Aspect Ratio is a basic concept in photography that does not get a lot of attention, however it is an important concept that needs to be discussed due to its importance relative to photo composition and photo printing.
What is Aspect Ratio?
Aspect ratio is the term used to describe the dimensions (width and height) of your image shown in ratio form. Initially, the aspect ratio of your image is determined by your camera's sensor.
Most DSLR camera sensors have a 3:2 aspect ratio which is the same aspect ratio as 35mm film. This has become the industry standard. Micro four-thirds cameras have sensors with a 4:3 aspect ratio which is somewhere between the standard 3:2 and the 5:4 ratio of an 8x10 print. Some newer digital cameras also include a feature that will let you change the aspect ratio in camera.
Comparing Aspect Ratios
While most camera's shoot in the 3:2 aspect ratio, the ratio we are most familiar with seeing in a printed photo is 5:4. This 5:4 aspect ratio was made popular by old portrait photographers that shot with 4x5 film. They made standard printing sizes such as 4"x5, 8"x10", 16"x20", and 11"x14" popular as these sizes required little to no cropping. These are the same sizes you will find in standard frames that are sold in stores.
Importantly, when you compare the 3:2 aspect ratio of the image taken with a digital camera to the 5:4 aspect ratio of a common photo print you will find they are very different. You can see below that in order for a 3:2 image to fit in the 5:4 aspect ratio that is printed, a significant portion of the 3:2 image will be lost due to cropping.
How Aspect Ratio Affects Composition
To compose better images, it is important to understand how aspect ratio can affect your composition. It is possible to have a photo that is beautifully composed based on the rule of thirds at a 3:2 aspect ratio, but if you don't plan ahead, it may not look as nice once printed at a 5:4 ratio. Even worse, you could end up with a printed photo where your subject's hand, foot, or head is cut off. Trust me, it can happen!
In the images below, you can see how each image shot at a 3:2 aspect would look when cropped to a 5:4 aspect ratio. The second image doesn't have quite enough space around it for a good crop.
You can see that in this image, there is not quite enough space around it for a good crop.
There are two ways to adjust aspect ratio: in-camera, and cropping during post-process and we will cover those next.
Adjusting Your Aspect Ratio In-Camera
As I mentioned previously, a few digital cameras allow you to adjust your aspect ratio in-camera (mostly Canon and Sony). Most commonly they will have an option for 3:2, 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1. This option is good if you don't plan to do any post-processing to your images and want to have the size already set for printing or sharing.
For anyone who will be processing images in Lightroom or Photoshop, I would strongly suggest that you leave it at the original aspect ratio and do your cropping during editing. You will need to make sure you are aware of your framing in-camera to leave enough room around your subjects to allow for some cropping as needed.
To do this, first compose your shot in-camera and then take a step back or reduce your focal length to include a bit more in your shot. This will give you significantly more options if you end up needing to crop in post processing.
Aspect Ratio and Cropping in Lightroom
I generally crop and export my files in the original ratio that my camera captures - which is the way I originally saw the photo in camera. However, Lightroom gives you several different cropping aspect ratios to choose from so that you can easily crop in Lightroom or Photoshop if needed. You just need to be aware that not all cropping aspect ratios are the same and you need to make sure you have enough room in the photo so that it can be cropped to these different aspect ratios.
For example in the image below, you can see how much of the image will be lost when the image is cropped in Lightroom to an 8x10. Many of the flowers that were beautifully framing the subject are lost when cropped, changing the finished image drastically.
Educating Clients About Aspect Ratio
When possible, I recommend sizes to my clients that fit the same aspect ratio my camera shoots in (4x6, 8x12, 12x18, 16x24, etc.) Most clients are clueless that a camera shoots in a certain aspect ratio that is different from popular print sizes (4x5, 8x10, 11x14, 16x20, etc.) If they request print sizes that I know are different from the ratio my camera shoots, I just explain to them that there will be some cropping to the photo to fit their desired ratio/print size.
Many professional photo printers use ROES (remote order entry system) that allows you to upload your image and then adjust the crop until you like what you see. Others offer online ordering with similar ability to adjust cropping. Hopefully you have left enough room around your subject to allow for most any crop your client would want.
If your clients are doing the printing themselves, they will often be clueless about aspect ratio and will wonder why their photo didn't print exactly the way they saw it originally. Now that YOU understand how aspect ratio works in photography you will be able to educate them so that they remain happy clients and hire you again!
Do you have any questions or comments about Aspect Ratios in Photography? Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you! And please share this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!