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Camera FAQ #8: How Can I Compose Images to Make Full Use of Aspect Ratio?

When faced with a subject, there are various elements such as light and composition that you might have to take note of. Another such element, aspect ratio, is also something that you might want to change. In this article, follow me as I explain the different features unique to each aspect ratio. (Reported by: Ryosuke Takahashi)


Skilfully fit your subject in the screen by changing how far the view extends in each direction

Aspect ratio is a feature that allows you to determine the dimensions of the area captured in the image. With this, you can decide on how much of the scene is displayed in the image, horizontally and vertically. For panoramic images, 16:9 is optimal as it cuts off the top and bottom of the image to make it appear as if the lens has a wide angle of view. Selecting 1:1, also known as the square format, places the focus of the image in the centre of the screen. This is effective when you want a particular subject to stand out in an image.

Instead of shooting with the intention to crop your photos into the desired aspect ratio after the shoot, you will be better off conceptualizing your composition in the desired ratio from the outset. The trick to mastering the proportions of each aspect ratio is to change the extent of the view in the vertical as well as the horizontal directions to fit your subject in the screen.


The main aspect ratios employed by digital cameras

Employed by many DSLR cameras
This aspect ratio is employed by many DSLR cameras. This originates from the aspect ratio for 35mm film, and makes it easy to capture photos with character regardless of whether you shoot in landscape or portrait.


For a calm atmosphere
Using an aspect ratio that is closer to (but not yet) square allows you to capture a calm atmosphere. This is also suited to situations where you want your images to exude a retro feel, as it uses the same ratio as old-style CRT (cathode ray tube) TV sets.


Easy to highlight the primary subject
Because the horizontal and vertical proportions are the same, the angle of view is the same in all directions. The overall effect depends on how the subject is arranged.


Draws attention to the extent of the view in the horizontal direction
This is the same aspect ratio used for high-definition TVs. It allows you to make the screen extremely long (high), so you can produce panoramic images.


Choose and arrange your primary and secondary subjects well, and then use 3:2 to bring out the vibrancy of an image

EOS 100D/ EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ FL:20mm (approx.32mm at 35mm film equivalent)/ Shutter-priority AE mode (f/10, 4sec.)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto
Because the view is longer in the horizontal direction, it is easy to incorporate multiple elements into one shot. Here, I set a long shutter speed for my shot to create a trail of car lights set amidst the beautiful architecture of a city at night.


Use 4:3 to produce a natural sense of space

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL:  50mm/ Aperture-priority AE mode (f/2.8, 1/50 sec., EV +0.7)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto
This ratio creates a large angle of view in the vertical direction as well, As a result, it very naturally brings out a sense of space, together with the presence of the primary subject. This look is unique to the aspect ratio of 4:3.


Use 1:1 to highlight a person as the primary subject

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL:  50mm/ Aperture-priority AE mode (f/2.8, 1/160 sec., EV+0.3)/ ISO 100/ WB: Shade
At 1:1, there is less of a visual effect created by the aspect ratio, so it is suited to focusing in on the subject of your shots. Here, I chose steps on a downward slope as the background, to create a composition with charm.


Express the height of a bamboo forest with 16:9

EOS M10/ EF-M18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 18mm (29mm equivalent)/ Program AE mode (f/3.5, 1/250 sec., EV+0.7)/ ISO 200/ WB: Auto
At 16:9, the field of view extends beyond the angle of the lens, making it easy to create a certain flow within the image. Here, I used 16:9 in a vertical position, with the height of the bamboo trees as the subject.



Ryosuke Takahashi

Born in Aichi in 1960, Takahashi started his freelance career in 1987 after working with an advertising photo studio and a publishing house. Photographing for major magazines, he has travelled to many parts of the world from his bases in Japan and China. Takahashi is a member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS).


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