The 4:3 Embrace

Recently we talked about how (un)important aspect ratio is. The last few years, aside from occasional dips into square format, I’ve shot exclusively in 3:2, the ratio I became so embedded in from five years or so shooting 35mm film.

Though I still love 3:2 and it feels most right to me, my thoughts have changed a little.

So ever wanting to simplify and make photography more direct, as well as enjoy experiments along the way, I’m going to shoot only 4:3 for a while.

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Here’s why –

1. The main cameras I use now (Ricoh GRD III, Ricoh GX100, Pentax Q and Sony Xperia smartphone) all have 4:3 as the default.

They can all shoot with other aspect ratios, and until very recently I had the Ricohs and Q set to 3:2. The Xperia can shoot 4:3 or 16:9. The latter fills the screen and is appealing in that sense, but I found I was then wanting the final image to be 3:2.

So I worked out where on the screen the crop would be either side for 3:2, and shot visualising that. The actual crop to 3:2 I can only do after the event, for example in Snapseed. Not a major chore, but I just don’t like cropping, it all got too complicated to visualise, and it’s a step I can eliminate entirely if I use 4:3.

Shooting 4:3 means with all of these cameras I see exactly what the composition will be on screen.

With the Ricohs and Pentax Q it’s using the whole screen (no more black bands top and bottom), and with the Xperia it means the whole composition area is free from the superimposed shutter button etc on the right.

I like this optimisation, purity, simplicity and consistency.

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2. Not all classic photographs are 3:2 as I maybe once assumed.

In my paper over pixels quest, I’ve been looking at a couple of photography books over the last few weeks (The Altering Eye and The Nature Of Photographs – both highly recommended) and in both I’ve noticed that many of the photographs I like best are not in 3:2 but much nearer to a square format. I haven’t got my ruler out to measure but I would estimate many are 4:3 and 5:4.

This intrigues me and again whilst I love 3:2 and it’s become my default way of framing, I like that in one sense using 4:3 gives more space in the frame. And it makes the difference between portrait and landscape less obvious. Again more consistency.

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3. Simply the challenge of seeing and framing a little differently. 

I like to mix things up now and again, and whilst the difference between 3:2 and 4:3 is not radical, it’s enough to make me think a little harder when I’m composing. Which in turn slows me down, and hopefully means I take fewer photographs that end up being deleted.

Not that I’m averse to deleting photographs, I’m quite prolific at it, but I would like to increase my hit ratio.

And again just make things more consistent across the cameras I predominantly use. Using 4:3 with them all then means the major difference then between the three is the focal length of the lens and the perspective on the world it gives.

But I digress.

Which aspect ratio do you use most? Do you even know, or care? 

Please let us know 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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25 thoughts on “The 4:3 Embrace”

  1. Dan,
    I have never thought about ratio until you mentioned it. I am definitely aware of size of photos at the various exhibitions I’ve been to and in my own work but not ratio. xoxo susanJOY

    1. Susan, I think I’ve always been aware of it, guess it’s the maths background and general fascination with numbers I have!

      I don’t think you’re unusual, I don’t expect most people who photograph think twice about it!

  2. Yes, your calculation of 5×4 ratio is probably correct as this corresponds with large format or ‘view’ cameras (10×8 or 5×4 glass plates and later film), the only formats in earlier days before the technology allowed the move towards miniaturisation.

    I like to use the square crop quite a lot, I often see a square that works even though my camera can’t do it natively so take a composition with some ‘wiggle room’ deliberately.

    Ultimately, aspect ratio is not important to me as such, often there is a composition in a scene that just won’t fit ‘in a standard box’, if you see what I mean…

    1. Hi Bear, thanks for your thoughts. I think it’s easier to visualise a square crop with any other rectangular frame, as one dimension doesn’t need to change and our eyes can “see” a square more easily. Occasionally I shoot a square image, but all the camera I use have 1:1 as an option so I use.

      What happens when a composition won’t fit “in a standard box”, do you frame it so one dimension fits, then crop the other afterwards (like with the squares)?

      1. I’m talking about cropping in post processing rather than taking in-camera. I probably do a lot more experimenting in post than some due to my physical difficulties in getting out as much as I’d like sometimes.
        There you can set to take a crop in the usual pre-defined ratios or do your own from an existing image, the only limit is that it should be a rectangle of some sort of course… until you get your print and a pair of scissors anyway…

          1. Ha, that bit was a bit of a joke, sorry Dan.. although Matisse did quite well with cutting out paper shapes and I have seen clever collage work from photos in art galleries.

          2. Yes, that was I thinking, whether you cut out images and pasted onto other backgrounds or something. A literal cut and paste, rather than one on a computer!

  3. I take pictures in the native aspect ratio of the camera – 2:3 or 1:1 for film, 4:3 for the iPhone. I print pictures to fit my standard frame aspect ratios – 2:3, 4:5 or 1:1.

    All of my prints of iPhone pictures are printed 4×6 (2:3 aspect ratio). My prints of film pictures are cropped as I think works best for the subject. Most are printed 7×10.5 or 8×12 (both 2:3) but lately I have been making some 5×7 prints centered on 8×10 paper and putting them in cheap 8×10 frames.

    1. Intrigued about the last part Doug – 5×7 prints on 8×10 paper. So you have to crop the original image to 5×7 aspect ratio initially I assume (why is there 5×7, what camera shoots at that aspect ratio??)

      I still need to get my head around frames more. I just bought a frame a few days ago with an insert frame. The overall frame I think is 10×8 inches and I have an 8×6 inch print in it. I much prefer pictures to have a bit of white space around them, especially black and white pictures. I plan to get a few more the same, I really like 8×6, larger than a “snapshot” 6×4 print, but not huge like a poster.

      1. Dan, 5×7 was one of the large format camera sizes. 5×7 sheet film is still available. It’s a relatively minor crop of a 2:3 image.

        The old way of framing a photograph was to cut a mat of thick paper stock to fit the frame with a rectangular cutout just slightly smaller than the image area of the photograph, attach the photograph to the back of the mat with the image showing through the cutout and put the whole thing behind the glass in the frame. The mat provides the bit of white space you mention and it holds the print away from the glass to avoid damage with changes of temperature and humidity. I have photographs framed this way that are over 100 years old and they look fine. Not like the faded color prints in crappy plastic frames we see these days.

        1. Ah, I never knew that about 5×7. Just find it very odd it’s such a standard size still, when the vast majority of (digital) pictures made and printed these days must be 4:3 or 3:2. At 5×7 they always get cropped! I’ve overheard a few conversations in camera/print places where people just cannot understand why the images out of their phone need to be cropped to fit a 5×7 print size.

          Interesting about the framing, yes the frame I got was not expensive but had a thick card mount like you describe which keeps the actual photograph from touching the glass. I have a number of family photos in frames where there’s no border and the photo is pressed against the glass, and over time you notice in places it’s touching and slightly distorting the photo. I’ll always use the inner card mounts from now on!

  4. I just picked the one most similar to a 35mm frame, so my two cameras were set to 3:2 and never changed. Now that I am using my phone more I may reconsider for the sake of consistency as you mentioned. I was more aware of it in terms of film formats.

    1. Jon, there’s not a great difference between 3:2 and 4:3, but enough to notice when I was switching between the two.

      I just want to move closer to the point where I don’t know (or care!) which camera made which images of mine, and this is another step.

    1. I’ve been printing out a few 8 inch by 6 inch lately (which is of course 4:3 aspect ratio), all just at those self service touch screen machines. They all seem to offer 6×4, 7×4 and 8×6 as standard for instant prints. I’m assuming these are common in the US too?

  5. With my artist journals I have cut printed photos into all sorts of shapes and made patterns with them and different images. I love collaging with printed photos xoxo susanJOY

    1. Susan, thanks, yes I know a lot people do, so didn’t realise Bear was joking!

      I remember us having photos of us as kids where the original photo was rectangular, but it was then in a rectangular card with an oval cut out, so the photo looked oval.

      Personally I like straight edges but photos of different shapes (via frames or direct cutting) have been created almost as long as photography has been around.

  6. Excellent post, because I mainly shoot film these days I use 3:2, 4:3, (6:4.5), and 6:6. Obviously it’s not possible to carry an F5, ETRS, and an S2a to be able to use the format that suits each image that I envisage. So I know in advance which image needs to be cropped and I compose accordingly. The ability to be able to pre-visualise comes with practise.

    1. John, thanks for your thoughts, glad you enjoyed the post.

      Do you tend to find you go for different kinds of compositions with the different formats and cameras? Or just crop afterwards?

  7. I tend to use only 3:2 (with film obviously) and square when I use th iPhone.

    Only time I use 4:3 is for iPhone photos of cameras I sell on eBay…

    Somehow I can’t get my head around that new fangled 4:3 stuff. Must be my old brains. Even when I had the Fuji X10/20 and 30 which are natively 4:3 I set them to 3:2, accepting to lose some pixels…

    Seems natural to me somehow, as with the golden ratio and all that stuff.

    But never say never, eh?

    1. I did feel the same as you about 3:2, and still do to a great extent. But shooting just 4:3 for a few weeks now it’s becoming my new “normal”. I’ve been making and framing some prints too (more in an upcoming post!) and 4:3 seems to look more balanced to me now in a frame than 3:2.

      I think it really comes down to repeated exposure – do something different often enough and it becomes the new normal.

  8. Go back 20 years and narrower formats were synonymous with medium format, and consequently “fancier”. It’s certainly true that 3:2 has become synonymous with telling a story, but it’s mostly familiarity with the conventions of 35mm photography. Vivian Maier shot highly acclaimed street photographs on the square, so nothing is out of bounds.

    1. Yes and when the differences are relatively subtle, comparing 3:2 and 4:3 for example, I think we just adapt after a while in how we see a photograph, before we release the shutter.

      Obviously with formats like square compared with 3:2, there are much more prominent differences in the shape and the size.

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