Back in the days of film, you had a couple of key decisions to make before investing in a new camera system. First of all, what size film would you like to shoot with? This was just as important as deciding what sensor size you want to use in your modern digital camera. However when you were deciding what size of film you would like to use, you also had to keep in mind another decision which could have a huge impact on the final appearance of your images – what aspect ratio would you like to use for your photographs?
So what exactly is the aspect ratio and why is it so important to your photography? First of all, according to Wikipedia:
The aspect ratio of an image is the ratio of its width to its height. It is commonly expressed as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. For an x:y aspect ratio, the image is x units wide and y units high.
And of course this can make a significant difference to the look of your images. Luckily when purchasing a new camera system, we no longer have to fully decide upon what aspect ratio we wish to use for all of our images. Digital photography now allows us to select a crop / aspect ratio for our images in camera meaning that we can change the aspect ratio on an image to image basis. Alternatively, we can simply shoot the full resolution image and crop the aspect ratio in post production. Both methods are perfectly acceptable but both share the same problem. As the name suggests, by cropping the image you are reducing the size of your image file. However modern sensors generally have enough resolution to allow plenty of headroom for some conservative cropping including the changing of the aspect ratio. But what are the most common aspect ratios and why should we use them?
3:2 Aspect Ratio
Unquestionably the most commonly used aspect ratio. If you are using a full frame or APS-C based camera, it will by default be shooting in the 3:2 ratio as this mirrors the physical dimensions of the sensor. It also happens to be the same ratio as 35mm film which is not a coincidence. As it is the most commonly used ratio, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is possibly the most flexible. If used in a horizontal orientation, it is perfect for photographing landscapes (hence the ‘landscape’ orientation label) and when rotated to vertical, it is perfect for portraits (again gaining the name of ‘portrait’ orinatation.
Of course that is not to say that the ‘Portrait’ orientation can’t be used for landscape images and that the ‘Landscape’ orientation can’t be used for portrait images.
4:3 Aspect Ratio
Generally, this aspect ratio is reserved as the default aspect ratio for cameras with sensors either smaller than APS-C (such as the image to the right captured on a Micro Four Thirds camera) or larger than a Full Frame sensor (such as the image above captured on a Fujifilm GFX 50S digital medium format body).
The 4:3 aspect ratio is definitely a subtle nod to the days of film, and I personally find the slightly shorter dimensions of the longer side is aesthetically more pleasing for landscape photography.
Another interesting reason to use the 4:3 aspect ratio is because the format is less common than 3:2, which means that in can grab the viewers attention slightly more than the more common, standard aspect ratio. Perhaps this all heralds again back to the days of film and the association with the professional use of medium format.
1:1 Aspect Ratio
If 4:3 is a subtle nod to film, 1:1 is a blatant copy of it! Made famous by social media and smart phone camera apps like Hipstamatic, the 1:1 square format was the full frame proportions of 6×6 medium format professional film cameras made by the likes of Hasselblad.
The square format was considered ideal for professional film photographers as it allowed the cropping of both horizontal and vertical images for reproduction. Nowadays, away from the world of Instagram, it is well suited to minimalistic black and white photographers trying to replicate the days of film. Ironically the modern day platforms of Instagram and YouTube are triggering a resurgence in photographers turning to film cameras to capture their own 1:1 images… It is definitely cool to be square!
The video below is from a popular YouTube photographer who has started shooting film (I recommend that you check out his landscape photography channel as watching him learn the joys of film is not only educational but also highly entertaining).
16:9 Aspect Ratio
All of the previous aspect ratios are essentially connected with the days of film, however the 16:9 ratio couldn’t be further detached. Definitely rooted in the world of digital, 16:9 is the standard aspect ratio of modern HD monitors and televisions.
The slightly longer dimensions of the format (compared to 3:2) make it appear almost panoramic, which of course makes it ideal for landscape photography. The disadvantage is that it generally doesn’t work as well of portrait orientated images.
Whichever your preferred aspect ratio, don’t be afraid to experiment with different formats. As a general rule, I would recommend shooting your images in RAW so that you can adjust, remove or simply try out new aspect ratios during the post processing of your images.
Based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England’s North-East, Jason Friend is an award-winning professional photographer that specialises in commercial, stock and travel photography.
Jason’s photography career has spanned almost two decades with many incredible highlights including publishing a best-selling book, working for iconic brands such as Microsoft and National Geographic, exhibiting at the renowned Joe Cornish Gallery, and being personally invited to photograph a member of the royal family.