A beginner's guide to aspect ratios in photography

First published:
March 22, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

A beginner's guide to aspect ratios in photography

First published:
March 22, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Photographer on a huge rock by Sava Cosmin-Constantin

A panorama or a square image? Perhaps a standard rectangular 3:2? If you have ever wondered about the crop of your photos, you have been thinking about aspect ratio, this guide explains all

Aspect ratio is primarily the relationship between the height and width of an image. In other words the longest and shortest edges of the photo. Aspect ratio is an essential part of photography as it can determine how you might compose  a scene or subject  to have maximum impact. For example, a landscape might look better in a panoramic view rather than a 3:2 (and I’ll explain more on what these terms mean below). Whereas a portrait might look better as a square image. In this guide, I’ll talk through the most common aspect ratios and when to potentially use them.

The 3:2 ratio

This is by far the most common aspect ratio used in photography and is often the default for full-frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras. It is based on the original 35mm film frame which was used in the days before digital photography. But actually, painters and artists were using this aspect ratio long before photography was invented (head to a gallery and note the ratios of old paintings). The 3:2 aspect ratio provides a good frame for almost all scenarios. Whether it’s a portrait or a landscape shot, 3:2 is a good standard option to select.

This is also the ratio that works best when printing photos. I’m sure you have heard of 6x4 photos which is the standard aspect ratio used when printing photos.

Where is the 3:2 best used?
Can be used in any setting or with any subject.

This image has been taken at an aspect ratio of 3:2. This is a good option for most scenarios.

The 4:3 ratio

Whilst 3:2 is the most commonly used aspect ratio these days, another which is being used increasingly is the 4:3 aspect ratio. This is partly because this ratio is the standard used in Micro-four thirds cameras. These are smaller sensor cameras with interchangeable lenses that offer the advanced features of traditional DSLR or mirrorless cameras. The popularity of these cameras has meant that the 4:3 aspect ratio is becoming more common. But even if you don’t have a micro-four-thirds camera, it’s wrth considering the 4:3 aspect ratio for certain scenarios. This ratio is helpful if your photos will be seen primarily on digital screens and monitors, for which 4:3 provides a better fit than 3:2.

Where is 4:3 best used?
Can be used in any scenario or with any subject but especially for images that are likely to be displayed on digital monitors.

Although similar to 3:2 aspect ratio, if you look closely you’ll see that this image (4:3) doesn’t have as much width as the 3:2.

The 16:9 (panoramic) ratio

I must confess that this is one of my personal favourite crops when it comes to photos. A great panoramic shot can look spectacular due to its extremely wide-angle look which is why it is the standard for television programmes and movies. Naturally, due to its width, this aspect ratio lends itself well to landscape shots or photos in which you require that extra width (or height as can also work in vertical format).

There are two ways to achieve this aspect ratio. You can either crop a standard 3:2 or 4:3 photo to a panoramic when editing, or you can shoot multiple shots and stitch them together to form a stitched panorama.

Best used:
Landscapes and wildlife.

16:9 is a great option when you want to give your images more open space. You can either crop an image (such as this example) or you can stitch multiple shots as a panorama.

The 9:16 ratio (vertical panoramic)

As mentioned above, the 16:9 aspect ratio can also work in a vertical format. This is useful for photos where you need extra height (i.e. when photographing a big tree with someone standing at the base). But also, for photos that are primarily going to be seen on smartphones. Most people view photos on their phones in a portrait or vertical format. So capturing versions of any photo in this crop will make it more aesthetically pleasing when seen on a smartphone without the top and bottom of the photo being cut off.

Best used:
Landscapes and architecture.

This shot is a stitched panorama using a drone. It combines three horizontal shots (one above the other) to produce a verticle panorama. You can create this type of image using any camera.

The 1:1 square ratio

Another relic of the days of film photography, this aspect ratio was the most common among medium format cameras and like the 3:2 aspect ratio, it carried over into digital photography. But the main reason for the use of the 1:1 ratio came when Instagram launched in 2012 and adopted it as the standard size for their posts.

But even though it’s not often used (unless it’s for Instagram), it can still provide a useful cop in certain scenarios. For example, if you have a photo with an uninteresting foreground and sky, by cropping 1:1 you can remove the dead space whilst putting more emphasis on the subject in the middle. This crop sometimes also works well for close-ups of patterns and shapes.

Best used:
Portraits, landscapes, wildlife and close-ups.

1:1 aspect ratio is ideal for Instagram posts. But in this scenario, this ratio also helps to bring the viewer’s attention to the main subjects (the elephants).

The importance of choosing the right aspect ratio

Choosing the right aspect ratio is essential in ensuring that your composition works effectively. If you are mainly going to be showcasing your photos on social media, think about which aspect ratio is most suitable for the platform. For example for Instagram stories, most people will view any photos in a vertical 9:16 ratio whereas on a post it will be better as a 1:1. Or if you are aiming to sell your photos as a large panoramic print then a 16:9 ratio would be a better choice.

But beyond where they are used, choosing the right aspect ratio can also have a major impact on how a photo can be used. For example, if you take a standard 3:2 photo and then crop it to a panoramic (16:9) you are essentially making the photo smaller. This will mean that the photo can’t be printed as large as when you take multiple photos and stitch them together as a panorama.

A good example of when to crop a photo to 1:1 to make a better composition. There would probably have been a lot of dead space in front of the crater if the image hadn’t been cropped. Photo by Primpaul - f/9 | ISO 100 | 3/5s
Panoramic compositions or 16:9 aspect ratio is ideal for these types of scenes where you need a wide angle of view. Photo by Rafal Mieczkowski

How and when to select your aspect ratio

Most digital cameras these days allow you to change your aspect ratio before taking a photo. The main benefit of doing this is that you can see what the photo will look like straightaway rather than waiting to crop it in editing software. You can then adjust your aspect ratio there and then accordingly.

Most photographers, including me, tend to shoot in the standard 3:2 aspect ratio and then crop in post-production. With experience, you will get a feel for what aspect ratio works best and so you may adjust your composition at the time of taking the shot ready to be cropped when being edited. The only exception to this is when I shoot a panorama. In this instance, I shoot multiple shots and stitch them together for a 16:9 ratio rather than cropping a 3:2 as this will allow my panoramic images to be printed on a large scale.

I would recommend spending a few minutes surveying the scene to work out what aspect ratio  would work best before starting to take photos. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala - f/3.2 | ISO 320 | 1/1000s

Choosing the right aspect ratio for a photo is an important part of photography. In fact, sometimes simply changing the crop of your image can transform it into something much better.

The great thing is that these days you can always take photos in 3:2 and crop them accordingly and still be able to revert back to the original crop if needed. So, go ahead and play around with the crop of your images. You never know, you may actually end up improving them as a result.

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