Aspect Ratio 101: Why you’re forced to crop your pictures

Wow! Where’d that wolf head come from? The way the above image differed between the preview and in this full article illustrates how much aspect ratio—both of the source image and of the display location—can influence the impact your photos make.

Aspect ratio refers to the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image or video, in that order and typically reduced to the lowest possible numerical expression. (In other words, an image twice as wide as it is tall would have a ratio of 2:1, whether 36″x18″ or 190″x95″.)

Pro tip: you’ve certainly heard people talking about a “4×6 print.” In the common parlance, “4×6” and “6×4″ are used interchangeably for any print with one 4″ dimension and 6″ dimension, and that’s perfectly fine. When used technically, however, a landscape (wider-than-tall) print would be referred to as a 6″x4″ and a portrait (taller-than-wide) print would be referred to as 4″x6”.

Various standards have emerged in the photo and video industries over time, with varying degrees of success. Despite competing standards—like those of 110 film, APS film, and the host of 120 film aspect ratios—the size of one exposed frame of 35mm film is one example of an extremely enduring standard ratio.

Others are less-enduring. While the Micro Four Thirds system, drones, and many point-and-shoot camera sensors have kept the 4:3 capture ratio popular, “fullscreen” has disappeared almost entirely in any display application (replaced by the generally-16:9 “widescreen” standard).

To put it more simply, depending on the film or sensor, cameras take photos and video in a variety of differently-shaped rectangles. In addition, photos can be printed (or videos displayed) in an even greater variety of shapes—not just rectangles!

This is important for two reasons:

  • It may not be possible to display your images the way you intend to. It is very easy to convert between aspect ratios, but there is always some level of sacrifice—the original image must be either cropped, stretched, or letterboxed.

If you buy a frame before making a print, make sure that the photo will accommodate the correct aspect ratio! I can’t tell you how many times we at Mike’s Camera have had to break the unfortunate news that the photo of the whole family, lined up across the entire image, will not fit the 10″x8″ frame they bought in which to put it.

  • On the other hand, controlling the aspect ratio of the images you print (or the video you export) gives you one more degree of creative control. Meek’s Cutoff, from 2010, was intentionally shot in now-anachronistic fullscreen (4:3) to great effect, creating a sense of confinement and cutting off (if you will) the “wide open” feeling from a prairie that offered anything but free movement to the movie’s settlers struggling westward.

While there is a reliable menu of “standard print sizes,” I hope this has helped open a few eyes to the fact that hardly any of them have the same shape. Keep the aspect ratio of your camera in mind when shooting—leave a little room to crop!—and remember how it might affect the feeling of your finished product when debating which size to print. Here’s a handy chart that visually compares the most common aspect ratios and associates them with their most common inputs and outputs.

As always, feel free to comment, shoot me a message, or visit any of our Mike’s Camera locations if you’d like to delve deeper into the issue!

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