Aspect ratio in plain English

Aspect ratio. *YAWN*

It’s likely that you never tried to find information about aspect ratio until it was absolutely necessary. Like the many people who write to me and ask why, oh why, the images they want to print cut off the ends of the image. I remember being there. I remember Googling and I remember falling upon the answer: the aspect ratio was different. It’s not fun or exciting or sexy, but here for your delight…

…drum roll please…

Aspect Ratio in Plain English

First, a little math. A ratio is a way of describing a value in relation to another value. If you don’t remember being in 5th grade, here’s a quick reminder about what this means (having a clear understanding of ratios will make or break your ability to understand aspect ratio).

Aspect ratio is the ratio of the width of a shape (like a picture) to its height.

You will see aspect ratio written as two numbers with a colon in the middle. Like this: 3:2.

Your camera

Your DSLR likely shoots in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Some cameras allow you to to choose between different ratios.

Your shooting

The aspect ratio you choose to shoot in will have an affect on your composition and the overall feel of the piece. Since the most common ratio is 3:2 (this would print out a 8×12), choosing a different ratio can be thought of as cropping in-camera. This, of course, limits your choices later in post-processing. I recommend shooting in 3:2 and cropping as a part of the editing process later.

Your editing

If you’re going to crop an image (whether you’re changing the aspect ratio or not), you can either do this at the beginning of the editing process or at the end. There are pros and cons to both so naturally, you’ll need to decide based on your preferred workflow. I prefer to crop at the beginning because I work with textures and vignettes and I don’t want to lose the edges of this when cropping.

Your printing

The biggest area where aspect ratio make itself an issue to you will be in printing. Herein lies the answer to the question, “why are the ends cut off my picture?” As I said, your camera likely shoots in 3:2. Image sizes that will print without cropping your image are any sizes that are scaled up versions of that ratio. Like:

4×6, 8×12, 10×15, 12×18, 16×24, 20×30

There are some great posts that go more indepth on this topic like this and this.

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