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Understanding Aspect Ratios in Photography


Thanks to all the great apps and new cameras that are now available, anyone can take photographs. As long as you can focus on a subject and press a button, you can take all the images that you want. This does not mean that you’re ready to launch a professional photography business or start charging clients for your photos though. You still have a lot to learn about, including how to get your subjects to look perfect and how to adjust the background lighting.

Another thing to consider is aspect ratio. This is a factor that can change the way a photograph looks when printed in one size over another. I’ll use this article to help you understand the fundamentals of a camera’s aspect ratio.

What is Aspect Ratio?

The term aspect ratio refers to the length and height of a photograph or the long and short sides of the image. When you shop for a new flat-screen television, you’ll see the same term listed by manufacturers. It gives you an idea of how the long side of the screen compares to the short size. The term refers to the same thing in regards to a camera screen.

Common Aspect Ratios

One of the more common aspect ratios found on cameras today is 3:2. This is similar to the ratio found on the old 35mm cameras that you used in the past. The negatives that you used to print photos were 24mm by 36mm, which breaks down to 2 by 3 or 3 by 2.

This is a popular aspect ratio because it allows photographers to break down those images into different sizes based on what their clients want without changing the quality of the photos. You can make an 8 x 12 as a wedding present and make smaller prints of 4 x 6 that they can hand out to their loved ones.” alt=”aspect ratios in photography” width=”726″ height=”453″ />

A downside to the 3:2 aspect ratio is that it can require the cropping of images when you print photos in different sizes, including 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 sizes. You’ll need to remove a section from either the long or short sides of the image to fit this new size.

This doesn’t have to be a problem though because you can usually find sections of the image to remove that do not add to the overall effect or look of the photograph. When cropping an image of a couple, for example, you can often remove a section from the top and one side that includes only the background without removing their clothing or bodies.

Another common aspect ratio is 4:5, which is slightly shorter than the previous side but is also wider. This is a good aspect ratio to use when shooting landscapes and cityscapes. You can get more of the area around buildings or objects in your photographs and still include a portion of the sky.

Most cameras today come with two aspect ratio options: 3:2 and 4:3. The 4:3 aspect ratio is not as wide as the 3:2 ratio but is slightly taller. Some prefer the 4:3 option because they can more easily compose photographs. When you take a photo in the 3:2 aspect ratio, you need to make sure that you have enough objects in the background behind your subject to fill the frame.

Why is Aspect Ratio Important?

The aspect ratio is important because it gives you an idea of the amount of space around your subjects. Also called negative space, it helps put the focus of the photograph on your central subject. It can also help you set up and compose the images that you take based on how much space you want.

How to Adjust the Aspect Ratio

Adjusting the aspect ratio in your camera is easy because you only need to do a few things:

  • Turn on your camera
  • Press the menu button to enter the main menu
  • Click on the aspect ratio setting
  • Select the ratio that you want to use

An important thing to keep in mind is that many cameras today will automatically crop photographs when you shoot in the JPEG format. Anything in the background that you wanted to capture that is part of the cropped portion will disappear. You cannot access the full image if you shoot in this mode.

In my article on RAW vs. JPEG formats, I went over some of the benefits of each format. When you shoot in the RAW format, the camera will keep a copy of the full image. You can crop or edit it to the size that you want with editing software later.

Cropping with Editing Software

No matter what aspect ratio you select, you can crop the image later. Both Photoshop and Lightroom are good products for editing photographs, though Lightroom is a little better for organizing your images. You can crop images to make sure that you highlight your subjects rather than any background items.

Most of these software suites come with a crop tool that looks like a simple box. You can click on this box and then lay it on top of the image. When you click on the box and move your mouse or cursor, the box will expand to cover more of the image. It will also have blinking edges that show you which portions will remain in the final images and which sections you’ll discard.

Some editing software suites come with preset aspect ratios too. Instead of manipulating a box, you can click on the crop tool and choose the aspect ratio that you want from options such as 4:3 or 3:2. You may have the choice of setting a custom aspect ratio or changing the image based on the photo size that you need.

Aspect Ratios Made Easy

The aspect ratio of an image essentially refers to how wide the photo is in regards to its overall height. This lets you see how much you can capture in a photograph and how much you can crop later. Aspect ratio is one of the more important terms that photographers need to know.