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Not many people dwell on the fact that something called “aspect ratio” affects the compositions they use in their photographs. Sure, on Instagam we all use the 1:1 ratio (until shortly), but what does this mean? This page will go deeper into the meaning and usage of the aspect ratio.

What is aspect ratio?

Countless pictures are taken on a daily basis all over the world using cameras and mobile phones. And some people wonder: “How come a photograph is square, while the lens is a circle?” The answer to that question is: Because the camera’s sensor is a square. The lens is only a circle because it is cheaper to produce a round lens rather than a square lens. Besides, it is more convenient, imagine carrying a bulky square lens!

The history behind the sensor’s shape can be traced back to painting: What shape are most of the old paintings by the great painters? Yes, rectangle! This, and some practical reasons, made the creator of the first camera film decide it should be rectangle. Then, when the first sensor for the digital camera was made, it seemed logical to adopt the size of the analog film.

As it was costly to produce these large sensors, methods were found to create smaller sizes. The production method and the costs influenced the further sizes of a digital camera sensor. Today some of the common sizes for a sensor are:

  • 36mm x 24mm (Full Frame)
  • 23,5mm x 15,6m (Nikon crop)
  • 22,5mm x 15mm (Canon crop)
  • 7,6mm x 5.7mm (Compact camera)

This brings us to aspect ratio. If you divide the width of the sensor by the height of the sensor you get the aspect ratio. The standard aspect ratio for a full frame camera is 1,5 (36 / 24). Meaning that the width of the sensor is 1,5 times the height. As mathematicians prefer rounded numbers for ratio, they rounded it multiplying the width by 2. The width of the ratio is 3 (1,5 x 2), this makes the height 2 (3 / 1,5). Resulting in an aspect ratio 3:2.

The ratio 3:2 is most common for DSLR’s. Other prevalent aspect ratio’s are:

  • 4:3
  • 5:4

There are two more well known aspect ratio’s: 1:1 and 16:9. The first one leads back to film photography. A popular film format introduced by Kodak in 1901, a 120mm square film. Today this format is still widely used on Instagram and lomography. The ratio 16:9 is well known by film-makers, as most HD films you watch on your television use this format.

Aspect Ratio

Different aspect ratios. The red lines represent 3:2 ratio, the green square is the 5:4 ratio, and the blue square shows the 4:3 aspect ratio.

Obviously, your camera captures one aspect ratio, but many photo editing software will let you crop a ratio of your liking, even on your mobile phone.

How aspect ratio influences a photo

The aspect ratio of a photo influences the composition, sometimes the impact is very subtle. Where you place the horizon and how far away the subject is from the borders of the photo are some considerations when cropping for an aspect ratio.

Like mentioned the 3:2 ratio is the most known aspect ratio, as it represents the original size of a photo (15cm x 10cm analog photos).

Beach near Middelburg, The Netherlands

Middelburg, The Netherlands, captured with a 3:2 ratio.

Most compact camera’s have a 4:3 ratio (and so do most non-widescreen movies). The same photo cropped to 4:3 looks like the photo below. Notice how the impression of the wide view has changed.

Middelbug 4:3 ratio

Middelburg, The Netherlands. Cropped with a 4:3 ratio.

The 5:4 ratio is is close to the 3:2 ratio, again a little less wide, but a bit wider than 4:3 proportion.

Middelburg 5:4 ratio

The 5:4 ratio is subtly different to the “original” 3:2 ratio.

Many people love movies, and making film like photos is becoming more fashionable. For these type of photos the 16:9 ratio is perfect. It emphasizes the width of a scene, while limiting the height of the scene.

Middelburg 16:9

The 16:9 ratio used in most modern movies emphasizes width.

The same composition rules apply for the aspect ratio’s described above. While the “look and feel” of a photo changes, you still work with the “rule of thirds”. A bit different is the “retro” square canvas, or the 1:1 ratio. With this aspect ratio, centering your subject is more appealing than when you do this using a 3:2 aspect ratio. Symmetry are particularly great on a 1:1 ratio canvas too.

Middelburg 1:1

Thanks to “retro” being in fashion again, so is the 1:1 aspect ratio.

Other examples are shown in the gallery below.

Choosing the aspect ratio can influence your photo drastically. A square composition is potentially great for a fashionable print on your wall in the living room, while a wide view on a 16:9 canvas is great for a panorama photo above your bed, and the traditional 3:2 aspect ration might be great for your “traditional” family photos. Try to match the scene with the right ratio.

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