The Lowdown On Photographs And Aspect Ratios

We shoot most of the photographs for our ecards using digital SLR cameras. A few of our photographs are, however, shot on film and then scanned.

Whichever method we use to capture the photographs though, the aspect ratio of the images we use for our ecards – that is the length of the long side of the image compared to the length of the short side of the image – is 3:2.

Some people may think that the aspect ratio of an image changes with the size of the photograph.

The fact is though, that if the image is scaled up or down, the aspect ratio doesn’t change. The ratio of the length of the two adjoining sides is the same no matter how big or small the photograph is.

Photographs For This Blog
It’s a different story with the photographs we take for this blog. Here we crop the images in different ways to illustrate a story and to suit the layout of the article. Sometimes we also set the text so that it flows around the cropped photographs as in this article about tea.

Nature Photographs Suit A Panoramic Format
Images of trees and fields suit a wide format because the interesting parts of the image lay more or less in a horizontal line and a panoramic photograph mimics the way we generally look at the landscape.

South Yorkshire Landscape
South Yorkshire Landscape

One thing that causes confusion is the use of the word landscape when talking about photographs. That is because as well as refering to trees and fields, etc., it is also used to describe which way up a photograph is oriented.

It is easier to show than to describe.

Both of these blue rectangles have the same 3:2 aspect ratio but one is in portrait orientation and the other in landscape orientation. Of course, the principle works whatever the aspect ratio.

Also, if I were to turn a panoramic image that was in landscape orientation on its side I would get a bookmark.

Same Aspect Ratio - Different Orientation
Same Aspect Ratio – Different Orientation

Large Elements In Photographs
Panoramic images works can also ‘work’ where there is a large element in the photograph, such as a country house set in a landscape. Here is an example of an image that is an amalgam of six images merged in Photoshop. It shows a country hall in South Yorkshire, England set in its surroundings.

The house and its grounds are now owned by the local authority for the benefit of everyone, though it was once a privately owned house in which one family lived.

Cannon Hall - South Yorkshire
Cannon Hall – South Yorkshire

The existence of these country mansions makes me think of the fact that in a more equal society the house would never have been built nor the trees planted. On the other hand, everyone can now enjoy the house and grounds because of the inequality that went before.

Long, narrow, panoramic images can look great for landscapes but would look a bit unusual if used, for example, for a studio portrait. Having said that, a panoramic shot that shows the person and also includes some of the background can look good, as Arnold Newman’s 1946 portrait of the composer Igor Stravinsky shows.

Newman posed Stravinsky with his arm resting on his grand piano. Stravinsky is at one end of the photograph and the bulk of the photograph is taken up with the shape of the piano. It is a great example of the panoramic format working well for a portrait.

It’s an unusual portrait because the composer’s head and shoulders occupy only a six per cent of the total area of the photograph. Nonetheless it is a powerful photographic portrait.

Back To The Aspect Ratio We Use For Our Ecards
As I said at the beginning of this article, for our ecards we use the 3:2 image format. It is not just chance that we do so, and in fact the 3:2 aspect ratio has been the most popular format throughout the history of photography.

There is a very good reason why 3:2 is the most popular image format. It is a very good compromise – being neither too long and narrow nor too square – and therefore it suits a variety of subjects.

Aspect Ratios - From Square To Panoramic
Aspect Ratios – From Square To Panoramic

The Dominance Of The Three To Two Aspect Ratio
But though it seems to be a good all-round compromise, how precisely did 3:2 become the dominant ratio for film and digital cameras worldwide?

The History Of Film
There is no absolute reason that film had to be in this format, and throughout the history of film there have been many film formats other than this.

None however has been as popular as the 35mm film that has been used by countless millions of people worldwide since the early Kodak and Leica cameras gave people the portability and ease of use they wanted.

In Thomas Edison’s Laboratory
The reason that the format became the most popular may simply be that the earliest roll film made for the new ‘compact’ cameras was in 3:2 format and the momentum grew from that.

That film was made in the 1890s by William Dickson in Thomas Edison’s laboratory.

What Dickson did to make the ‘new’ film for still photography was simply to cut lengthwise down the 70mm movie film stock supplied to him by the Eastman Kodak Company. Then as they say, the rest is history.

Putting It In The Frame
Of course, film is cut into rolls to fit in the camera, so it is the really the size and shape of the metal frame or mask that sits in front of the roll of film in the camera that determines the actual frame size and shape of the photographic negative.

Without that frame or mask, a roll of film is just that – a roll – and the individual frames can be any size at all, so long as the lens will focus a sharp image on it.

After a few false starts and a bit of haggling, the size of the frame or mask was settled on by Eastman Kodak at 36 x 24mm -which is of course the 3:2 aspect ratio because 36 is one and a half times 24mm.

And it is the shape of the frame that is really what we are talking about when we speak about the aspect ratio of the individual photograph recorded on a roll of film.

So for the best part of a century the film that you or I would buy from the store – whether made by Kodak, Fuji, Agfa, Ilford, or any of the other brand names that were once common but of which many no longer exist – would be 35mm film made to fit cameras that produced images in a 3:2 image format.

35mm Film From Kodak And Fuji
35mm Film From Kodak And Fuji

The Transition To Digital
Kodak, Nikon, and Canon were among the earliest manufacturers of digital cameras for the mass market. They already made film cameras so it was probably a matter of simple economics for them to make digital cameras that used the parts they already used in their film cameras.

Or perhaps they simply decided to stick with the 3:2 aspect ratio that people had become used to.

This aspect ratio is used in the dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras we use and have used here at Quillcards – the Nikon D700, the Nikon D60, and the Nikon D200.

And that is why the photographs for the Quillcards ecards are in the proportions they are. That and the fact that the 3:2 aspect ratio is still a good compromise and suitable for all kinds of subjects.

Compact Point and Shoot Cameras
As digital cameras matured, camera manufacturers recognised that they were free to make camera sensors in any aspect ratio they wanted. As a result, the manufacturers of many compact point and shoot digital cameras have opted for a slightly squarer 4:3 format.

Some manufacturers even offer a range of formats within the same camera. Of course, what that really means is that when the format is changed, the frame masks off part of the sensor.

The compact camera that I use as a digital ‘notebook’ is the Panasonic LX3. It has a standard rectangular 3:2 format sensor but it also has a mask operated by a switch that changes the format to 4:3 or 16:9. It also has a custom setting in its menus that enables 1:1 or square format.

Cropping The Image
Of course once any photograph has been taken it is always possible to crop it to a different format. I took this with a Nikon D200 camera so the original image was 3:2. I isolated the model’s face in Photoshop and cropped it to the 1:1 square format image you can see here.

Square Format Portrait
Square Format Portrait

Where Is All This Leading?
As you may have heard, a large number of Polaroid images were sold at auction by Sotherby’s in New York a few days ago under an order of the court following the bankruptcy of the Polaroid Corporation.

Among those sold were Polaroids of and taken by some famous photographers and artists such as Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, William Wegman, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close.

If you are not familiar with the work of Chuck Close, he is a painter who paints very large photo-realistic paintings. In the case of the Polaroids though, he made a montage of his own face built up from a number of Polaroid photos.

Polaroid photos have a very recognizable shape. They are more or less square, but set within a frame that has extra depth at the bottom – all of which gives the shot a particularly attractive ‘finished’ look.

With the sale of the Polaroid Corporation to PME, the future of Polaroid as a brand is uncertain but if you are interested in Polaroid products, the Impossible Project is a good place to look for them.

From Polaroid To Poladroid
Now there is an application that enables anyone to take a digital image and make it into a Polaroid lookalike. The software can be downloaded from the Poladroid website.

I shot this photograph in India on the banks of the river Ganges at Varanasi. I shot a normal 3:2 image with a Nikon D60 and Nikon 35mm AF-S lens. Then I put the image through the Poladroid application, and this is the result.

Three Men And A Boat