Aspect Ratios and Landscape Photography: What You Need to Know

Apr 29, 2009

Composition is one of the prime fundamental building blocks of any photograph, and for a good reason. How an image is composed is likely the first and most basic thing a viewer perceives about it — and no matter how beautiful the subject, careless or sloppy treatment can turn what would have been a beautifully glorious photo into an uninspiring and mediocre one.


Aspect ratios, or width-height proportion of an image’s shape, are a significant compositional consideration. There are a number of common aspect ratios (it’s possible to define a custom ratio for an individual photograph, but this can make framing a challenge) and one each has its benefits and drawbacks, depending on your personal style and the subject matter.


1:1 (Square)


Striking, solid and impactful, a square photo immediately commands attention. Since the width and height are equal, it can effectively display horizontal or vertical subject matter: the viewer’s eye is guided solely by the image’s content rather than the frame. Squares are well suited to minimalistic subject matter such as snowy fields or macro-enlarged rocks.


Horizontal Rectangles


As evidenced by their common name of “landscape mode,” horizontal aspect ratios (those wider than they are tall) are usually more favored by outdoor photographers.


3:4, the default aspect ratio setting of many digital cameras in the DX format, is a versatile and easy-to-use format. It is only slightly wider than it is tall, allowing for excellent detail in foreground fields and leading lines — natural parallels such as tree shadows or field rows — while also leaving space for scenic backdrops.


The standard camera default for full frame 35mm cameras is 2:3. It is half again wider than it is tall, and allows for capturing a great deal of information, but also requires the photographer to pay very close attention to the details of composition as it is too easy to forget about all the foreground or background detail.


Widescreen panoramas can come in a variety of ratios, most commonly 1:2 or 1:3. Long and narrow, they’re ideal for the dramatic, sweeping vistas that landscape photographers love: rows of sun-drenched mountains, towering beach waves, or dunes stretching into the horizon. They are also good when you can’t quite figure out what to do with all that foreground detail.


Vertical Rectangles


Capturing landscape or nature subjects with a “portrait” (vertical) format can be more challenging. Nature’s angles more typically run parallel to the horizon, which means flipping a “landscape” image on its side may have an awkward look or feel and may seem unsuited for the subject matter. To overcome this, try making sure you use your vertical lines in the same fashion you would if the shot were horizontal with a strong reliance on using your corners. You may find shorter, wider rectangles like a 5:4 format are a better choice: they have enough room to accurately portray the subject without an unbalanced amount of sky intruding on the frame, and can also be used for visual interest in close-up macro shots.


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