Aspect Ratios - Overview

In this blog I use one image and demonstrate its interpretation through a variety of aspect ratios. You can even place your vote on which you prefer at the bottom of the blog! 

At a later date I'm going to write a more detailed blog on each aspect ratio with various examples...

I was recently out leading a workshop with my friend and colleague Paul Sanders on the Dorset coast. We had a lovely group of clients with us who'd got in touch originally through 'The Togcast Podcast' that we host and we ended up running a small weekend event for them (ps If you'd like to do this as well please do get in touch). As ever it was a mix of helping to inspire people with different locations, varying conditions and also talking them through different ways to approach a scene based on our experiences. 

On this occasion we spent some time discussing different aspect ratios. It was quite interesting that although some of the clients had tried different aspect ratios in the post-processing stage, usually it was actually more about cropping to remove distracting elements than setting an aspect ratio specifically. None of them had really used their in-camera live view aspect ratios when out in the field with a view to interpreting and composing a scene differently at the point of capture. I would reflect that 99% of my landscape shooting is not done at 3:2. I've found this is just what suits me and each to their own (all the usual caveats etc) but I think there are various reasons why I've gone this way:

  • I have used a couple of film cameras for a number of years that offer a 1:1 view through the glass, part of me is simply used to 'seeing' in that way
  • Undoubtedly I've been influenced by some of the photographers whose work I have admired (and still do!) over the years
  • With my compulsive search for order in compositions I've found certain aspect ratios lend themselves more easily to balance (for my eye)
  • I strongly believe that there are certain visual elements and shapes that are commonly more suited to different aspect ratios
  • It's a creative and effective way to accentuate certain themes within a scene

The Scene & Motivation

It was a muted day on the Jurassic Coast and there were lovely pastel colours in the sky and the clouds were blending into the horizon nicely. Looking out to sea there was a sense of just drifting out to infinity and so my initial inspirations were to create an ordered, tonally muted, simple composition to complement the peaceful view we were experiencing and to highlight the interesting (and fairly delicate) textures in the cloud and use the loan boat as a source of scale.

The image is neither here nor there for me but I did think it made for a good example...

1:1 Aspect Ratio (As Shot)

Commonly I walk round with my camera set to 1:1 and use it in Live View mode. It has become my 'go-to' and that brings it's own dangers. It's easy to become reliant on something and use it as a safety blanket, this can lead to your images becoming repetitive and also it can limit (or at least stifle) your creative eye. However, on this occasion I was quite sure that a 1:1 square would complement the scene nicely. When shooting in a very minimalist style the square aspect ratio can be a good option as it's equally balanced shape brings a natural sense of order. Also the story in this image is not a front to back, or left to right narrative - more on this later in the other aspect ratios! In the square you can leave a good amount of space and it can work well with straight horizontal or vertical lines such as the horizon here.

I find that a rough 80/20 rule can work well for horizon placement in a square if it's an image that has a simple horizon and not much else. This can work both ways; you may have a more interesting foreground that you wish to highlight and a flat sky in which case you can push that horizon way up on a square without it feeling cramped like it would in 3:2 or many other aspect ratios.

5:4 Aspect Ratio 

I really love 5:4 in many situations (although perhaps not here). If you're a square fan generally then you'll find that 5:4 is a great addition to your arsenal. It is generally much better at coping with scenes where a more vertical story needs to be told. For example if you have an element that people are used to seeing in an up/down state visually: high waterfalls, trees, certain buildings, people etc. It can also be a better way of letting the eye 'travel' through an image if you're using a foreground element to guide the viewer into the scene, think about a path into a woodland or a rock into a seascape etc. The slightly more vertical shape of 5:4 vs 1:1 is often more complementary to those scenarios. It comes down to how you want the viewer to travel through the image.

In this situation for me it doesn't add anything to the square. We're just seeing more sky and it's making the boat seem too tiny (it's probably too tiny in all of these but that's all the more reason not to exacerbate things!). 

One minor annoyance is that Canon don't offer this aspect ratio in their live view options, the closest is 4:3 so if you're looking to use 5:4 start with 4:3 and either get used to knowing how much it will crop to at 5:4 or just embrace 4:3, it's pretty nice as well ;)

16:9 Aspect Ratio 

This is one of my more commonly used aspect ratios. If we refer back to my comment about the directional narrative of a scene then I would say that 16:9 often works really well for scenes where there is a left to right flow (or perhaps right to left - thats a blog for another day!). For example a distant set of peaks with fluctuating heights where the story is about the line of peaks not the foreground. Or perhaps a longer lens compression of a rolling countryside scene. Anything where you want to show lines, flow, rhythm from a left to right point of view. Obviously because this aspect ratio is very short and wide it doesn't tend to be great if you're wanting to lead the viewer in from the bottom of the scene as discussed in the 5:4 section.

It can also work well with minimalist scenes if you're trying to show a wide expanse, think of some of the great cinematic uses of 16:9 as a format at the movies. I particularly enjoyed a scene in the latest James Bond film 'Spectre' where they had a train snaking in left to right across the scene, or think of the classic American mid-west shots of the impressive rock stacks and the sense of grandeur and open space it brings.

In our example scene on the Jurassic Coast above I would say this 16:9 is an option, it does add a certain obvious width which can create a feeling of space and expanse but perhaps due to the simplicity of the elements I actually prefer our next option if we were looking to go wide...

16:7 Aspect Ratio 

If you're going to go wide, go really wide ;) Sometimes (just sometimes) the 16:7 is a great option. Obviously it has a very panoramic feel and the same suggestions apply about it suiting left to right compositions. Often it can feel a little too compressed though if you have any jagged peaks or elements too close to the top and bottom. In fact this is true of 16:9 as well, I find that leaving a little room top and bottom is beneficial to let the scene breathe, otherwise it will feel crammed in. If there is a fair amount going on in a scene I usually find 16:9 works better but it's worth experimenting with yourself. Use the 16:9 in live view and cover over the top and bottom to see if the scene can take stretching even further. Bear in mind that 16:7 images when shared on the web (especially via social media) can loose impact because they just feel small. They're best shown large, and/or printed large.

In this scene I actually prefer the 16:7 to 16:9, perhaps because it's so simple and when we think of a horizon it is of course naturally a horizontal element, as such giving it an aspect ratio that enhances that element tends to work. It adds to the sense of scale of the boat being out at sea alone, more than the vertical aspect ratios which just gave us more sky, which whilst you could argue that also gives scale, it's worth remembering it's a boat not a plane! It belongs on the water and as such that is the element we perhaps need to highlight more with this elongated horizontal aspect ratio.

3:2 Aspect Ratio 

I'll be completely honest and say that putting the image into 3:2 was the reason for this blog being created. Imagine the horror, shock and surprise when I found I actually quite liked it! There is a good balance between sky, sea, the use of the boat, a sense of space and expanse. 

It reminded me that we can all too easily fall into our 'routine' when out shooting. Using the same ideas, techniques and visual strategies can be comfortable for us but commonly it can limit our creativity. This applies to people who only ever shoot in 3:2 and it applies to others like myself who have maybe found another safety blanket.

In Summary

This blog is not about which aspect ratio is best for you, for any one scene or indeed necessarily even for this scene. I wanted to try and give some pointers about when you could consider using certain aspect ratios to enhance your compositions. Be it to introduce more flow from bottom to top, or left to right. Perhaps you want to really simplify and emphasise graphic lines and shape, whatever the scene the point is to consider WHY you're attracted to it and HOW you can use your composition to accentuate and highlight the spirit and flow of the image. It's far more beneficial to use these aspect ratios at the point of capture than to apply them after the fact.

ps - I was going to go into the use of that boat and show you some with boat and without boat, but that's another blog for another day! In the meantime just cover it with your thumb and see what you think!

Your Choice

Which aspect ratio do you prefer for this image?
1:1
5:4
16:9
16:7
3:2
Created with PollMaker