Learning Photography: How to Decide the Best Aspect Ratio For a Photograph

Here’s another perspective of yesterday’s maximalist balcony garden, this time with the focus on the jute basket. I shot the photograph in my Fuji X-T4’s native vertical 2:3 aspect ratio. I was attracted to the circular shape, the soft yellow-orange color and the geometrical texture of the jute basket in the bottom left corner, and the soft background blur of the plants, the cat tree and LeelaCat. However, the strong vertical architectural lines of the door and window that played an important role in yesterday’s composition felt like a distraction in this photo.

I cropped the photo into various aspect ratios. The vertical crops — 9:16, 2:3, 3:4, 4:5 — all had the strong distracting vertical lines. In the horizontal crops — 16:9, 3:2, 4:3, 5:4 — I could remove the distracting lines, but had to crop the circle of the basket into a semi circle. If I had originally shot the photo in a horizontal 3:2 aspect ratio, I would have happily used it, but I didn’t like wasting more than half the pixels.

I played with the square 1:1 aspect ratio, and it almost worked, except that I couldn’t fit the full basket and Leela in the same frame. In the end, I went back to the 4:5 aspect ratio, cropped tightly on the basket, and removed the distractions both on the right and the top. This final crop retains everything I like best about the composition (the circle of the jute basket and the blurred background bokeh of the plants and the cat tree) and removes everything I don’t (the distracting vertical lines of the door and window.)

The reality is that there’s no ‘best’ aspect ratio in photography, only ‘defaults’ dictated by devices and platforms. Most digital cameras have a native aspect ratio of 3:2 similar to 35mm film. Most smartphone cameras have a default aspect ratio of 4:3. The best aspect ratio for Instagram posts is 4:5 or 1:1; for Instagram stories 9:16. The best aspect ratio for YouTube videos is 16:9. The best aspect ratio for printing on A3/ A4 paper is root 2 (1.414) to 1. The default aspect ratio for me therefore depends on how I typically take photographs and how I typically use them. For me, the default is the horizontal 3:2 aspect ratio of my camera, and I’m waiting for Fujifilm to release a wide Instax printer so that I can print them and put them up on my walls. I’m not really trying to optimize for Instagram so I don’t even bother to frame the photos for my posts, and even when I am posting Instagram stories, I often frame multiple horizontal photos into a 9:16 collage using the Unfold app.

The ‘best’ aspect ratio for a particular photograph is the one that perfectly frames what I want to capture in that composition. Sometimes, it’s the same as my default 3:2 aspect ratio, because I have trained myself to see the world in a 3:2 frame. Sometimes, it’s another aspect ratio, like the 4:5 of this photo, and that makes me wonder what I’m not seeing by strictly sticking to my defaults. Sometimes, multiple aspect ratios work ‘best’ for a photograph in different ways, like the 3:2 and 4:5 here, and that makes me wonder what else could work equally well that I’m not seeing.

All of us need to look beyond our defaults to see differently. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing the aspect ratio in a photograph. Sometimes, it’s more dramatic, like taking a year off from work to do ‘nothing’. Sometimes, it’s even forced upon us, like a global pandemic and six months of self-quarantine. It doesn’t even matter what causes the shift and what we find when we see differently; what matters is that we learn how to learn to see in new ways.

More tomorrow.

By Gaurav Mishra

Learning to see the #beauty, #play and #vitality in #quarantinelife, mostly by learning to make photos and learning to write about them.