We’re doing something different in this new Exploring with a Camera theme. For the next couple of weeks, we’re exploring what happens to our images when we go to print them by exploring Printed Aspect Ratios.
If you are like me, you take many, many images and print very few. One of my goals upon returning home from Italy has been to get some of my favorite photographs printed. I had no desire to print on my home printer, so I was seeking printing solutions that were simple, high quality and would allow me to focus my time on the capture of images rather than the printing of images. It’s going pretty well… I’ve had postcards and greeting cards and canvas gallery wraps printed so far with reasonable success. I’m still experimenting, but one key piece of information that is critical to successful third-party printing is understanding aspect ratio. It is important to understand how the different aspect ratios of standard photo sizes affect your final printed image.
With this exploration, we’ll take a look at the aspect ratio of standard sizes and what that means for our carefully composed photographs. In the US, the standard photo print sizes are 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, 16×20 (all units in inches), highlighted in the table below in blue.
There are four columns in this table: The standard size in inches, the approximate size in cm (for my non-US readers), the aspect ratio, and the long side divided by the short side. What does it all mean?
I’ll just use the standard 4×6 size as an example. A 4×6 photo has an aspect ratio of 2:3, that means that for every 2 inches on the short side, there are 3 inches on the long side. (You may also see the aspect ratio for a 4×6 as 3:2. It’s the same thing, no matter the order of the numbers.) When you divide the long side (6) by the short side (4), you get 1.5. This means the long side is 1.5 times longer than the short side. This simple number, the long side divided by the short side, gives you the information to quickly compare the aspect ratios. The higher the number is above 1, the more rectangular the shape of the photo; the closer to 1, the more square the shape of the photo.
Here is a graphical example of the different aspect ratios and their relative shape differences. You can see the 2:3 aspect ratio is the “longest” rectangle with the long side divided by short side at 1.5, while the other aspect ratios move more and more toward square. I’ve included a 1:1 (square) aspect ratio for comparison.
Why do you care about all of this? Well, if you are like me and you compose your images carefully, you care a lot about how the final image looks, whether on the computer screen or printed. If you carefully compose and crop for one aspect ratio, and then print in another aspect ratio, the visual impact of your photographs can be dramatically different.
Camera Aspect Ratios
Aspect ratio starts with your camera. Depending on the type of digital camera you are using, you will have a different aspect ratio at the time of capture. Digital SLRs, based on 35mm film, have an aspect ratio of 2:3. Point-and-shoot or consumer digital cameras, however, have a more square aspect ratio of 3:4. That means if you take a photo in a point-and-shoot camera and then have it printed as a 4×6 print, you are going to lose some of the photograph because of the aspect ratio difference. Conversely, an image from a dSLR printed at 4×6 will come out as composed in the camera. The 2:3 aspect ratio of the dSLR camera matches the 2:3 aspect ratio of the 4×6 print.
Nothing helps more than a few examples, so let’s start off with my lead in photograph. Since I’ve been revisiting Greece a little bit this week, I pulled this image from Santorini as an example. Here it is again, in the 2:3 aspect ratio:
If I want a 5×7 print, that’s an aspect ratio of 5:7. Some of the top and bottom of the image has to be cropped off:
That’s not too bad. What about an 8×10 print? That’s an aspect ratio of 4:5:
It still looks ok, but compare the 4:5 aspect ratio (last) with the 2:3 (first). There is a different feel. The shadows of the gate are cropped and the image is much more square. When you have space around your subject, as in this photo, there is room to crop for different aspect ratios without significantly affecting what the image conveys. When you don’t have the space for this cropping, however, aspect ratios can make a bigger difference in the final image.
Consider one of my favorites from Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon. I cropped this very tight in camera, it came out nicely balanced to my eye.
If I wanted to print as an 8×10, I would crop to the 4:5 aspect ratio. Look what happens when I crop as best as I can, keeping the most important information. The greyed-out portion is what I would lose in the image with this crop:
I think the image has lost some appeal. Where the brown of the brick at the top matched the brown of the pavement on the bottom, framing the composition in the first image, that framing is lost in the 8×10 crop. The image does not have the same impact when cropped with this aspect ratio.
Here is another example, this one with more space to work with. The negative space on the left of this 2:3 aspect ratio image below serves to put the focus on the bicycle to the right.
Now, with a 4:5 crop if I wanted to do an 8×10 print, see what happens:
While there is space to crop and I don’t lose vital information in the subject of the bicycle, the final result does not have the same impact. As the aspect ratio moves toward square, the off-center subject moves more toward center and the image loses the dynamic feel. It would look ok on the wall, but not as good as the 2:3 aspect ratio.
One quick example with my point-and-shoot camera, which has a 3:4 aspect ratio. I carefully framed the image in camera, and I like the way it turned out.
If I wanted to print this image as a 4×6, the image would need to be cropped 2:3, like so:
Beware Bleed and Wrap
Now that you are starting to see the impact of aspect ratio, I’m going to take you one step further and discuss “Bleed” and “Wrap.”
In printing, “bleed” is the amount that gets trimmed off at the edge of a print. Printers are not able to line the printing exactly to the edge of the paper, so what they do is print slightly larger than the final size and then trim down to size. The parts of the image that “bleed” further than the final size get trimmed off. Typically this is only a few millimeters, but that can matter. In the case of my Torcello image above, the branch of the tree on the right side that just touches the edge always gets cut off, even when I print it with an aspect ratio of 2:3, due to the bleed. It is just too close to the edge. I wish I had the same image with a little more space on that right edge for printing purposes but I don’t – I cropped it too close in camera.
With the advent of gallery wrap canvas prints, you also have to be aware of the “wrap” factor. If you like the look of the image continuing around the edge with a gallery wrap, you need to consider whether you are losing the visual information in your focal point as part of the image wraps around the edge. I’ll use a recent print of my favorite little flowers as an example. Here’s the original image:
I printed it as a 16×20 (aspect ratio 4:5) gallery wrap with the image wrapped around the edge. Here’s the best I could get for composition in the final image, once the wrap was taken into consideration:
Look how much visual information is lost! While it has impact on the wall due to the size and color of the print, the dynamic nature of the paper cones popping out toward the viewer is lost. It is not what I intended in the photograph.
Some printers offer options when ordering gallery wraps to address this, either by mirroring the image on the wrap, or adding a white or black border. Being aware of the effect of the wrap and printing bleed, and planning ahead for it, can help your final printed images come out as you envision.
What to do?
Now that you understand a little more about the impact of aspect ratio on your images, you can see why many professional photographers choose to print, mat and frame themselves. Not only can they control the color of their prints, but also the sizing of the print and the final presentation.
For most of us, however, we don’t have the resources to take all of that on, either in time, money or equipment. That’s where being aware of the impacts of aspect ratio and bleed on our images comes in. There are many options for printing, so as you decide to print with a company, take a look at what size prints are offered and what their software allows you to adjust as you order.
Here are a few things you can do on your own, to control the aspect ratio impacts:
- Be aware of the different aspect ratios in printing, and the effects of bleed and wrap, when you go to print.
- Know the aspect ratio of your camera. Is it 2:3 or 3:4? How does that effect the images you capture? Do you have a preferred aspect ratio for cropping after capture?
- Consider your final use as you compose in camera. If your composition is perfect straight out of the camera, will you be able to print it in your desired format? Consider taking an additional image or two, leaving some extra space around your final composition, should you decide to print in a different aspect ratio later.
- When you print, crop for the aspect ratio you are printing. Don’t let the printer randomly decide how the image is cropped to fit the aspect ratio. You can do this in your post-processing software or you may be able to specify the crop in the ordering process, depending on your printer.
- Find a company that prints the aspect ratio you prefer using. For example, many online photo printers have prints available in the standard 3:4 format of point-and-shoot cameras. Since I use a dSLR and prefer to crop 2:3, I’ve found RedBubble.com a good option since they base all of their prints off an aspect ratio of 2:3. I don’t have to worry about aspect ratio, just bleed.
Now it’s time for you to go off exploring on your own! Take a look at your archive or go out shooting with aspect ratio in mind. Here are a couple of ideas to try:
- Take a favorite image or two and crop to different aspect ratios. What happens to the impact of the composition as you change the aspect ratio?
- It’s the holiday season, why not try printing yourself? Pick a photo or two and have them printed for gifts. Greeting cards and postcards are a great gift idea, so is a nice matted or framed print.
Come back and link in, letting us know what you learned in this exploration. Do you have any tips to add? Let’s hear them!
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