The photograph above shows what 5:4 is – the classic landscape aspect ratio in photography. (I took the picture in 2005.)
Today most cameras provide an aspect ratio of 3:2. The right advice for most of us is this: decide what aspect ratio suits your needs (perhaps two different) and stay with it for almost all of your photographs. But that's not a dogma. Nigel Danson accepts no predefined aspect ratio at all. The only accordance he accepts is content and composition – a freeing approach, but I personally prefer restrictions.
Here are some well-known steps in history of aspect ratio in photography:
I think the most important shift in (digital) aspect ratio happened when the manufacturers were forced by the market to increase the amount of pixels on their sensors (near the year 2008).
Concerning the number of pixels the manufacturers made the former width of the sensor the new height and made two former heights the new width (schematic example above – in fact not the sensor size increases but the density of pixels).
This decision took away any chance for 5:4 or 7:6 to become a standard. The reasons for the industry to boost the more wide-screen sensor (3:2) this way were:
- large parts of existing production means can be kept
- images make more effective use of modern TV screens and mobile screens
- users will be forced making this their viewing pattern.
It's amazing (and the reason for me to post this article): Duty of photography is here to conform technical demands of devices and of the industry, and not the other way around.
What aspect ratio for what purpose?
The right decision for an aspect ratio comes from ergonomics of viewing, from perceptual psychology, in other words from the purpose.7:6 5:4 9:7 4:3 3:2
"golden ratio" 16:9
- 1:1 great when technically induced (Rolleiflex, Polaroid)
(otherwise it looks perhaps too ambitious or too intentional)
The trick here is to use (not for technical reasons anymore) something like 21:20
- 9:8 great for a solitary photograph in portrait format or for exhibitions in only this aspect ratio. – In alternating combination with landscape it looks odd
- 7:6 perhaps in portrait format (looks a bit too 'ambitious not being a standard aspect ratio')
- 5:4 (= 10:8) perfect for portrait (with a more dynamic approach than 7:6).
In landscape too, but it looks ambitious and composed rather than being a 'shot'.
- 9:7 perfect for landscape format with an appeal of a live shot.
(The appeal as 'composed' or 'live shot' is not a quality of 5:4 or 9:7 in itself. It's simply association by viewing habits. But you have to consider it.)
- 4:3 The ratio is already beyond being balanced. But it's indifferent, technical, cool, calculated, universally usable.
(In this sense it is today again very modern, very 70's.)
- 3:2 with Cartier-Bresson the 'observation slit' looked modern from the 30's to the 50's. Today it's appropriate for reportage, storytelling, action and video. Occasionally 3:2 looks dynamic in portrait format, in landscape rather trivial. – For street photographers the odd look is intended: 'I don't care. I shoot. Period.'
- 16.2 :10 the "golden ratio" is superstition in connection with perception of images (in architecture it represents, as any similar aspect ratio, a static, reliable shape)
- 16:9 like "3:2 showing off". Could be interesting for dual-presentations: 2 x 9:8
The reason for the TV screen to be wide is this: TV viewing has challenges converse to image viewing. The wide screen forces the human eye to move actively around on the screen to catch different objects. The scene is by being wide divided into multiple spots of interest. That involves the viewer into the scene and suggests adventure.
However the photograph as a piece of art pleases the eye in its entirety and is not distracting wide-screen. (As always in art there are also special cases with adverse concepts.)
That means 3:2 is not really made for photography. (Difficult to claim this since 3:2 has been standard in analog photography for decades. – And indeed already then the aspect ratio was technic-inspired – by "film", with the intention to look "modern".)
I still think 3:2 is the best compromise. To get a pleasing photograph (like 9:7 – or 5:4 for portrait) you have to crop or to stitch in post-processing anyway, regardless you shoot in 3:2 or 4:3.
Plus: a 3:2 camera is best for video.
The need to stitch in post-processing forces the photographer to disable any automatic features like exposure, focusing, white balance etc. I think that's also not bad for being in photography.
And 3:2 makes more use of the outmost parts of the visual field of the lens (disk) than 5:4 would do (left image).
The gap looks small (image 1) but a shift of 20% (image 2) is needed for the second shot to stitch 5:4 out of 3:2.
With long lenses cropping doesn't hurt and stitching is easy (addition: see Nigel Danson on YouTube).
With wide angle lenses as opposed to this cropping means discarding that parts of an image that makes the nature of it (of wide angle photography). – On the other hand stitching wide angle shots is difficult because of lens effects and distortion. (Rectification 2020: 8 years after I wrote this stitching wide angle photos together and even differently exposed images is no problem for the software anymore. – See Robin Whalley's tutorial on YouTube.)
Photography is esthetics and expression
I endorse 3:2 as the best basis for cropping and stitching, but I couldn't use 3:2 with the philosophy "Shoot and leave it as it is".
3:2 is ok when you are a press photographer or when you like the report-and-action style. But there is a justification of 3:2 that I think is dishonest:
"People want to share quickly and easily. They are interested in life, not so much in questions of proportion and composition. They want to share lifestyle, informations and events. For this purpose widescreen is best."
This justification is wrong. There are millions (billions rather) of fake vintage/ cool overexposed/ framed/ effect-overloadet photos on the internet. Not just photos. There are millions of fake "Pentax 6x7", "Polaroids" and "645". There are hundreds of apps for that. ... And there are a lot of enthusiasts that make impressive, well-balanced photographs. It's in the nature of how people look at photographs. Everyone looks first for esthetics and expression, not first for documentary.
The simple truth is 3:2 is good for 3:2 itself. – It is good for press photographers, for advertising, for scientific documentary, for video, for hand-held devices, for the technical world. – 3:2 is for the manufacturers and for making money in the industry. It is not for those who are in photography, in its esthetics and inner laws.
Aspect ratio is great
The photographer has one aspect ratio in mind: "It's the inner sensor. The aspect ratio is idealism – it is the eye for reality (in the head, not in the camera) that scans the visual world for what fits the inner sensor."
But usually you can't find a camera that conforms the aspect ratio of your inner sensor. – What to do?
Cropping is wrong? Cropping is the loss of truth (Cartier-Bresson : "Don't crop"). – This is a verdict not for technical or aesthetical reasons ("Don't crop" is not a value in itself). – "Don't crop" is mainly air, it is the (not necessarily authentic) pronouncement to be "one with the camera". It is what the community demands of a great photographer.
A matter of fact is: not the photographer crops the image. The weird observation- slit camera does – with its weird observation-slit sensor. The photographer restores the truth by restoring the 10:8 aspect ratio (or 9:8 or whatever) the camera wasn't able to see.
He restores the truth no matter what others expect or what the camera does.
There is the wisdom: truth is only what others acknowledge as such. (Having your truth just for your own means in the end you are wrong.)
So you have to publish again and again to get acceptance for your aspect ratio. Or you say: Your acceptance? – piss off.
"Steinplatz, Berlin-Charlottenburg", the first photograph I took with a digital camera, 2001, in the camera's 4:3 aspect ratio. To crop it to 5:4 would be a loss in compositional dynamics.
In general I ended up with this: 9:7 for landscape (sometimes 4:3) and 5:4 for portrait (sometimes 4:3).
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