Why Is Aspect Ratio Important?
For Technical Reasons
Aspect ratio might seem like a foreign concept at this point, but you’re going to need to know about it (or have most likely already encountered issues relating to it) 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. So, 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
For Aesthetic Aims
- Changing the ratio will impact where your subject is positioned in relation to the sides of the frame. It also allows you to play with the amount of empty (or negative) space in the photo.
- Your aspect ratio can be used to convey emotion. For example, a ratio of 2:35 allows for empty space within a photograph. So, by placing a person in this frame, you’ll be able to convey their feelings of loneliness. A landscape shot or wilderness photo with a similar ratio could evoke the same feeling or give an expansive quality to your image.
- 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 (That Will Detract from Your Composition)
- 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 will find you’ll have 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 deciding between adjusting your aspect on your camera or cropping in Photoshop wasn’t a viable choice for anyone because DSLRs weren’t capable of allowing users to change aspect ratios while shooting. Instead, cameras came in only one format.
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. Cameras that produce this ratio include those using a 35mm crop sensor, full-frame SLRs, and most 35mm film cameras.
Now, thankfully, you can choose whether to change the ratio while out in the field or crop your photos at home with a cuppa.
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 in the viewfinder (if your camera has an electronic one) 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. 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 be easier in post-production. Another advantage is that you can review old photos to see if you can change the ratio to create a better aesthetic.
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 the latter ratio will crop your photo vertically).
To do so, you simply:
- Select your photo
- Click on “Edit” at 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
In this guide, we’ve discussed many of the technicalities involved in using ratios. However, once you’ve mastered those, you can let the creative juices flow.
Above all, don’t get stuck in the rut of choosing one of the common aspect ratios and sticking to it.
Instead, use the following examples as your inspiration.
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. This is because this ratio is wider than it is tall, which guides the viewer’s eyes from left to right, leading their gaze across your scenery.