Aspect Ratio – Creativity or Conformity

Most of us have been there. You’re back from vacation and standing at the photo kiosk. You have a dozen images to print as 4×6’s. So far, so good. Then you get to your favorite photo; Uncle Henry standing next to the World’s Largest Ball of Phlegm. You want to print an 8×10 to send as a gift to Aunt Em. According to the screen at the kiosk, you’re going to have to decapitate Uncle Henry. Not good. Either you chop off his head or you cut off his feet, but you can’t keep both. In the end, you decide his head is more important than his feet, but you leave the kiosk wondering why you had to make the choice at all. Why did the 4×6’s print exactly as you captured them in your camera, but the 8×10 required you to crop out pieces of your relatives?

Lego man standing next to "the world's largest ball of phlegm." Actually, a glob of gum. Lego man standing next to "the world's largest ball of phlegm." Actually, a glob of gum. Part of the lego man's head is missing, due to cropping the photo to a different aspect ratio.
Uncle Henry standing with the world’s largest ball of phlegm. Decapitation

At first, the answer may seem obvious. 4×6 and 8×10 have different proportions. A different aspect ratio. If you double the dimensions of the 4×6, you end up with 8×12. But that’s not a standard print size. So to print as an 8×10, you need to chop off 2 inches. But again I ask the question, why? Why isn’t 8×12 a standard? Why print at 8×10? Why not print at 8×12 anyway and save Uncle Henry’s feet? Are we really cropping out vital parts of an image in order to conform to what we’re told is standard? Does Aunt Em really care if you print at a standard size?  I guess what I’m ultimately questioning is: Why is 8×10 better than 8×12?

When preparing for this post, I did a fair amount of research into the history of aspect ratios in photography and in paintings. Too much research. So much research that there’s no way I could fit it all here, nor would I want to. The more I researched, the less relevant it seemed. Consider the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous and well known painting of all time and the two crops of it I’ve done above. The 8×12 is very similar to the original ratio (21×30 or roughly 8×11.4). The 8×10 is the modern standard. Even though the 8×10 doesn’t chop off any details I would consider crucial to the painting, it feels too closed-in, like she needs more room to breathe. Her posture is long and elegant, but she looks cramped in the stubby crop. The 8×12 gives her room to breathe and makes her look more comfortable. But I’m sure Leonardo da Vinci could have given her more room in any ratio he wanted, so why did he paint her at 21×30? Well, that’s simple. Because that was the size of the panel he was painting on.

Mona Lisa as an 8x12 Mona Lisa Cropped as an 8x10
Mona Lisa (8×12) Mona Lisa (8×10)

When photography was in its infancy, there were several different aspect ratios floating around. Nearly every camera had its own. For the sake of simplicity though, it was decided that some sort of standard was needed. Two of the most popular sizes adopted were 4″x5″ and 8″x10″ (Note: the same aspect ratio). At the time, mostly only professionals had cameras, so the standard got a rather firm footing before 35mm film cameras become all the rage.

35mm film has the “non-standard” aspect ratio of 2:3. So do full frame and APS digital cameras. So does the 8×12 we tried to print at the beginning of this post. Yeah. The “non-standard” is just about as standard as you can get. You can still find cameras with the “standard” 4:5 ratio, but you’ll likely be shelling out thousands of dollars for a professional level medium format camera. So you most likely have a camera that takes pictures in one ratio, but then print in another ratio, because you’re told to do so. You know. Because you’re “supposed to”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do feel there are times when you should conform to the pre-described standards:

  1. The client is the boss. If they say they want 8×10’s, you produce 8×10’s.
  2. Frames are a bit easier to find in traditional sizes.
  3. Consistency. If you have a collection of 8×10’s already on your wall, an 8×12 might seem out of place.
  4. Industry standards. Doing head shots? You better know the standard size is 8×10 and anything else is considered unusable. Doing passport photos? 2×2. Planning on taking senior portraits for a yearbook? You better find out what size the school district wants and go with whatever size they tell you

But plenty can be said about printing in the less stubby ratio I seem to be promoting so much:

  1. It’s less work to keep the ratio the same as it was in your camera.
  2. Having the same image on screen and on your print would be nice, wouldn’t it? Most screens are wider than any non-panoramic prints you’re going to do, but 2:3 is at least closer to your monitor (or phone) than 4:5. It will translate more readily from one medium into the other.
  3. Keep your artistic image intact. A tall waterfall should be in a tall. A wide landscape should be wide. Don’t compromise.
  4. It’s getting easier and easier to find frames in the “non-standard” sizes offered by most digital cameras. Also, photo kiosks do print in these sizes, though sometimes you might need to go through an extra menu to find them.

If you or your client prefer 8×10’s, then plan ahead and shoot your photos with that in mind. Leave extra breathing room around important elements on the long side of your photo, so you don’t have to chop off body parts when you crop in.

Portrait of my parents, dressed in dark maroon in front of a stone fireplace. Portrait of a young woman in an alley in downtown Pittsfield, MA.
8×10 of my parents 8×12 of young woman in an alley

Many photographers will argue that if an element of a photograph doesn’t add to the photograph, then it detracts from it. They’ll say to “fill the frame” with the subject. The same photographers will also tell you “don’t crop in too close,” so you can print to standard sizes. My current answer to this apparent contradiction is to simply plan ahead. Don’t just point and shoot, but think ahead. Crop with a purpose.

In the portrait of my parents above, I knew it would be printed in a standard ratio. To make the print taller would just add to the space above their heads or give an unusually low cropping at their waists. The tighter standard ratio adds to the closeness of the image.

In the image of the young woman in the alley, I left room at the top of the image, knowing I could crop it out for a standard print later if I chose to do so. Instead, I left it in the slightly taller, less standard ratio. The picture isn’t just a portrait of the girl, but also her surroundings. Tall narrow alley. Tall narrow photo.

For any photo where you have artistic control, aspect ratio is purely subjective. The standard does not matter. Not at all. An 8×10 is not any better nor any worse than an 8×12. It’s only different. If you get the crop you want exactly the way you want in the camera, then that’s how it should look when you print it. If you think it should be cropped as a square, then do that. Don’t do it just to be random. Don’t do it simply because you’re told to. Do it because you think it’ll make your image look its best.

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