Photography - Knowledge

Aspect Ratio: Find Out How it Impacts the Quality of Photos

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Ever wondered what really makes a landscape a landscape and a portrait a portrait? What is it that makes the scene fit exactly the way your eyes captured it for the first time. Despite sounding technical the concept of aspect ratio is what determines the look and outcome of your photograph. You don’t want to be left with an image boasting of too much detail or too much of empty space either. An aesthetic balance between the subject and the surrounding space is what every photographer strives to achieve. And this aesthetic balance comes from the proper dimensions of the image – also known as the aspect ratio.

So, what is aspect ratio?

An easy way to define aspect ratio is the width and height of the photograph using numerical values. An aspect ratio depicts the width of an image or a photograph to its height. No matter what dimension you wind up using, note that the foremost value denotes the width and the latter value denotes the height of the image. 

Different Types of Aspect Ratios

Photography is full of rules, some are followed religiously, some are modified to suit a photographer’s purpose, some have valid reasons for existing while some just don’t make sense. Aspect ratio is all about determining your frame size. Photography involves a lot of thought process behind subject placement, avoiding negative space, different rules to divide the frame – all with the purpose of creating dynamic images that are visually appealing.

This is where the aspect ratio or the dimension of your image will affect the composition of your image. In order to better understand how aspect ratio can affect your composition let’s delve into the different types of aspect ratios used in photography. 

aspect ratio
Know the different types of aspect ratio (source)

1. The Square Format

The ratio of 1:1 also known as the square format because of its obvious equal value of the width and the height of the image is often used as a way of providing the subject with weighted prominence by being placed centrally.

The width and height of the image being the same will cause the viewer’s gaze to move less from side to side moving over only on the important elements and ridding the image of superfluous components – a great way to bring about simplicity to the image. For a photographer not too keen on the Rule of thirds, this ratio totally ignores the concept. The 1:1 also works well at highlighting lines and shapes. 

2. The Four-thirds Format

The name has been derived from the size of the image sensor used in cameras, known as the 4/3 type sensor.  Considering the image is wider than taller by a single unit, the gaze of the viewer is drawn to move from one side of the image to the other side. The 4:3 is the standard aspect ratio found in all 4/3 cameras and digital compact cameras.

The 4:3 format works well to reproduce foreground detail which acts as leading lines to pull in the gaze into the photograph. Working with a wide angle focal length would help create the depth in a vista while eliminating any unwanted elements since the height of the image is relatively a unit less than the width. 

3. The 35 mm Format 

The 3:2 aspect ratio is a facet of the 35mm film and is capable of fitting the standard 6x4 printouts without undergoing any crops. Most of the digital SLRs boast of sensors with an aspect ratio of 3:2.

The best part of this type of format is that you will see is what you will print. A disadvantage though to this type of format is that since its height is a unit less than the width, it leaves you with significantly less vertical space to incorporate any foreground details. But putting this same disadvantage to use, pictures that do not have foreground elements can be easily captured. 

35mm focal length
35 mm ratio needs no crop 

4. The Widescreen Panoramic

The 16:9 aspect ratio came into being as a by-product of movie producers who were looking to make movie bigger and better. It has now caught in popularity due to display mediums like mobiles, computer screens and television screens adopting this aspect ratio. The 16:9 allows for an enhanced image quality and bold backdrops. 

5. The Panoramic 

Panoramic images of 2:1 or 3:1 aspect ratios are twice as wide as they are high, leading to the image turning out as a wide strip. These images do not present the option of capturing foreground details.

This type of format is difficult to capture in a single frame, even if something is managed, the likelihood of the image bearing printable quality and of a reasonable size would still be an obstacle to overturn. Therefore, more often than not, these images are a result of ‘stitching’ two or more frames or images to create a panoramic vista. 

Wide pictures that are formed by stitching together

Best Aspect Ratio for Portraits

When you switch from landscape aspect to portrait aspect ratio the format of the same will also change accordingly. Since the width is always denoted first, a 3:2 will convert to a 2:3 or a 4:3 will convert to a 3:4 and so on.

But, you know what....

Working to create a scene in a portrait mode with an aspect ratio of 2:3 makes compositional balance difficult to achieve since the height is relatively taller than its width.

If you want to create scenes in a portrait mode, rectangular frames that are broader are more ideal, to the likes of 7:6, 5:4 etc. The types of ratios allow for the gaze to still move from one side to the next without incorporating any excessive elements to throw the frame off balance.  

How does Aspect Ratio Affect Printing Photographs

After going through the various types of aspect ratios in photography there’s probably a question that has occurred to you – which of these is the best aspect ratio for printing photos? Something to understand is that even the dimensions of printed photographs are also aspect ratio at play.

So, how do you determine what is the aspect ratio of a 5x7 photo?

Don’t struggle to find the standard landscape photo size. The simple way to go about this is by working with a photo aspect ratio chart which will easily help you determine what aspect ratio will result in what print size. 

In order to create a photo aspect ratio chart, there are a couple of simple steps to follow. First off take any print size (4x6, 20x30, 8x10 etc.) and switch the numbers’ position, making the width the foremost value. Next step, reduce the numbers to their lowest values and you’ll achieve the aspect ratio. For instance – 

  • 8x10 – printable size 
  • 10x8 – switch the numbers’ places 
  • 5:4 – reduced to the lowest value, therefore the aspect ratio

The same concept can be applied to any value and you’ll always have a simple way of knowing what aspect ratio is required for which printable size. 

Every frame, image, video etc. is known to have a precise proportion or shape, which needs to be well defined so as to make it fit over varied mediums such as cameras, computer screens, television and others.

This makes it quite a challenge for designers who have to go through converting and cropping content to make them accessible over these mediums. Fortunately, the photo aspect ratio calculator helps to make calculations accurately. 

If you’re looking to print an image which does not match your aspect ratio size, then the image will get cropped to make way for that particular aspect ratio of the print.

Which brings us to the next topic of discussion - 

How to Edit Aspect Ratio using a Software

Some cameras are made to shoot in particular aspect ratios.

For instance -

If you’re shooting in a 3:2 format but would like to print out the image in an 8x10, there is a convenient option of converting the aspect ratio in software like Lightroom or Photoshop. 

In Photoshop: Select the Rectangular Marquee Tool and hit the Style menu located on the control panel. Choose the ‘Fixed Ratio’ option and enter the desired units of Width and Height for the aspect ratio. Draw a marquee on your photograph, select ‘Image’ and click on ‘Crop’. 

In Lightroom: The toolbar has a ‘Crop’ button which looks like a dashed rectangle. Select it, and choose any aspect ratio from the menu. If you would like to create your own aspect ratio unavailable on the list, select ‘Enter Custom’ and you can fill in your own values. 

Check out the A Beginner's Guide on Lightroom

aspect ratio editing
Edit the photos in Lightroom

Final Thoughts 

At the end of the day, it’s the photographer’s personal choice and the depiction of a picture that should justify the use of a particular aspect ratio or in simpler terms the type of shape of your photograph.

While cropping and converting are good ways to dealing with the shape of the image in the post-processing stage, shooting wider is always a better option, since it gives your subject as well you – the photographer more space in presenting it.

Don’t allow standardized print sizes crush your potential to explore different aspect ratios because what might work for one, mightn’t necessarily work for the other…. 

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