playing with photo aspect ratios


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When I first began in photography the square format was intriguing. My Nikon FE used 35mm film (a 3:2 ratio) but many of the admired professionals were shooting with Hasselblads and Rolleiflexes, capturing square images (1:1 ratio) on 120 film. Eventually I worked up to a Yashicamat 124G, a twin lens Japanese cousin of the Rolleiflex. The big negatives would yield beautifully smooth tonal gradations and greater detail than my little 35mm negs. Plus I really liked shooting with the square format, looking at the world in a different way.

Over the years I’ve used different camera systems that have captured at 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 4:5 and 6:7 aspect ratios. Many of these cameras have been used for commercial work and the native aspect ratio hasn’t mattered much since cropping for a layout is almost always inevitable. For personal work, though, I generally prefer to shoot tight, without cropping. For that reason I like to see through the viewfinder just what will appear in the final image. That’s been one of the deciding factors in how I would choose a camera system. Many prophotolife readers have commented that they feel the same way, preferring to not crop their images.

Well, I’ve wanted to gear up for shooting more personal work and the thought of the square format has been calling. I can think of a few ways to accomplish capturing a square image digitally. Purchasing a nice new medium format back to carry around for personal work is one thought. That solution is too expensive and cumbersome for my needs, though. Canon makes a focusing screen for the 5D with the square format marked on it. That’s a cool option. And Nikon’s point and shoot P6000 apparently has a 1:1 ratio choice built in (good on ya, Nikon!). The point and shoot option sounds appealing.

ppl_aspectratioI could also use something like my current little Panasonic DMC-TZ3 and, since it doesn‘t have a viewfinder, tape off the sides of the LCD screen to form a square for framing. No, it doesn’t have a 1:1 choice built-in but it does offer 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 (widescreen movie format) as user selectable settings. That means the square crop would have to be created in post-production, something I’d admittedly prefer not to do, if possible, preferring to capture in the final format. I decided to grab the TZ3 and shoot some square images just to see what it would be like.

Family members had just finished fixing up an older house to sell and I stopped by to shoot photos just for fun, for both them and myself. The plan was to spend about an hour shooting square images with the point and shoot. The plan lasted about five minutes before it went off the rails.

I found something out: when the subject and camera offer so many options it was hard for me not to use them. Before long I was seeing things as not only 1:1 but also as 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9. The original plan was abandoned and, instead, I decided to exercise all of the camera’s options, in addition to the square.

Trying something new always involves this “discovery process”. It’s great to go into a situation with a good plan. It’s also valuable to realize when it’s time to be flexible. I just wasn’t ready to commit to one format, instead deciding to shoot freely, instinctively, and then making decisions after viewing the photos. But I did want to come out of the day with a clearer picture of an aspect ratio to pursue in future work.

It can easily be argued that most any image can be cropped a number of ways. And that leads us right into the fact that this is all subjective. It has to do with the individual taking the photographs and, certainly, different subjects can lend themselves to different formats. So what did I feel after seeing the photos?

ppl_aspectratios-9 1:1 – imagine this, it didn’t have the intended effect at all. While it worked well it wasn’t something I felt as strongly about after pursuing it. You just never know till you try.
ppl_aspectratios-11 3:2 – this is the standard DSLR format and I’ve been shooting it off and on for 20+ years. It’s just time to do something a little different.
ppl_aspectratios-6 16:9 – this is a cool ratio, the widescreen movie format. It’s what we’re shooting all of our studio video work at so part of my week is spent working in 16:9 already. It feels a little extreme for this personal photography, though.

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4:3 – I wouldn’t have guessed it but this format appealed to me as soon as the images were reviewed. I did say this is all subjective, right? Such a conservative ratio and what I would consider the least distinctive of all.

Giving it a minute of thought, maybe it’s because 4:3 is close to 5:4, a ratio associated with large format view cameras. Maybe this subject lends itself well to a kind of methodical “view camera” approach and that’s why it appeals. Thinking further, that’s kind of how I like to shoot.

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So, after all the playing around, 4:3 has gained my favor as a result of this experiment. The Panasonic is now set to 4:3 to stay for awhile. Interestingly enough, that’s what makes maximum use of the sensor area on the camera with no cropping, unlike 3:2 or 16:9. That’s a bonus. The only time I’ve really shot 4:3 before was when using a 120 roll film back on my 4” x 5” camera that shot 6 cm x 8 cm images. I shot hundreds of rolls of transparency film through that back.

That was a long time ago but I’ve always looked back at that time fondly. It just goes to show you that what goes around comes around.