The 16:9 Aspect Ratio for Photography

September 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Aspect ratio defines the shape of a photo. Specifically the relative measurement of each aspect (horizontal and vertical). Traditionally, film cameras (and most digital SLR’s) shoot in the 3:2 aspect ratio. That means that for every 3 units wide, the image is 2 units high. As a result, the standard small print size is 6×4 inches, to match that common shape.

TV used to be in 4:3 aspect ratio, until HD came along and brought the 16:9 aspect ratio into our homes. In TV terminology, the 16:9 aspect ratio is more commonly known as ‘widescreen’. Most TVs and computer monitors are now 16:9 in shape.

When it comes to prints and wall art, I’ve always had a thing for wider images. Particularly for large prints. In many cases the larger the print, the better a wide-aspect image will work compared to a standard 3:2 or 4:3 photo.



For a while now, I’ve been cropping a lot of photos to the 16:9 aspect ratio. I think it started with this one:

Side-on portrait on a bald eagle in studio-lit conditions.Bald Eagle - Black, White, and YellowI think Bald Eagle's are such fantastic birds. They're so huge, you can really read a lot into their faces. They're particularly effective for this kind of abstract photography, and simplifying the colours here, help really emphasise the key features of the head.

Fine Art Nature Photography, captive, UK.


I wanted to compose this shot with the head filling the right-hand edge, and the right-hand third of the top and bottom. It also benefits from having that bold yellow beak centered vertically. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted a nice amount of negative space to the left of the subject. That’s ultimately why I wanted a wide aspect ratio, rather than a standard 3:2 or 4:3. I guess having a good amount of empty space on the other side to the subject helps balance the image.

That was the same approach I took here too:

Low-key side angle profile portrait of a Bengal tiger, on a black background.Bengal Tiger - ProfileAsia's greatest predator, the Bengal tiger.
I took this with the low-key processing treatment in mind, and I'm very happy with the result. The abstract quality of the stripes, and the fading amber-to-white are very effective on the dark background. This is a favourite of my recent portraits.

Nature Photography, captive, UK.

Bengal Tiger yawning, in black and white.Bengal Tiger - YawnPortrait of a yawning Bengal Tiger, in black & white.
I do love the colour of tigers, but I think this is more effective in monochrome, presented in low-key on the black background.

Black & White Nature Photography, captive, UK.

I think these shots work because the subject is placed to one side, but there’s enough negative space in front of them to balance out that placement within the composition. It also feels a little more like the subjects are deliberately placed within the frame, rather than simply shown centred, which is a very literal “here’s an animal” composition.

So that’s how it started, but I soon began to really like the shape.

Red Deer Sunrise LandscapeRed Deer Sunrise LandscapeI like wider views of wildlife as well as close-ups, and even though the mist hides much of this landscape, it leaves just enough to illustrate the environment.
Taken during the
2015 red deer rut.
Woburn Deer Park, Bedfordshire.

Perhaps influenced by the shape of the images in film and TV, I just find it a pleasant and natural shape for a photo. I suppose that’s why people started using it in the first place. To some degree, it probably mirrors the kind of shape we see naturally through our eyes. I would guess we probably see the world in something close to 16:9 aspect ratio, so it feels like a natural view.



I soon started to use it for landscapes too. Particularly in the woods where I often don’t want any sky in the image, a wider aspect helps include more of the scene without the sky.

Beech tree woodland with green leaves, and a bluebell carpet.Bluebell WoodI enjoy these wide-aspect views of woodland. The colours combine here, to capture that feeling of springtime, as the rays of the setting sun paints the bluebells pink.
Part of a
bluebell landscape project.
Landscape photography, Bedfordshire, UK.


Wider-aspect shots and panoramas work very well with woodland scenes, but still 16:9 is a ratio I tend to come back to most often.

A birch tree wood, shrouded in mist.Misty BirchesA birch tree wood, shrouded in mist.
This is my favourite spot in
my local woodland of Aspley Woods.
Misty woodland photos are very much 'on-trend' right now, which is great because I've always loved trees and forests, and it's great to see others enjoying the theme too.
Fine art landscape photography, Bedfordshire.


I’ve also used it for some treescapes:

Wye Valley ForestWye Valley ForestA view of the forest on the Wye Valley, on the English / Welsh border.
This is a winter treescape, on an overcast day, showing the deciduous trees without leaves, and allowing the camera to detect all of the natural colour and detail from the scene.


Here, in a more traditional landscape image, the shape still works, and the classic ‘rule of thirds’ for composition also still applies…


The sea hitting the rocks at sunset, in St Ives Bay, Cornwall, UK.Cornish CoastThis was a "sunset" from the coast around St Ives. We didn't see much of the sun that week, but I think the dramatic cloud here makes up for the lack of sun, and creates a moody scene.

Landscape Photography, Cornwall, UK.



On this occasion I wanted to fill the frame with the hare which, slightly side-on, is quite a wide shape. I could have made this a totally custom crop to get every pixel out of the image, but the 16:9 aspect ratio seemed to be a close fit, and I think it works well…

A brown hare, filling the frame, in black and whiteBrown Hare Close-UpIt was amazing to be able to creep so close to this wild hare, so I had to take the opportunity to fill the frame with that fantastic fur texture, and accentuate the size of that watchful eye.
Fine Art Wildlife Photography, Suffolk , UK.




It can seem like a fairly subtle adjustment from 3:2 to 16:9, but it makes quite a big difference to the feel of the image. I think the danger of using wide-aspect shapes for photos is that it can restrict the amount of depth you get in the image. But I think the style of a lot of my photos – often quite two-dimensional or graphic design-influenced, quite lends itself to this wider aspect ratio.

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2016.


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