On aspect ratios and photography

With digital photography and point-and-click editing tools, it seems the concept of a fixed or standard aspect ratio is going extinct. If necessary, you can crop till you get to a composition you find most pleasing, resize for the web (or print), and be done with it.

Of course on a blog, the width is constrained—in my case to a svelte 380 pixels (400–450 is more standard)—so I usually just resize the photo to that maximum width and don’t pay attention to the height. At some point I decided the native aspect ratio of my shots was a little boring and too square, so I started cropping to the golden ratio (cause why not?). I works especially well on landscapes, emphasizing that horizontal perspective.

Just recently I noticed a few of the first photos I included in my blog were slightly less than my standard width, so I went back to the originals, taken with a two megapixal Kodak DC3400, and resized them. Immediately their height caught my eye. It wasn’t the 285 pixels I’d grown accustomed to, it was only 253.

Turns out the sensor on my first digital camera actually had a aspect ratio of 1.5:1, the same as 35mm and digital SLR photography. Whereas the sensor on my Canon SD400, and I’m guessing almost every other point and shoot out there, is a squarer 1.3:1. I’m curious at what point that switch happened, and why. I assume a squarer image is more amenable to cropping and printing, but by itself makes for a less arresting composition.

Here’s a diagram that contrasts the difference in a square context:
Photographic aspect ratios

I’m curious if anyone’s done any studies or analysis on the aspect ratio of photos by famous photographers (or painters for that matter). Did Ansel Adams crop his shots with the kind of abandon we now crop in GIMP or Photoshop? Or did he limit himself to a few standard or idiosyncratic aspect ratios?

Does anyone else out there think about this kind of stuff?

Update, June 27, 2013: Neat video about The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio


I suspect the story of aspect ratios of digital cameras goes something like this:

1) First gen digital cameras were based heavily on the film cameras of the time, with film replaced with a digital sensor; same aspect ratio, same physical size, etc. True for digital P&S and DSLR. Most importantly: same lenses (and other parts), just stuck in/attached to a slightly different body.

2) Sometime later, digital point and shoot cameras are made without a film camera as a reference/parts source. Especially true for digital cameras that were smaller than a 35mm film camera could ever hope to be. Since the lenses and everything are being specifically made for the digital P&S cameras, they do what’s easiest/cheapest/friendliest for those cameras/consumers. The 1.33 aspect ratio matches the typical TV and typical monitor of the time. Most consumers don’t notice that they’re losing a little off the top and bottom when they occassionally print something. It’s probably also slightly easier to manufacture everything more squared off; a lens can be closer to a circle, etc. At the extreme end of this: the cameras in cell phones. (later for print: options for printing with a 1.33 aspect ratio become available)

3) DSLR cameras continue to target pro and picky-amateur market who wants to be able to buy a lens that works on either DSLR or film SLR cameras, and who are probably more comfortable with an aspect ratio that matches (or is close to) 35mm film, because they’ve spent years learning to frame shots through a hole that shape. Initially it’s very important in this market that the lenses they already own for 35mm SLR cameras can simply be moved to their new DSLR camera.

I’m pretty sure Ansel Adams shot with medium and large format film which probably had an even squarer ratio than you’re talking about (common size for sheet film was 4″x5″; 1.25 aspect ratio) and cropped on the enlarger. He was quoted as liking to worry about whether a shot was vertical or horizontal at the time of cropping instead of when shooting. I think he usually stuck with a 1.25 (or 0.80 for vertical) aspect ratio for the final product since he thought it was easiest on the eyes.

Oh — and I like to just crop to whatever looks good for the shot.

Rad, a comment with more words than the original post! I’m not alone. I think this sentence really crystalizes things:

they’ve spent years learning to frame shots through a hole that shape

I’m generally curious about the effect of de facto standards on collective experience. And how progress sometimes eliminates constraints that were actually beneficial to an artform.


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