Why Is Aspect Ratio Important?
1. For Technical Reasons
You’re going to need to understand aspect ratios when you’re posting your photographs online.
For instance, the aspect ratio of your Facebook profile pic will be different when you’re viewing it on a medium like your phone, as opposed to viewing it on your laptop. Because of this, the various social networking platforms or website builders will force you to fit your photos within standard aspect ratios. If you don’t want your profile pic distorted, stretched, or cut off, you’re going to want to match the ratio of your profile pic to their standard aspect ratio (see our section on social media below for a list of aspect ratios a few social networking sites prefer).
The same idea applies if you’re going to be printing your photos. If your aspect ratio doesn’t match the size of your print, you may end up with a cropped or stretched photo.
If you’re planning on printing your photos, you’ll need to know which ratios are required for common print sizes:
- 6 x 4” = 1.5:1 ratio
- 7 x 5” = 1.4:1 ratio
- 10 x 8” = 1.25:1 ratio
- 11 x 8.5” = 1.29:1 ratio
2. For Aesthetic Reasons
- Changing the ratio will impact where your subject is positioned in relation to the sides of the frame. If you have an important feature positioned near an edge, you could lose it altogether with the wrong ratio.
- Your aspect ratio can be used to convey emotion. For example, a ratio of 2:35 allows for negative space within a photograph. You can use this space to create an expansive quality in your landscape or evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation in your portrait.
- Changing your aspect ratio may also help if you feel you have some extra “room” in your photo (this often applies more to vertical images). A vertical image may be too roomy at a ratio of 2:3, while a ratio of 4:5 could give the photo a snugger frame, resulting in a more appealing composition.
Ratio Problems to Avoid
- If you shot according to the rule of thirds using a 4:3 ratio, and then needed to create prints with a 3:2 ratio, the composition of the shot may not adhere to the rule of thirds anymore.
- You may see a large dip in quality when attempting to shoot a ratio that’s larger than the ratio of your camera’s sensor:
- If your sensor’s ratio is 4:3 (a micro four-thirds camera), your best bet is to shoot in 4:3 or 1:1. If you try to shoot in 3:2 or 16:9 with this sensor, you may end up having to crop your photo substantially (which will mean a drop in image quality).
- To avoid this issue, you may want to consider purchasing a camera with a larger sensor size. Buying a camera with a larger sensor will not only give you more options for ratios but comes with other benefits as well (including better low-light photos, increased dynamic range, and more background blur).
In the next few sections, we’ll dig deeper into aspect ratios and discuss:
- Whether you should make ratio adjustments before you shoot – or shoot first, then adjust your ratio later
- How the ratios available on your camera will impact your shots
- Common and not-so-common ratios and where you might use them
- Which ratios to use for social networking apps and websites
- The Golden Ratio (another composition method to put in your toolbox)
- Film preferences (because cinematographers also keep a keen eye on their aspect ratios)
- Perfecting proportion in your post-processing (tips and tricks to keep your image high quality)
Deciding on the Aspect Ratio Before Shooting vs. Cropping in Photoshop
There was a time when DSLRs weren’t even capable of allowing users to change aspect ratios while shooting. Back then, the dimensions of your camera’s sensor (or the film type, along with the camera’s design) would dictate the ratio. For example, a sensor that’s 1.5 times as wide as it is high produces a ratio of 3:2. A 35mm crop sensor, full-frame SLRs, and most 35mm film cameras produce this ratio.
Now, thankfully, you can choose whether to change the ratio while out in the field or crop your photos in post-processing.
If you choose your ratio before shooting, you will have the advantage of being able to literally visualize what your image will look like after it’s been cropped. You will be able to see the cropped image either on an electronic viewfinder or on your camera’s LCD screen in Live View mode.
There is one drawback to choosing the ratio while shooting: if you choose to shoot your photos in JPEG, your camera will crop your image. There is no way to retrieve the parts of the photo that were cropped. (Psst… you can solve this problem by shooting in RAW mode.)
If you can’t change your camera’s aspect ratio, post-production may be the only way you can crop your photos. And even if your camera does have that capability, many find cropping to just be easier. It also allows for more flexibility, as you can create multiple versions of an image from a more generous starting point without “losing” the information for good.
It’s easy to change the aspect ratio on your smartphone, too. The iPhone is capable of taking photos in 1:1 (square), 16:9 (panoramic, which is best for video), and the default mode, 4:3.
In the Photos app, you can also crop your image anywhere from 1:1 to 9:16 (remember that the ratio is always width:height, so some of these will work best in portrait mode and others in landscape).
To find the aspect ratio options on an iPhone image, you simply:
- Select your photo.
- Click on Edit in the top right corner.
- Select the Crop button (to the right of Cancel).
- Then, hit the Ratio button (above Done).
- Select a ratio from the menu, and the new ratio will be applied.
Examples of Aspect Ratios
There are a handful of standard ratios that will be more widely accepted. When you’re sharing your work across lots of platforms, it’s sometimes helpful to know exactly what your image is going to do when it’s viewed by your audience, so that’s a point in favor of “tried and true” ratios.
However, it’s entirely too easy to get stuck in a rut and use the same aspect ratio for everything. Choosing the safest bet every time will seriously cut down on your potential for variety, and it’s not so great for creativity as well. Photographers, as artists, should spend a lot of time thinking outside the box… no matter what shape it is.
Here are some examples of what you can do with different ratios:
A 4:3 ratio is compatible with printed 5 x 7” or 8 x 10” photos. Landscape photography often works well in this type of format, since it’s wider than it is tall. As you can see below, your eye has a lot of room to travel across the scenery.