Updated: Feb 27
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.
USING 16:9 ASPECT RATIO IN PHOTOS
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:
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 centred 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:
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.
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.
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.
I’ve also used it for some treescapes:
Here, in a more traditional landscape image, the shape still works, and the classic ‘rule of thirds’ for composition also still applies…
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…
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.