4 x 3, 3 x 2, 16 x 9, 1 x 1… What’s the Ideal Image Aspect Ratio?

There is no ideal image aspect ratio. Depending on the situation, each and every crop ratio has its own pros and cons. Personally I prefer the more landscapy 3 x 2 format, digital imaging’s equivalent to film’s classic 35mm proportions. To some it seems unnatural. Also, the more squarish 4 x 3 offers better corner performance. With all the aspect choices digital cameras offer, which one to go for?

The "divine proportion" of the golden ratio is close to film's 36mm x 24mm equivalent...
The search for the perfect, divine ratio has fascinated Western intellectuals of diverse interests for at least 2,400 years. The “divine proportion” of the golden ratio‘s magic 1.618 factor is close to film’s 36mm x 24mm equivalent with a 1.5 factor.
If you’re one of the few human beings left who prints photos, most labs will print uncropped if you ask them to. If you don’t specify they will usually fill the paper size or chop off the borders, notwithstanding the possibility that a group portrait shot with your Micro Four Thirds camera just lost the heads and feet of auntie Ann and uncle Joe. Aspect ratio matters.

There’s about a dozen standardized image aspect ratios. The older generation, including Canon and Nikon’s more serious gear, uses film’s inherited 3:2 ratio, equivalent to 36mm x 24mm. Four thirds made 4:3 popular.

Now is it heresy to say that I buy a camera also based on its default aspect ratio? That might be utter nonsense and artistic masochism to some. Not that aspect ratios are carved in stone, but somehow 3:2 seems like a good, balanced golden ratio in the photography world.

Wasn’t easy at first when coming to Four Thirds. Took some time to get used to. A good photographer can work with any format and can make any format work, yet didn’t you ever wonder how many photographers sell a camera and buy one with an aspect ratio that better meets their needs? Now I feel at home in both worlds, but when we generally talk about cameras we seem to ignore that ratio-wise it’s like comparing apples and oranges…

3 x 2 aspect ratio, offering a pleasant balance between width and height, implying space.
3:2 aspect ratio, offering a pleasant balance between width and height, implying a feeling of space.
Some are 4:3, some 3:2 guys. As with everything in photography, one subject/object may lend itself nicely to one format, another may not. Instead of being only concerned about aperture, speed and ISO, it would make sense to also keep an eye on the camera’s aspect choices.

By cropping you may “waste” a substantial part of the sensor area, but depending on the situation at hand it makes perfect sense to not only adjust speed and sensitivity, but to also switch in-between image formats.

Most camera menus these days offer the selection of the image area. Being more aware of a frame’s aspect ratio and its influence on the final result trains both the eye and sense for composition. Alright, you might say why bother with this while out in the field, that’s something easily done in post-processing.

4:3 aspect ratio looks a bit more cramped, yet focuses on the subject/object.
4:3 aspect ratio looks a bit more cramped, yet focuses on the subjects/objects with balanced proportions.
True that. A camera’s default format makes best use of the sensor’s surface area. Shooting 3 x 2 with a Micro Four Thirds camera means giving up potential compositional leeway.

A few cameras, like the Panasonic LX7, use an irregularly shaped sensor that allows shooting at multiple aspect ratios natively. Technically such a camera never uses the entire sensor for any one shot.

So instead of experimenting in the field with aspect ratios, better stick with the camera’s default ratio, delivering the highest possible pixel output. Then consecrate yourself to cropping inside the peace of your own four walls.

The clean 1:1 aspect ratio allows to concentrate on an image's focus and allows to gets rid of distractive elements (fan).
The clean 1:1 aspect ratio “simplifies,” it allows to concentrate on an image’s focus and get rid of distractive elements (fan).
Post-processing makes it easy. Each scene has its own preferred ratio. Most photographers use different aspect ratios, depending on the scene and composition, running the risk of ending up with a myriad of different formats. That’s alright with a single image, but not with a portfolio.

On the other hand, master photographers probably choose a print aspect ratio on an individual basis (like painters), as part the process to get the best composition for a particular photo. These days the opposite is prevalent. Most people have more megapixels than they ever need. Crop crop crop. What’s the point of composing first when there’s no need to think first. That was one of film photography’s best teachers: being limited to 36 shots a roll. Each frame cost and took time to develop. Not today.

The aspect ratio of a photograph can make or break the composition by both emphasising the subject/object and removing distractions, or by putting the whole scene off-balance. It isn’t always ideal to fill the camera with what’s in front of you. The aspect ratio is a powerful tool to boost the impact of a photograph. But then again, I always come back to 3 x 2 format, but may pay 1 x 1 closer attention…

  • TVs used to have a 4:3 ratio because that’s the same ratio of the human eye field of view. I personally find easier to compose on a 4:3 frame. Landscapes, being often wide, benefit from a narrower ratio, like 16:9 for example. And I find that the 3:2 ratio is more “cinematic” than the 4:3, and usually I like it for street photography. Just my two dimes :) Interesting article though. It makes me wish for a sensor capable of changing ratio without cropping the pixel number.

    • “Cinematic,” that’s nice.

      3 x 2 is a film leftover, not ideal for lenses, yet somewhat universal.

      Why do mirrorless cameras predominantly use the “Four Thirds” a.k.a. 4 x 3 ratio?

      It’s a new standard designed from scratch, the first system specifically made for digital, with high standards for telecentric lenses, allowing light rays to hit the sensor straight with the least possible distortive angle.

      And yes, the aspect ratio was chosen to match computer monitors and TV screens of the time — 16:9 HDTV was not yet widespread.

      • The 4/3 (and micro 4/3) consortium chose the 4:3 ratio, perhaps to differentiate, or simply to allow the use of the “full” cropped part of film, without wasting the part with holes. I’m just speculating now.
        Here’s a link about aspect ratio in general.
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspect_ratio_(image)

      • What really surprised me was this. The format with 4:3 aspect ratio is the one that is closest to human vision that is 155 ° to 120 ° ve h which corresponds to 4:3,075, therefore it’s almost exactly the same ratio. A 4:3 screen, having a height of 1 meter, put at a distance of 11.08 cm from the pupil of the eye of the observer, and showing an image made by 12000 × 9000 pixels, namely with a resolution of more than 105 megapixels (which is the resolution of the organic medium rods and cones), would occupy the entire field of view and would reply, slightly exceeding, the human view (considering the stereovision, a device with 3D technology).

        Given this, I think that a good photo of a nice panorama should appear more “natural” in a 4:3 ratio, but I also find that the wider 3:2 gives the illusion of a wider panorama.
        Sure is, it’s all a matter of personal taste. :)

    • bodo

      Changing ratio without cropping (anything)? “Wrong” wish. Think; if you cut off part of a paper (or sensor), there’s no way to keep same surface, no way to keep it all in one peace, unless you are a magician. As simple. But if you are attached to some very special pixel number, you could play a “magician” and use software to enlarge your image to it (= interpolate pixels now for the 2nd time with Bayer sensor). All cameras could do it with next firmware upgrade, but it is pointless. If you crop, you remove.

      4:3 ratio of (M)FT (or m4/3) was certainly not to differentiate, m4/3 differentiation is in its sensor size. Name “Four Thirds System” derives from this size, 4/3″ type sensor, not from its aspect ratio.

      In fact ALL cameras could have 1:1 sensor (not just possibility for 1:1 crop) because lenses are round – and it means larger sensor – square covers more of a circle than (any other aspect ratio) rectangle. It’s 1 dime.

      PS: I was just passing, but couldn’t help myself and stopped.

      • That’s what I meant by “without cropping anything”: from Wiki (the first link I have found) The emphasis on the 4:3 image aspect ratio sets Four Thirds apart from other DSLR systems, which usually adhere to the 3:2 aspect ratio of the traditional 35 mm format. However, the standard only specifies the sensor diagonal, thus Four Thirds cameras using the standard 3:2 aspect ratio would be possible; notably newer Panasonic Micro Four Thirds models even offer shooting at multiple aspect ratios while maintaining the same image diagonal. For instance, the Panasonic GH1 uses a multi-aspect sensor designed to maximize use of the image circle at 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9; each ratio having a diagonal of 22.5 mm.

        • bodo

          Sorry, you mean Panasonic’s way of doing it. Yes, it is clever solution. There’s no (or less), cropping, therefore no (or less) pixels “lost”, except with 1:1 ratio – they didn’t go that far with tailoring sensor shape and “adding” much more surface to its height. Unless they do just that, it is not gained much, I believe. I guess too few use 1:1 to be reasonable enough. I always want to (You know just like Vivien M.; I wish, hm), but rarely do.

  • Gorodish

    When I started photography in the film days, shooting transparency almost exclusively (KR25), I trained my eye to compose in 3:2 aspect ratio. Since I didn’t print, there was no cropping later. When I bought my first digital camera (point &shoot) it took some adjusting to the 4:3 format. But one of the benefits of digital files is the ability to crop to any size later.

    I also shoot with the Lumix LX-7 and must admit I love the variable aspect ratios. I can choose 16:9 when I am shooting wide-angle landscapes, traditional 3:2 for street and travel, 4:3 for portraits, and I delight in even being able to compose in 1:1 like the old Hasselblads, which is great for macro close-ups. I wish every camera had this capability.

    I notice the Sony A7 series all offer 16:9 in addition to 3:2. But I am most excited by the new Sigma DP Quattros… because in addition to all the other formats, they even offer a 21:9 aspect ratio for a truly cinematic perspective which I love. Perhaps it may fulfill my dream for a digital X-Pan! :)

  • sgmcenroe

    Actually television started out with a 4:3 ratio because that was what the standard movie screen ratio was. Movies moved on to wide screen “CinemaScope” ratios, etc. to differentiate themselves from television, which have now gone wide to match movie ratios.

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  • DBowen

    I think it’s quite simple and in fact it has nothing to do with photography. What painters have always done, to express and show their work, since ancient history. Some formats almost automatically drop off. The artificial 16:9 and somewhat to obvious, difficult to compose 1:1 were never ‘so standard’. I assume that 4:3 has only made its appearance due to the fact video manufacturers saw the opportunity to recycle sensor technology. I don’t like it, it’s unnatural. What remains is 3:2 or 6:9 in medium format. I bet if you would make a statiscal average of everything ever made in painting and photography, you’d come very close to this format. Isn’t it?

    • The predominant statistical average might come deucedly close to that “golden ratio,” the 1.618 x 1 format… Give it a try.

      • DBowen

        Indeed, that golden ratio and this is close to that 3:2 again, not? Precisely there lies the truth for what people feel as ‘natural’. And what I’m saying now is extremely dangerous, but the mainstream camera manufacturers have always known this very well (yes, yes, I know, there has been 6×6, 6×7,…) The others that came more from the electronic world saw it different. And I’m afraid a mix of both by just a setting or a switch is causing some dissonance and confusion. Good things don’t need to be reconsidered.

  • Robert Mark

    I was very accustomed to shooting in 3:2, but found that I frequently cropped when shooting vertical. I almost always cropped to 5:4 to make a 8×10 or 16×20 composition.

    Shooting the OM-D since last year, I’m very pleased with the 4:3 composition. I lose much less when cropping for an 8×10.

    • Excellent point, that’s why I nearly exclusively shoot horizontal. 3×2 looks just awkward on a screen. One nil to 4:3.

      • Andy Umbo

        The whole reason I’ve gotten into testing M4/3rd’s cameras for professional use is that I can’t stand the tyranny of the 3:2 format! As a 40 year film-shooting professional, no one shot 35mm (and hence the 35mm aspect ration of 3:2) except for photojournalists. WE all shot 4X5, 8X10, and 1:1 (Hasselblad). I can’t stand the 3:2 aspect ratio, especially when shooting people. It only controls as much in the market as it does, because the 35mm manufacturers were the first to offer affordable DSLR’s. If Hasselblad and Mamiya would have offered a 3 thousand dollar digital, the 3:2 aspect ration would be controlling the same market it did during the film years. Thank God M4/3rd’s has a choice of everything from 4:3 to 16:9 to 1:1, and even the lame 3:2. Interesting the new CMOS sensor for the medium format digitals is 44X33, or 4:3!

        • One could argue it makes more sense to crop a 4:3 from a 3:2 than the other way round, but that’s semantics. You’re obviously not a creature of habit Andy. As mentioned in the article, optics and the lens prefer a more quadratic incident angle.

          • Andy Umbo

            BTW, I currently manage an e-commerce photography department for a large retailer, and I can say that virtually everything we shoot for posting would take less work if we shot it square, we could skip the cropping process for almost everything we do! I’m in the process right now of deciding on a M4/3rd’s system (Pana or Oly), to start testing for quality and robustness, with the idea being if it works out for dependability, we’d change over during our next upgrade and shoot square!