Aspect ratios in photography & compositional theory

Part of the feedback I received when I put my assignment 3 draft up for discussion on the OCA critique format was a comment on the aspect ratio; I’d used the standard 3:2 that comes out of my Fuji X-T1 (or any 35mm inspired sensor). The suggestion was made that 5:4 looks better and the student mentioned that he crops all of his photos to this aspect ration. I’ve used square format on a few occasions as a square is an obviously a different container to a rectangle, but had not thought of cropping to a different rectangular dimension. Strangely, I tried the 5:4 crop and liked the look of it better. This got me thinking.

Source: petapixel.com by Ming Thein

Different sensors or film formats determine the native aspect ratio of the digital or film image, as Gibson explains in his online article. He also explains what he calls ‘the 35mm problem’, which is 3:2 works well in landscape orientation but can look too tall and narrow in portrait. So the longer rectangles make it difficult to fill the frame effectively and hinder composition. Several articles (various, photocomposition) discuss the ‘golden ratio’ (3:2 is an approximation to this), including studies that show this is often a naturally occurring ratio and attractive to humans – this is supported by anecdotal and historical evidence of the ratio’s use; why have we continued to use it if we don’t find it attractive? It is also thought to approximate the eye’s natural binocular field of vision (Thein M), so it is comfortable for us to view in one glance. So if you flip 3:2 vertically, to maintain the same horizontal aspect it would need to be 4.5:3 (or 5:3.3 if you want a comparison to 5:4). This is the 35mm problem – portrait viewing does not fit with our native human aspect ratio.

Most people will stick to the aspect ratio that is native to the camera, and either do nothing else, or crop to fit later. This is compositionally very, very sloppy – not only do you not get the best frame for the shape of your subject, there’s a very good chance that you probably won’t be able to fill the frame properly, either; 3:2 is a bit of a compromise aspect ratio that lacks the organic intimacy of 5:4 or 4:3 for portraits, or the drama of 16:9 for more expansive scenes. (Thein M)

I am self-confirmed ‘compositionally very, very sloppy’ – focused on maintaining available pixels for printing at expense of composition. But the times are changing. However, there is plenty of ‘purist’ thought in the photography world to discourage cropping – the same writer has a blog post entitled, ‘why cropping is bad’. Though, he does explain reasons and why he considers aspect ratio to be an exception, providing the shot is made with the aspect ratio in mind.

Now, I am going to work and experiment with different aspect ratios, but I cannot imagine how to envision the final aspect ratio in camera, while shooting 3:2 through my view finder (advice welcome!) and I wonder about series of photos – I’m not sure that a series containing various aspect ratios would be accepted; mixing portrait and landscape in the same aspect ratio seems to already cause controversy amongst photographers.

References

Gibson A (2011). The Art of Using Aspect Ratios in Digital Photography. Tutsplus [website]. Available from: https://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/the-art-of-using-aspect-ratios-in-digital-photography–photo-7947 [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M (2012). Introduction to aspect ratios and compositional theory. Petapixel [website]. Available from: https://petapixel.com/2012/12/26/an-introduction-to-aspect-ratios-and-compositional-theory/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Thein M [Blog]. Why cropping is bad (January 21, 2013). Available from: https://blog.mingthein.com/2013/01/21/why-cropping-is-bad/ [accessed 1.2.17]

Various (nd). Photocomposition Articles. Photoinf [website]. Available from: http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/ [accessed 1.2.17]

5 thoughts on “Aspect ratios in photography & compositional theory

  1. This is such an emotionally-charged, almost religious area. I’m also not a big fan of the 35mm format, preferring 5:4 or square for landscape, and avoid completely 35mm in portrait format. But in the end, it’s personal taste. As artists, our photographs are an expression of our creativity and therefore if we want to compose and crop to a different ratio than the native camera provides, so be it. What the OCA asks of us is to think about our decisions and make them actively, not passively. It has been a little hard for me to get used to that, but it does encourage me to think more, make choices and experiment outside of my comfort zone. 1 point to OCA, I think.

  2. Interesting post, Andrew. You’ve given me some food for thought on why I choose the aspect ratios I do, which are mostly 4:3, 5:7 and 1:1. Must go and try a few other options.

  3. Dear Andrew, many thanks for your thoughts.
    The aspect ratio is definitely an important point. Also I never questioned the old way of 3:2 and always wondered why and how other sensor were sized. I will certainly also have a go at playing with size ratio.
    As for cropping, I do not see it as such a big issue. Admittedly, if one has the right conditions, precise composition should be done at shooting time, but there are circumstances that do not allow it. One such example may be street photography when done covertly.
    Thanks also for the good references.

  4. Yep. Very useful. I have been struggling with what to crop all my images to since starting the course but now tend to crop to 8×10 = 4×5 which looks better and is fine for printing eventually on A4 paper. I have not got as far as doing this on uploading images. I may do that. I will look at your links.

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