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1. What Is an Aspect Ratio?

In layman’s terms, the aspect ratio of an image is simply the proportional difference between width and height. The most popular aspect ratio is 3:2.

This is the aspect ratio of 35mm film cameras and has been around for a long time. It became the standard for modern full frame cameras as well.

Besides 3:2, there are other aspect ratios that are gaining popularity like 4:3, 1:1 and 16:9. They all have their own uses. Some are more popular on social media while others fit better on modern day monitors when viewed in full screen.

Learning to identify the strengths of popular aspect ratio is very important if you want to make the most out of any given platform.

Also, if you are shooting for proper aspect ratio in mind, you can use your camera’s sensor to its maximum potential and won’t lose details while producing big prints.

A diagram for understanding what is aspect ratio photography

2. Common Aspect Ratios

There are quite a few aspect ratios that are common these days.

Let’s see why they became popular and then we can discuss which ratios we should use for different purposes.

3:2

Beautiful evening landscape photo taken with 3:2 aspect ratio

First of all, this is the closest to the golden ratio, which makes it visually appealing and more balanced. Painters and artists used it long before even photography was invented. It’s also the ratio of a 35mm film.

Although now 4:3 ratio is gaining traction, 3:2 is still the standard one. You can use your old film lenses on new DSLRs because they are designed for same ratios.

4:3

Street Photography shot with bushes in the foreground - using aspect ratio 4:3

4:3 is a common standard of modern day monitors and screens. So, this ratio looks much more aesthetic on screens.

Advertisers use this ratio all the time for digital advertising. Micro four thirds cameras also us this ratio as their standard.

1:1

Serene evening beach photo using 1:1 aspect ratio photography

This aspect ratio was common with medium format cameras in the old days. It was becoming popular when Instagram became a sensation for photographers.

It is pretty much standard for social media nowadays. With this ratio, the image isn’t affected no matter which orientation you are viewing it in.

16:9

Monochrome coastal photography shot of a man standing on rocks looking towards the ocean using 16:9 aspect ratio

This is the standard for HDTV and motion pictures. Because of this, it looks cinematic and certain types of shots look particularly beautiful in this ratio. Although when it comes to stills, it is not a widely used aspect ratio.

Now, after all this introduction to various aspect ratios, let’s talk about how to choose aspect ratios for specific work. And what to keep in mind while choosing one over another.

3. How Does Composition Affect Aspect Ratio

A low angle street photo taken from the centre of the road - using aspect ratio in photography

Sometimes, it is the composition that dictates the aspect ratio. If you are shooting a landscape in horizontal orientation, then 3:2 is the best choice.

You can use every bit of your sensor. It’s easier to the place horizon. And it’s much more balanced as this ratio is very close to the golden ratio.

But if you want a vertical orientation than 3:2 is a bit awkward. There is too much free space either for sky or for foreground. If you don’t have a lot of details in foreground or background, then 4:3 is a much better choice.

Think about your target composition and select your aspect ratio accordingly. This will let you frame your subjects with better balance.

4. Keep Your Target Platform in Mind

9 photo Instagram grid of travel and landscape photography shots

Gone are the days when the only output of a photograph was a wall mounted print. Now you have different platforms and you must tailor your shots to each one. Unless you have a very specific task like shooting for billboards, for example.

The square (1×1) aspect ratio best fits Instagram. Although the app supports rectangular format now too. But your first impression still comes from the main grid and it still depends on the square aspect ratio.

Instagram stories are another example that depends on the 9:16 aspect ratio, which is best suited for mobile devices.

The Youtube thumbnail image ratio is 16:9. Google+ and Pinterest work best with 2:3.

For a photographer, getting traction on social media is of prime importance. Since photography is a visual medium, presenting your images in the best possible way on social media is the only way you can gain more visibility. For some inspiration check out our top lists of female photographers, young photographers or photography websites.

5. Aspect Ratio for Prints

It’s always a pleasure to see a picture in its physical and tangible form. Nothing can replace an actual album or a picture frame. Ask any wedding photographer and he will tell you what problems they face with aspect ratios while sending their pictures for prints.

The aspect ratios of most common printing papers and photo frames don’t match the default aspect ratios in cameras these days. You will find plenty of photo frames on the market that match aspect ratios like 5:4,5:7 and 8.5:11.

It’s a good idea to check with your client, and ask what their target aspect ratios are. That way you can produce results tailored to their needs.

How to Approach the Elephant in the Room?

There are multiple ways to fix this issue. One way is to shoot with enough space around the edges so that you can crop later on in post-processing. This works for aspect ratios that are close to each other like 3:2 and 4:3.

But what about scenarios when you want to shoot a square as well as 16:9 or 9:16? There’s a huge difference between these two aspect rations visually.

It’s always a better idea to shoot separate images with different aspect ratios. That way, you will lose very little amount of resolution and you can adjust each composition perfectly.

Every time you can’t shoot multiple images for each aspect ratio, go with Raw+JPEG option. You will get accurate composition in JPEG the RAW file will give you some room to play around in post for ratios close to your actual one.

Conclusion

In the past, aspect ratio was something that you couldn’t control easily. It mostly depended on what type of camera you were using. For example, 3:2 for 35mm film, 1:1 for medium format and 5:4 for large format cameras.

Nowadays, however, this is more of a creative decision rather than a physical limitation. You have camera sensors that are far more powerful that even a drastic cropping later on will not affect your images too much.

There is no such thing as the best aspect ratio. It’s always a good idea to shoot for specific ratios if possible. A photograph is more than just pixels. Make sure it is visually appealing for whichever ratio you choose. After all, photography is all about the aesthetics.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Imran Zahid

Imran Zahid is a self-taught, part-time photographer. It's his lifetime passion and he really enjoys documenting human life in street, documentary and environmental portrait forms. Check out his Instagram Portfolio or his Blog - The Shades Photography to see more of his work. You can contact him at im.zahid@hotmail.com.

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