instagram filter makes it look tastiest and bungs it up on Instagram.

      1. In a way I love this direct and fun approach. And yes I realised your wife’s smartphone isn’t so evolved that it has a built in microwave app… Maybe in a few years time though this will be a reality!

    2. Hi Tony, yes I used to like that about Instagram, at least the square format made it stand out as something different, and no doubt encouraged people who maybe hadn’t tried 1:1 before.

      What I really don’t like is when people take photos at 3:2 or 4:3 or whatever than afterwards decided to crop them at a later date to a square just to fit in with Instagram. If you want to shoot square photos, just commit to it right from the start, and look for the compositions that will work best in that format.

      I would also add that personally I think we should photograph for ourselves first. If we prefer to photograph 3:2 but want to publish to a site that only allows 1:1, for example, then maybe we need to choose a different place to publish. Tailoring our photography to try to please someone else is a slippery slope towards frustration in my book!

      1. She wouldn’t probably wouldn’t consider it photography, she would consider it instagramming. If I were to suggest she might consider another platform if she preferred 3:2 … or whatever … she would look at me like I grew an extra head.

  2. Good question, Dan! Having grown up with film, the 3:2 ratio is firmly set in my brain. I really have problems framing with 4:3 acpect cameras, 16:9 is out of the question…..

    I had some 4:3 aspect cameras (like the Fuji X10, 20 and 30) but always set them to 3:2. Is it pure habit or some deep stuff about the ‘Golden Ratio’? No idea. I just seem to frame better in that format. And it conforms to the olde photo format of 4 by 6 inches.

    3:2 just looks better to me.

    On my iPhone, as you know I use 1:1 square aspect for practical reasons mostly, so I can hold the thing upright and use the volume button as shutter.

  3. now this is something I’ve never really thought much about… So, I figured I’d give the subject a moment or two of contemplation. I blame you Dan… You are your provocative musings 😉

    hmmmmm, aspect ration?
    I’ve always been an art lover. Did my obligatory art studies after leaving school, and to this day still love the mechanics of creativity and the physical manifestation thereof. The one</strong) principle that has always been a yard stick by which I view the world has been that of the golden ratio and still is, in the classic (close as dammit) 3:2</strong? ratio. It's just what feels 'comfortable' to me.

    Having said that, I will readily admit that I do not worship at that alter. I use it as a guide. If something looks better in a 'pano' so be it. Or the much-loved new kid on the block, 1:1, so be it. What I do do (a da da da) is not limit myself to any one particular way of seeing the world. Or I try not to cram the world into how much space I allow it. Okay, I think I need to a cuppa Joe… that is too esoteric for this time of the morning

    #GoldenRuleRules

    (yes, caffeine deficiency)

    have a good one mate 🙂

    1. I wonder if this is the reason 3:2 just looks right? Or just because for decades many of us predominantly got used to looking at 35mm photographs in 3:2?

      What ratio is your large format camera, is it 5:4?

      1. that’s correct sir…
        The 5:4 ratio in portrait is just the most pleasing thing.

        Swing a 3:2 35mm image into portrait, and the problem will hit you in the face. It’s really odd how the human/brain perceives and interrupts various ratios. I think it has to do with field of view (or field of view IN FOCUS) Our field is, for want of a better term, panoramic. But our field of view in focus (with the overlap of our 2 front facing eyes) is approximately 3:2, in landscape. We tend not to take into account the top and lower third of our vision. Flip that into portrait, and the if all feels just too uncomfortable.

        As a matter of fact I actually grew up with a 6×6 sized images. My dad had a Rolleiflex which produced lovely 1:1 ratio images, or as I knew them, photographs 😉

        1. But did your dad shoot those 6×6 photographs in portrait or landscape orientation? 🙂

          Interesting thoughts about our field of vision. Yes we do seem to be able to take in more horizontally than vertically. I think this is why landscape photographs are pleasing in 3:2 (or even 16:9) because that’s kind of how we see and memorise such vistas with the naked eye.

          On a (sort of) related note, I’ve always been fascinated with the A system of paper sizes. The actual measurements in mm seem somewhat random, but the fact that each time you go up a size it’s by turning the previous size sideways and doubling I find almost magical.

          Actually, this is not dissimilar to shutter speeds and aperture stops. Each stop up/down halves/doubles the amount of light. Beautiful!

          1. “turning the previous size sideways and doubling”… mind blown!!!!

            Of course that makes sense. Learn something new each day
            You are as much a @numberphile as I am 🙂 Love those guys and girls

            beautiful elegance….

          2. Didn’t you know that about paper? A4 is two sheets of A5 joined by their longest edge, A3 is two sheets of A4 joined by the longest edge and so on.

            Or looking at it from the opposite end, fold a piece of A3 in half along the longest edge and you get A4, again you get A5 and so on.

            Just feels very embedded in the natural order of things…

            I barely use Twitter, but might have to have a browse through @numberphile’s posts… 🙂

          3. I think he may be right … imagine a pair of specs in portrait format and how comfortable they might be to use (or rather not) … apart from, looking kind of daft. I hadn’t thought about it before. I may go and see what some of my past 3:2 portrait shots look like cropped to 5:4, composition permitting.

            Thinking back, my first experiences with a camera were in square format, a Kodak Instamatic 126. Ideal camera in some ways, especially for an 8 year old kid. There was literally nothing to think about except was the sun out and what was in the viewfinder, not even which way to hold it. I can’t claim to have taken any great photos with it though 🙂

          4. Yes I do think 1:1 is a great format because you never have to think about the orientation. Everything just fits in the same square, all that changes is how far away you stand therefore how much or little of the scene your square frames.

  4. Reading your posts I can see you speak in a way for the average person like me can understand . I just don’t get the point aspect ratio ! I look at example photos and try to figure where their starting point is and what their end goal might be . I just don’t get it! Thanks for your time MW

    1. Hi MW, thanks for your comment.

      I think as I have a background in maths, and my brain just loves things like numbers and geometry, it comes more easily.

      When I used to take film in to a local camera shop to be developed, I overheard many conversations where the frustrated printer would try to explain to the customer why their 4:3 images wouldn’t fit a 5×7 frame without either being cropped, or with black bars at the edges.

      I have never understood why 5×7 inch frames are so popular, when I don’t know of any camera that makes images in a 5:7 aspect ratio!

      6×4 inches makes perfect sense as it’s the same ratio as film, ie 3:2. But 5:7, huh?

  5. I grew up with 1:1 being the “standard” ratio, as my mom wielded a 126 camera to shoot all the family stuff through probably the late 80s.

    And so the 3:2 ratio seemed both strange and liberating when I started shooting 35mm. Strange because I was used to square, but liberating because finally I could take a decent landscape, one without a lot of useless information above and below the subject. (Big sky, anyone?)

    When I got my first digital camera I forced it to 3:2 even though its default was 4:3. But no more. Now I just shoot whatever the default is on a digital camera and move on.

    While I generally shoot for the aspect ratio my camera uses, there are times when I compose knowing I’ll crop to another ratio. I generally shoot portraits on 35mm knowing I’ll crop to 4:5, for example.

    1. Jim, so how do you compose for 4:5 when shooting 3:2? How do you know where the edges will be? Or do you just leave lots of dead space around all edges so you can crop down to fit afterwards?

  6. These days all of my photos are taken with my 35mm film cameras or my iPhone. The film cameras are 2:3, of course, and I use the iPhone at its native 3:4 format.

    My small prints are 4×6 (2:3), to fit the frames my family and friends use. My larger prints are either 8×10 (4:5) or 7×10.5 (2:3), so there is some cropping going on.

    In “The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging” David Vestal wrote, “The way to arrange pictures well is to pay attention to what you see when photographing and printing and to fill the pictures with things that are worth seeing.”

    I’ve been trying to do that ever since I read these words in 1984. I usually don’t frame too tightly when I take pictures and I find that when I crop and size the images for printing almost all of the landscape orientation images look best at 2:3. The portrait orientation images are another matter. Some of them look better at 4:5. I try to avoid this because of the fixed aspect ratio of my small prints but it happens anyway.

    (One other thing I’ve done on occasion is print a 5×7 image on 8×10 paper, which makes a 1.5” border all around, put it in an inexpensive 8×10 frame and sent the whole thing to the recipient.)

  7. With high res cameras (42mp or better) you can take a single photo of the whole scene and crop multiple times to get sometimes 4 great images. I crop all the time. Especially my 4 x 3 shots. I don’t like the way they look.

    1. Interesting, in that this is the complete opposite of how I’m approaching photography… How do you decide how to frame? And once you have that huge picture, how do you decide what size and dimensions to crop, when the options are virtually infinite? It’s almost like you continue the hunt for an interesting composition back home, rather than out in the field.

      1. I find it opens up amazing opportunities. You can leave the house with a 21mm prime and actually have the equivalent of a 21, 35, 50, and 60 with you. You can take a full length portrait at 21mm out in the field but then crop out the majority of her body to have a great face shot. It works well for me as a one lens, one camera thing you talk about all the time.
        I’m not hunting for an interesting composition back home. It usually presents it self obviously. Such as a car photo that has a great portrait of a person in the reflection. Or today I ended up having to do ‘bird in flight’ shots of a vulture with a 35mm fixed lens camera. I am overjoyed with the quality of the shots when cropped in dramatically.

        1. I can see the appeal for you, especially then needing only one lens and one camera. If you use say a 21mm prime though, isn’t there distortion compared with using more of a “normal” lens?

          1. Yes there is distortion. It lessens depending on the lens. If do a close up face shot at 21mm it’s usually not nice. But if you shot the whole person and crop in on the face, it can be great. 21 is an extreme that is necessary sometimes to get the shot. If it’s all you have on you, it can be used as a 50mm if the resolution is high and you crop like crazy.

          2. Yes I guess with a wide lens you get more distortion the closer you get to the subject. So once you adjust to that you can work around it. The idea of so many MP I find intimidating but I can see the benefits in allowing that one lens approach. Especially a high quality wide angle lens.

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