understanding aspect ratio for better photos


Have you ever taken a great photo, sent it to be printed, and gotten it back only to see that half of someone’s head is cut off? Or maybe you tried to enlarge a group photo to an 8×10 and the people on the sides got cut off. Why would the photo lab do that? Why in the world are they cropping your photos so weird?

The answer is: they’re not. Sometimes photos come back with portions along the top, bottom or sides missing because the photo was printed in a different aspect ratio than it was taken in. To fix the problem, you need to understand what aspect ratio means.

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Aspect ratio describes the relationship between the lengths of each side of a photo. dSLR cameras take photos in a 2:3 aspect ratio, meaning that if the short side of the photo measures 2 inches, the long side will measure 3 inches. If the short side measures 4 inches, the long side with be 6 inches. If the short side measures 8 inches, the long side will be 12 inches. That means any photos you take on a dSLR will print perfectly as 4×6 pictures (because 2:3 is the same as 4:6). A 4×6 print looks like a rectangle, as you can see below:

learn what aspect ratio means and how to make sure your photo doesn't get cut off weird when cropped

However, if you enlarge this same photo to an 8×10, suddenly you’ve changed the aspect ratio. I mentioned above that if a photo with a 2:3 or 4:6 aspect ratio is enlarged so the short side is 8 inches, the long side will be 12 inches. The standard print size, however, is 8×10, not 8×12. So when you enlarge a photo from your dSLR to 8×10, you’re going to lose some of the photo on each side:

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See how the grass on right and left sides of the photo above gets cropped out in a 8×10 photo? Since it’s not an important part of the photo, it’s not a big deal in this photo. In fact, when you have plenty of “room” on each short side of your photo, you might not even notice the change in aspect ratio. However, it can be a real problem if you take a group shot and have people filling the entire frame:

aspect-ratio-what-is-photography-cropping

The boys on the outsides of the photo get their faces cut off – and if you want to frame the photo it will look even worse. You can also run into problems with close-up shots, like this one:

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It looked great in my viewfinder and would be fine printed as a 4×6, but when enlarged to an 8×10 a lot of the girl’s head gets cut off. (Ok, I’ll just admit right now I don’t mind this sort of cropping too much, but I know lots of people really don’t like any of the head cut off.)

A good rule of thumb to remember is that if you’re taking a photo with a dSLR, you need to leave a little extra room on the short sides of the photo if you want to enlarge it (so if it’s a horizontal photo that means the left and right, and for a vertical photo that means the top and bottom).

Here are a few more examples of what happens if you DON’T leave extra room:

aspect-ratio-how-to-understand-cropping-photos-6

learn what aspect ratio means and how to make sure your photo doesn't get cut off weird when cropped

If the photo looks perfect through your camera, take a step back before you take the photo. This should give you the extra room you need to enlarge your photo without cutting off anything important (like that cute baby’s toes!).

Now, say you’re starting with a photo that’s already cropped as an 8×10 (many free printables offered on blogs are created at this size). What if you want to print it smaller as a 4×6 instead? Printing it as a 4×6 will result in some cropping along each side for a vertical print, or the top and bottom for a horizontal print, as shown:

aspect-ratio-what-is-cropping-photos-1

However, if you want to make an 8×10 print bigger, you can do that easily – a 16×20 and an 8×10 have the same aspect ratio (they are both 4:5) – so you can print those sizes interchangeably without any cropping!

Here’s another example of a photo that was already cropped to an 8×10 aspect ratio, then printed out as a 4×6:

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If someone sends you a photo file that’s already cropped to an 8×10 and you want a 4×6, ask them to send you the original file so you don’t have to crop it again.

Now, if you shoot with a dSLR, that’s all you need to know! But, if you use a point and shoot digital camera instead, things are a little different. Most point and shoot cameras (including phones) have an aspect ratio of 3:4. That means the photos you take on these cameras will look pretty similar when printed as an 8×10, but will get chopped a bit when printed as a 4×6.

learn what aspect ratio means and how to make sure your photo doesn't get cut off weird when cropped

Again, taking one step back before taking the photo should give you enough extra room to print at either size without problems.

A final note – when you upload your photos to get them printed, most online printers will put a little crop icon next to the photo if it’s going to be cropped at the size you’re ordering – usually if you click on that icon you can see exactly what’s going to be cropped. Also, you can usually adjust crop a little if needed.

Hope this helps!

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Comments

  1. 1

    Ange says

    Thank you for another informative post….Since I’m still trying to figure out my new DSLR, your posts are very helpful.
    I love all of your photo tips, they are so easy to understand. THANK YOU!!

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