How Aspect Ratios Affect the Visual Story

I admittedly have never given aspect ratios much thought in the past. I don’t know that I knew what they were up until recently.

As time moved forward, printing my photography became something desirable. Living in the digital age printing isn’t much of a thing anymore as it was growing up when the film was the primary way to see your work. It was a fun experience if you can relate.

When I began looking into a project involving creating a printed magazine it became more apparent that aspect ratios played a role in visual impact and layout.

Aspect ratios – what and why are they important?

I think it is important to start by saying it’s not critical to becoming scholarly on this topic. Understanding what they are, where they are, and how they impact the outcome of your work is the key focus.

In recent months I began paying attention to aspect ratios on Instagram. There was a reoccurring layout I found myself attracted to. So like usual a journey to understand why took afoot.

In the early days of Instagram, there was only one aspect ratio supported for posting your photographs; that is the 1:1 square.

What I was drawn to was a portrait format that seem to fill the entire allotted area so gracefully. Checking into the FAQ I got some answers. Currently, there are 1:1, 4:5, and 1.91:1 aspect ratios available depending on the viewing aspect of your photograph.

The drive to understand aspect ratios and how they present the photograph goes past Instagram alone. I gave more thought to how photographs are viewed today and where.

Instagram is primarily geared towards consumption on mobile devices. With this in mind, it seems fitting to focus on portrait-oriented photographs. More of the subject or scene can be viewed when compared to landscape aspect ratios.

Going into this further, I tested four common aspect ratios in both portrait and horizontal aspects. They are 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, and 5:7.

Looking at the landscape aspects showed very nuanced results. The noticeable differences are the format sizes themselves with each seemingly focused on presentation elements than anything else. Based on the results, the 4:5 aspect ratio is most suitable for me.

However, when I began to review the portrait aspect ratios the differences weren’t so nuanced. When compared to landscape ratios more or less of the subject or scene became an obvious difference. This is where my primary interest is focused.

Planned use

What have I learned with this exercise? As a photographer, my initial concern is with the technical aspects of capturing images. I’m looking for what makes an interesting capture; light, subject placement in the frame, details in the background and foreground, etc.; whether or not the scene tells a story or makes an emotional statement, something that evokes a reaction, however subtle.

I am never considering aspect ratios or how I plan on using and displaying my finished work.

That is until now.

I have done very little printing of my work. But as I began to pay attention to where and how photographs are used in social media and magazines such as Architectural Digest and National Geographic, aspect ratios became noticeable and appreciated oddly. It began to stimulate curiosity as to the design process of photograph layout. This is where aspect ratios take front and center.

With ideas in the works for a photography-based magazine, this experiment was a rewarding one. I set out looking into this question regarding aspect ratios after printing a magazine prototype. Mixing different sizes and ratios proved interesting as I wasn’t sure what ratios I was using and some were more appealing than others.

The takeaway with this project is that when you place your eye up to your viewfinder-among all the other technical considerations racing in your mind at a nanosecond’s pace-is to consider how you plan to use your capture because it could make a huge difference in its appeal.

This writing isn’t meant to be technical but rather a conversation starter about how aspect ratios play a big part in style, presentation, and effectiveness in conveying your vision.

I encourage you to look at this well-written article that discusses aspect ratios in an approachable way; It was an eye-opener.


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