8 Dec 2016

Photography Experiment: Which Aspect Ratio Works Best?

Aspect ratio is one of the important considerations in photography. Choosing an inappropriate one for a particular scene can reduce its impact. We usually stick with our camera's default aspect ratio, but it's good to experiment to see which aspect ratio looks best, as with everything else in photography.

Here's the original photo, at the sensor's native 3:2:

(Right-click and open in a new tab to see it full-sized.)

I then cropped it to different aspect ratios, in both directions — wide and narrow — to see which works well for the photo. First, wide. Here's the photo slightly wider at 16:10:

I like this better than the original, which seems too tall by comparison. This photo has a more horizontal character, because of the train going from left to right, so giving it too much height takes away from its character, diminishing the photo.

So if 16:10 made the photo better, how about one step wider at 16:9? Would that be still better?

This reduces the sky too much, making the photo a bit unbalanced. The photo is not just about a train going past. It's about a train going past under a vast open sky, and that feeling is slightly lost here.

Going wider to 17:9:

... we lose a little more of the (important) sky.

As we go even wider to 18:9:


and to 21:9:

... the photo becomes less and less balanced, and worse.

Among the above aspect ratios, 16:10 is the best one for this photo, to my eyes.

What about the other direction? Let's make the original photo squarer and see how that works. Let's go one step squarer to A3:

Remember I said that the original photo is too tall compared to the 16:10? This is even worse, as you'd expect, though by a small extent.

Let's go even squarer, to 20:16:

This is very unbalanced. The horizontal character of the original photo — the train zooming from left to right — is lost. This photo is like a square peg in a round hole. Or, rather, a rectangular peg in a square hole.

The best aspect ratio for this photo is 16:10, which is one step wider than the 3:2 aspect ratio of the sensor. If you make the photo any wider, or narrower than the original aspect ratio, it loses its sense of proportion, its character.

The real moral of this story is to keep experimenting and seeing what works well, rather than sticking with the default the manufacturer provided.

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