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).