March 7, 2008

Photography 101: Kiss My Aspect Ratio

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This will be my first installment of Photography 101 and I hope it won’t scare you away, but I’m going to talk a bit about aspect ratios. Before I get into that, let’s start at the beginning. (cue cheesy flashback transition.)

When you look through your camera, the shape you see is this:

This is the typical ratio of all 35mm cameras out there. Quite specifically, this ratio is 2×3.

So you take loads of pictures and you go to get some of these images printed. 4″x6″ is the most popular size and it’s a good thing, because they conform to the same 2×3 ratio – so you don’t lose any bit of the picture.

But what if you want a 5″x7″ or 8″x10″ print? This is where things get messy.

You see, if you wanted your entire picture squeezed into an 8×10, it would look something like this:

While this doesn’t look so bad on a grizzly bear, people are a little less appreciative of this squishing…

You’ve ordered pictures online and saw this thing, right?

It’s a cropping tool and it forces you to choose what part will be clipped off of your picture.
A 5″x7″ picture will need to crop off a little on the long side:

An 8″x10″ picture will need to crop off more along the long side:

So if you don’t have extra stuff around the subject of your picture, what do you do? Something’s gotta go. Sadly, a full 2×3 picture can never be an 8″x10″ print. An 8″x12″ would be a perfect print size (again, a 2×3 ratio) but the history of photography has given us these “standard” sizes which force us into 8″x10″ frames.

In practical terms, these are your options when confronted with a tight squeeze:

1) Ideally, you’d order a frame size that works with your picture. In this case, an 8″x12″ frame.

2) Crop one or both sides

3) Minimize the image and leave a border (windowboxing)

Does #3 look familiar? It should if you’ve ever watched a dvd with both widescreen and normal viewing options. The widescreen mode will show you everything, but it’ll be a smaller picture and it will have a bar across the top and bottom. The normal mode will fill up your screen but you’ll lose the stuff on the ends.

If your photographer ever tells you that he/she simply can’t make that picture into an 8×10 print without chopping off someone’s head or feet, I hope it will make a little more sense.

If you’d like to read more about the math behind aspect ratios, I recommend you go here.

[I crop ] for the benefit of the pictures. The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera. – W. Eugene Smith

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