Aspect Ratios

3:2, 1:1, 5:4, 16:9 and so on. When we get a camera it comes complete with an aspect ratio. Indeed, some now come with a switch or menu item to simulate various aspect ratios, but basically our sensor size, film size, glass plate or paper negative gives us our aspect ratio.

And off we go and play with it.

It becomes our frame. The border we work within. It confines our vision and gives structure to our images. In fact, I struggle to think of anything which has a greater overall influence on our compositions than the aspect ratio of our chosen camera. It has a tendency to dictate to us how we compose our images. 

But we don’t have to be limited by the ratio we are given by the camera. In fact I would put it more strongly than that. Our choice of aspect ratio shouldn’t be determined by our sensor ratio or film size. Rather, it should be governed by our subject matter and composition. We should be looking at our image making in the opposite way than most of us do. 

It is so easy on location to work exclusively with the frame we are presented with, trying to fit the components before us into our rectangle. But in many cases this does not produce the strongest image. It is harder, but it is worth the effort, to look more closely at what the key elements of our image are and then visualise what aspect ratio best contains them.

This means either having a good visual ability to frame the scene in our head, or, it is very worthwhile to carry some of those cardboard frames in different ratios through which we can view the scene and examine carefully the possibilities. We may have seen photographers using them and thought they look a bit pretentious or silly, but in fact, this approach works really well. We can both use frames with different aspect ratios and move them closer to our eyes or further away to simulate the effect of shooting at different focal lengths. We can then select the appropriate lens and frame the image, admittedly using the ratio of our camera, but placing objects in the frame in readiness for cropping the image later.

Some photographers are using compact cameras with aspect ratio switches to make test shots, experimenting with framing options before setting up and framing accordingly with their main camera (Joe Cornish, for example, is seen doing this in his superb video, “With Landscape in Mind”  , if you haven’t bought the DVD yet, I really recommend you do.)

You might feel you can just frame up the image with your sensor aspect ratio and crop later (and you can) but a more thoughtful and considered approach will nearly always lead to a better image. 

Something I notice when teaching my workshops is, relatively, how rarely most camera users think in portrait orientation. Most cameras are designed in landscape orientation and so it is much easier to work that way. But so many images are stronger in the vertical.

How do you decide? Personally, I look at the “shape” of what I am photographing. Does the interest spread width ways, or does it run vertically? Is what is off to the left and right of interest, or is it dull? How best can I fill the frame with interest? Or, conversely, if working on a minimalist image, which orientation gives the greatest feeling of space or places the space in the most effect place in the frame?

Many landscapers choose a camera with a ‘full frame’, that is with a 3:2 aspect ratio mimicking the ratio of 35mm film cameras. This gives a bright viewfinder and a feeling of space and ‘width’ which landscapers tend to want. However, and this is just my personal view, this aspect ratio tends to give slightly long, thin images, especially when viewed in portrait orientation. Sometimes this can be used to advantage such as when shooting wide sweeping landscapes. But I find it often makes for a more pleasing composition with better balance to crop these images to the 5 x 4 format used by the large format camera users. This gives a closer ratio between the width and height which seems, to my eye at least, to be sensibly weighted without the stretch of the 3:2. I have seen full frame users who mask off the live view screen on their camera with tape to a 5:4 ratio to help them compose this way.

Mr. Hasselblad had a different view on aspect ratios. He felt, rightly in my view, that the most sensible ratio for a round lens was 1:1, the famous square frame of the Blad. This makes the best use of the image projected by the lens. The square format is one photographers seem to either love or hate. For me, it is my favorite format. It suits my love of symmetry and it gives a certain ‘constraint’ to images which is hard to describe, but when used well, images in 1:1 seem well balanced. For me they have a purity about them. I am delighted to see many modern digital cameras will allow a 1:1 view on the live view screen, cropping the image for you in camera.

So I would urge you to consider the final crop/aspect ratio right at the beginning of the composition process, not as an afterthought later. While sometimes after the event, when we view our images on the large screen of our computer we do become aware of images within images, or more pleasing crops, I am convinced it will lead to stronger images in the majority of cases if we make this choice a conscious creative decision as we place key objects in the frame. If this is something you don’t currently do, try it, see what you think.