The Importance of Aspect  Ratios in Photography

There was a time when photographers would look down upon people who crop their images. I remember someone telling me “cropping is for kids”.

These days however cropping has become more or less acceptable in photography and I see a lot of photographers cropping their images, sometimes to correct or improve composition and sometimes to give the impression of the subject being closer.

I thought it would be good to talk about the concept of aspect ratio as this has a direct impact on the way a photograph looks.

Most new comers to photography tend to crop in a haphazard manner without keeping in mind the aspect ratio of the image and this results in an image looking not so very “professional”.

While there is no rule that says you cannot use any aspect ratio you like, there are some aspect ratios that are traditionally considered as acceptable in photography. The common ones are 3:2, 4:3 and 1:1. These aspect ratios originate from the film era.

Made like a Gun...Goes like a Bullet

3:2 - is the aspect ratio of 35mm cameras. Oskar Barnack, a German photographer selected this aspect ratio when he built the 35mm camera. This has become a standard aspect ratio for our cameras even today.

4:3 - is what most micro four-thirds cameras use these days and this was used by some medium format cameras in the film era.

1:1 - or the “square crop” was traditionally used by medium format cameras like Hasselblad, Rolleiflex etc as well as cameras like the Holga and Diana. I’m not aware of any digital camera that directly gives you a square frame; you can however crop in the 1:1 aspect ratio for colour as well as monochrome images.

Composition techniques - especially subject placement for each aspect ratio would differ and I usually tend to shoot a photograph keeping mind the aspect ratio I will be using for the final output.

I would also encourage you to pre-visualize how the image will look after you crop it – and then accordingly take your shot instead of trying to crop it later to try and fix some composition mistakes that you’ve made while shooting.

Wide screen - 16:9 is a widescreen size and I don’t usually like cropping in this aspect ratio. To me, this aspect ratio is more suitable for movies and not still photographs – this however is my personal opinion.

Some photographers like this aspect ratio and use it. One of my issues with this aspect ratio (for photographs) is that it looks good only on a widescreen monitor.

There were some wide screen type aspect ratios used in film cameras too like the Hasselblad xpan which had an almost 1:3 aspect ratio– these were however not very common and their usage was not very widespread.

I did shoot a series of photographs in this format some time ago and you could try something similar if you’d like your photographs to look a bit different!

So to summarize, when you do crop your images, try and stick to aspect ratios which are considered “normal” in photography.

While there is no rule that you cannot randomly crop in any size – the fact is that even a good photograph would look very amateurish if the aspect ratio does not “look” professional!

And if you are not sure which aspect ratio to use, then stick to 3:2!

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