Musings on: aspect ratio as a creative choice
I have a list which I add to whenever I think of something I might like to write an article about. Items on that list come and go, either since I get around to writing the piece, or because the subject no longer seems interesting, or perhaps because I’ve come across so many articles on the same topic that it seems redundant to add to the wealth of material ‘out there on the web’. ‘Aspect ratios’ has been on the list for longer than anything else at this point; it was one of the items on my very first list in fact, and it’s neither been written, nor deleted from the ‘to do’ section.
I was wondering why that was.
- It’s not uninteresting: the shape of an image is a significant factor in the finished photograph.
- It’s not as if there aren’t many articles on the subject: indeed, there are short books covering nothing but aspect ratios.
- It’s not that the existing articles and books aren’t informative, useful and well-written, or some permutation of one or two of those three factors.
Rather, it’s because, whilst I’ve read a fair few articles on the subject, none of them so far has closely matched what has come to be my view on aspect ratios and how they can be used in making images. (The usual caveats apply….. I’m developing as a photographer, and I entirely accept that I may become fixated on some specific aspect ratio as my work develops….but, right now, the following is what I think!)
Why is the debate on choice of aspect ratio often so contentious?
Many, though not all, writings about aspect ratio choice verge on the evangelical: ‘x:y is the best’ or ‘x:y is best for subject matter A, whereas m:n is best for subject matter B …’, etc. I’ve been intrigued for some time as to why there is such heated debate – I still am! To me, the arguments seems relatively uncontentious. More precisely, it seems that it should be uncontentious; obviously, there is much contention, however!
A possible explanation for the ferocity of some views on this subject is that they derive from a personal attachment, on the part of the photographer expressing the view, to a particular camera system or format. For example, it’s only natural that a photographer who solely uses a square format camera, such as a Hasselblad, will tend to ‘see’ potential subject matter in that format, and grow to prefer such images. My question is:
should our vision be driven by the hardware we use to make photographs?
I think not: that’s the wrong way around. The final image should be whatever shape is best for that image, not determined primarily by the shape the camera decrees. Of course, this is why some people carry multiple camera formats. Good plan, though not essential, as I’ll discuss further down this item.
There is also the argument that consistency of shape can make for elegant layouts in books. Absolutely! There’s something very pleasing about a photographic book which contains images in only one aspect ratio, whether that be simply square, or whether it be a combination of x:y and y:x. I’m not seeking to argue, here, that collections of images don’t benefit from some degree of regularity in their aspect ratios, either simple repetition of identical ratios, restriction to a very few ratios, or use of consistent ratios for particular elements of the layout. This applies whether it be a book, a web layout, or hung in a gallery. The header images on this site, for example, are all 7:2 (near enough): awkward, since I don’t have any images in that format, but the consistency is more important than the individual image shapes; the images, in this case, are very much subordinate to the overall presentation of the page. They’re thus all crops – more on cropping images further down, too.
Is there a ‘best’ aspect ratio, in general?
Neither of the above points – the first being a prosaic, hardware-based explanation, which I refute, and the second being an aesthetic rationale for sets of images, which I completely endorse – addresses the idea of the ‘best aspect ratio’ for individual photographs in general, however. It’s that question which tends to get a lot of attention and assertive debate, and it’s that which I’m most interested in musing on here.
- Yes, wide, or very wide, panoramic format is well-suited to mountain ranges.
- Yes, tall, thin images are relatively restricted in what they can be applied to (though they can be excellent for some landscape subjects, to emphasise depth and the idea of a metaphorical ‘slice of the World’).
- Yes, most certainly, 5:4 and 4:5 tend to be great all-purpose ratios. They provide balance, avoid too much space between compositional elements, don’t emphasise one dimension over the other too much, and are often ‘easy on the eye’, in that it’s easier to scan around the frame’s content in all directions.
- And yes, square is excellent for not imposing any imbalance and for giving a literally neutral frame within which to compose.
Each of those, however, is an example, in my opinion, of a rule to be broken (as with so many supposed ‘rules’ in photography). To take a common and extreme example: square images, where the lower small fraction contains a mountain range, or similar long, thin subject, and which might be seen as a natural panorama, can be very compositionally strong if realised as squares, perhaps with the bulk of the frame filled with dramatic clouds – such compositions can radically change the balance of the finished image, compared to the obvious choice of a panorama, not necessarily making them better, but making them different.
To put it simply: I emphatically don’t think that there’s a ‘best’ aspect ratio, in the general sense.
Aspect ratio as a compositional element
And that brings me to the thesis of this article. Ignoring considerations of the eventual layout of a set of images and the constraints, or aesthetic desires, which that may impose, I see the aspect ratio of the finished image as a compositional element in its own right, just as the subject matter, colours and tonality within the frame are.
I’m suggesting that it’s more useful to put the shape of the eventual image on a par with everything else in that image, and to ignore the aspect ratio the camera naturally supports. If that means stitching multiple images for a panorama, or cropping a third of the image to make a square from a 3:2 camera, that should take precedence over retaining more information for the sake of it. Photographers often talk about the reductionism inherent in creating images – the exclusion of some parts of an image through choice of lens and camera position – I have no issue with additionally changing the shape of the image, if it will aid the achievement of that exclusion and create a better-balanced end result.
Are there aspect ratios which should be avoided?
Beyond that, I also don’t see the need for sticking rigorously to a standard set of aspect ratios. Yes, there is perhaps some degree of natural balance in 3:2, 4:3 and 5:4, etc., and there is merit in starting out with one of these supposedly ‘natural’ ratios; but, both when composing and when editing an image, I’m happy to crop and end up with something which is other than the above (11:8 or some other, more complex, fraction, for example). Provided the end result has overall balance within the frame, what is so magical about the natural ratios?
The one exception to that principle, or willingness, is due to the fact that human brains are rather good at seeing squares. Put the other way around: we’re very good at seeing ‘not quite square’. The few images I’ve composed, or cropped, such that they’re ‘nearly, but not quite, square’ have always had something of an edgy feeling about them, to me at least, and I try to avoid that as it’s a distraction when viewing the images. I prefer either ‘exactly square’ or ‘no doubt about it – that’s a rectangle’.
So, the point here is?
In summary, what I’m advocating here is:
- Don’t let your camera dictate aspect ratio.
- Treat the ultimate aspect ratio of the image as part of the suite of compositional tools you have available, along with light, objects in the frame, colour and tonality.
- Compose with the final, intended aspect ratio in mind, and either use whatever camera you have which comes closest to what the composition requires, or crop; not only in post-processing, but also in your visualisation at the time of capture.
- Don’t introduce the question of ‘is that actually square?’ to the viewer – ensure that images are either square or not-square.
- Don’t be afraid to ‘throw away’ up to a third of the image. Once again, the ultimate balance of the composition is the critical factor, and there’s plenty of image information left after one third is cropped. That’s true of most digital cameras of 12MP or more, and certainly for film.
- Overall, it’s probably true that that some aspect ratios, in most situations, tend to work better than others. Most of my images seem to be gravitating around 5:4, 4:5, and square, at the moment; but I’m consciously trying to consider what the best choice is for each…. And that’s the key point:
rather than thinking “I’ll use 5:4 as that works well”, think “what would be the best aspect ratio to use here?”
In the interests of keeping this relatively short, I’ve deliberately avoided discussing all the pros and cons of various aspect ratios more then peripherally. There is a wealth of on-line debate available which does just that, and much of it is useful input to composition, but I think it needs to be seen in the context of aspect ratio choice being just another aspect of compositional technique, not the absolute right / wrong, or best / worst dichotomy that so often seems to be hiding beneath the surface of the discussions.
I’d welcome comments on this viewpoint, vociferous and evangelical, or otherwise, particularly if they point out crucial features of any particular aspect ratio which I haven’t mentioned (that being most such features, obviously).
12 Responses to “Musings on: aspect ratio as a creative choice”
I agree with what you’ve written. I’m very open minded about how other photographers choose to use their chosen format and whether they impose a rule of ONLY composing within their chosen cameras aspect ratio or not, as long as they aren’t sniffy about the fact that I will crop in post if I see fit. I do think though that we each have different dispositions to the various aspect ratios. After years of using 35mm, I’ve realised that I really don’t feel comfortable placing my own images in a 2:3 aspect ratio. Conversely, I’ve developed a very strong liking for 1:1. But none of that is to say that I dislike other work just because it’s not my own way, I’d be more likely to admire how another photographer has “seen” something in a way that I just couldn’t have.
Agreed! I have no issue whatsoever with how other people choose to use aspect ratios, and it’s interesting to see what people have done with subject matter when using the less common ratios. I do object a little to being advised too strongly not to crop though, which has happened once or twice ;-)
I’m with you on 2:3 too – it rarely looks ‘right’ to me as it tends to be a little too tall, without being dramatically so. Then again, it certainly can work. It all comes down to the simple idea of ‘whatever is right for the intent of the image’ to me.
Thanks for commenting!
Mike, I guess I have a few reasons for rigiidly sticking with a very select few aspect ratios and that I never fo freestyle with them.
The first reason has really nothing to do with photography – the neat freak in me. I am happy when everything is in order and regimented. When I go through my photos it is pleasing to me that they are mostly all 3×2 and sometimes 5×4 or 1×1.
The second reason is that cropping seems a bit of a cheat. On my photograph we were discussing on flickr you suggested taking a wider view and cropping in to make sure all the compostional elements that I wanted is present in the photograph. If I cannot get the view I want in camera it just does not seem right that I take out all the hard work in composing the shot just to arbitrarily crop so that all parts work.
And that brings me on to my third point is that I will genuinely only ever crop to 5×4 or 1×1 if that is how I saw the shot in camera and composed within the confines of my projected aspect ratio. For me there is a real honesty in that. I suspect that many people crop shots so that the photo works better or hides something they missed or to save a bad shot – that seems a tad dishonest to me (unless the photographer lets it be known they did that).
I would like to add that these are mostly my points of view on my own photography and i is not my inention to offend anyone!
No offence at all taken by me! Everyone has a way of working which makes them … comfortable, for want of a better term; a way which they enjoy might be a better way of putting it. I can entirely empathise with most of the above, in that I tend to feel the same sort of things myself. What I’m questioning in the article is whether [my] results might be better if I actively don’t conform to the camera’s ratio and to ‘standard’ ratios. I’m currently taking that approach so I’ll see what happens.
Your points are very interesting, so I’ll comment on each one.
1. Neatness: yes, I totally get that, and it also supports the idea of a body of work being easier to present and looking better when there is a small number (perhaps just one) of ratios used. Viewed at the individual image level, however, this one has less weight. Still, I think this is by far the most compelling argument for sticking to a small number of standard ratios, particularly in projects where images are intended to be seen together, rather than individually. At the moment, I’m still trying to go with 5:4, 4:5 and 1:1 where possible, for reasons of overall neatness and presentation as a set – but I’m not taking that as an absolute constraint.
2. Cheating: we’ll have to agree to differ on this I think ;-) Yes, I totally understand where you’re coming from with using the camera’s aspect ratio to compose: I used to feel that it was ‘right’ to do that too. After thinking about it, though, I feel that doing that means being driven by the camera and film format, not by what I’d like to imagine is my creativity. I’m not, in the article, suggesting arbitrary cropping after the fact; I’m proposing deliberate cropping – in the visualisation – before capture. It seems to me that that is, or can be, part of composition. i.e. arrange the relationships between objects in the frame to best effect and recognise at the time of capture which parts of the frame – which is an arbitrary shape based on the history of cameras, in most cases – will be ‘lost’ in post-processing. To me, that seems rather more difficult than composing to the camera’s aspect ratio and doesn’t (now that I’ve thought about it for a few months!) feel like cheating.
3. I think your third point actually agrees entirely with what I’m saying in my answer to your second point: I’m suggesting that the crop is done pre-capture (mentally), and hence that the actual crop of the captured image is just the physical bit of the composition process – the last step of something which started with visualisation, and certainly not an afterthought or ‘fix’. I often compose squares, and I do that quite carefully to use what I think is the best part of the camera’s image capture area (somewhat pertinent with a tilt/shift lens, due to the focal plane being curved, not flat). That’s arguably more difficult than using the whole image area, particularly taking into account my aversion to ‘nearly square’ images!
Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. this is a very interesting area of debate.
Hi Mike, thanks for commenting to in depth to the points I raised. I actually like the fact that you put enjoyment at the start of your response – and is something I overlooked in my first post. I do get immense enjoyment when I have resolved a composition within the confines of my frame. I often dismiss photos which I have nearly resolved but didnt quite work within my aspect ratio (even when thinking about cropping to 5×4 or 1×1) . Whilst I may have missed alot of good photographs I think that there is a definate positive angle to be taken from this – that of discipline and quality control. I have found that I am working harder and thinking alot more about the composition and that in turn is making stronger images. I dare say if I were to allow myself to use crops creatively I might have alot more images on my hard drive – but would that lead to sloppy compositional decision making in camera as I can just crop wee bits of here and there to make it work – probably!!!
Also when I mentioned cheating I was really talking about cheating myself – not that other photographers cheat when they crop!!!
Well I missed off the personal enjoyment of using a set aspect ratio and not ‘cheating yourself’ in my post – so thanks for bringing that up.
It all comes down to what one’s objectives are in making images, doesn’t it?!
Another interesting article Mike. I think I agree very much with David here, and am slightly ashamed to say that I also like all my images being the same shape :)
Although I have occasionally cropped to 1×1 in the past I really loathe cropping my images now – if what I’m seeing through the viewfinder isn’t quite right I’ll spend time making it right, and if the finished results aren’t right then I’ll just chalk it down to experience. I’m quite comfortable with a 2×3 world and I’m currently enjoying a 4×3 one too. I enjoy the constraints of the machine, much like I enjoy going out with just a single prime lens, but then it’s just fun for me.
I don’t have any strong views against cropping/different aspect ratios though – pictures work in the shape the creator intends – but I think when you see a page of someone’s photos that are all different ratios it does give the impression that they are putting less thought into the capture of the image than the processing of it. For all some manufacturers marketing their 21MP sensors as “allowing even more freedom to crop images” it’s still sometimes obvious when it’s been done and the area of best focus has been the victim of the crop. Any objection I do have probably stems from my own practice of cropping when I first had a camera when I didn’t consider the implications – smaller images, smaller prints etc
I’m with you on enjoying just taking a prime lens – several benefits beyond the compositional constraint aspect!
As you’ll have guessed from the article, I’m somewhat ambivalent on cropping to non-standard ratios … The main argument for me is the one of presenting sets of images, however, when the eventual presentation of them means that consistency of shape (and size, come to that) is a definite advantage. I didn’t say in the article, but I actually have a couple of bits of card, with 4×5 and 1×1 holes cut in them, which I hold over the liveview panel to aid composition. I started off with just the 1×1, to make sure things were truly square, and added the 4×5 a while back. Those are largely so that I can position my envisioned crop in the area of sharpest focus.
Still, for the moment I stand by the idea of pre and post cropping to whatever shape is best, if it’s really necessary and a standard ratio doesn’t work as well. I’ll be interested to see if I eventually come around to ‘only 4×5 and 1×1’ – entirely possible, I’m sure, once I start presenting things in sets.
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment :-)
Great article – the only thing I will add is that allowing yourself too many choices when first learning photography can be a bad thing. It took me a long time to start to be able to ‘see’ a certain crop in the landscape and so I stuck with just 4×5 portrait for over a year. I then added on 2×1 landscape and square and only recently have I thrown away the limitations (although I still tend to use square, 5×4 portrait/landscape and 2×1 landscape and maybe 617 or 3×1 in very rare cases. Working within certain constraints can actually help creativity a little (it’s working out which contraints and when to throw them away!)
Thanks very much, Tim,
I’m sure that is good advice. After writing the article, I have recognised that I actually do start off with certain ‘natural’ ratios in mind – 4×5, 5×4 and square, and that many of my images conform to those. As you say, it makes it slightly easier to have some form of constraint to work within. That said, I do think, as you say, that doing so is a useful guideline early on, but not to be seen as a rigid rule.
So, my article is perhaps aspirational at my stage, rather than something to apply too liberally right now! I shall bear that in mind.
I actually came to this looking for discussion on the same topic for video work. Unlike photography, video requires the presence of a good notion for the final aspect ratio in advance. Unsurprisingly, this choice comes down mostly to composition opportunities and needs. The article on aspect ratio for film that I just read actually emphasizes in the selection process some of the points you make.
Hi Jean, thanks for commenting.
I can certainly see that video has a rather emphatic requirement for knowing the intended aspect ratio; I’m sure some stills photographers would argue the same of course ;-) Interesting link – thanks for that!