Have you found yourself wondering: What the heck is aspect ratio?

You’re not alone. Aspect ratio a fundamental photography concept that can be quite confusing at first. Chances are, you’ve seen numbers representing common ratios, including:

  • 1:1
  • 3:2
  • 4:3
  • 5:4
  • 7:5
  • 8.5:11
  • 16:9

What do these numbers mean? And how can they make a difference in your photography? Answering these and other key questions will help you improve your composition and make you a much better photographer.

aspect ratio

What is Aspect Ratio?

Remember the term ratio from middle school math? You should recall that a ratio represents the relationship between two numbers.

Aspect ratio, also known as aspect definition, is the relationship between the width and height of a photo. It essentially describes the shape of your image. Most often, you’ll see an aspect ratio with a colon (:) between the two numbers. And the width is always the first number, followed by the height. So, an image that is three times as wide as it is tall will have a 3:1 aspect ratio.

It is important to know that an image aspect ratio is not the actual size, in pixels or inches, of the image. As an example, a square image that is 1,000 x 1000 pixels would have an aspect ratio of 1:1. Also, an image that is 500 x 500 pixels has the same 1:1 aspect ratio. The images are different sizes, but they have same aspect ratio.

Consider another example. Photo #1 is 800 x 400 pixels. And photo #2 is 1200 x 600 pixels. What is the aspect ratio for each? Each image is a rectangle with a 2:1 aspect ratio–even though the width and height are different for each.

What Are Common Aspect Ratios?

Technically-speaking there is an unlimited number of aspect ratios. But there are seven common ones every photographer should know.

1:1 Aspect Ratio

Images with this aspect ratio are square. You’ll often encounter them on social media.

3:2 Aspect Ratio

This aspect ratio has its roots in 35-millimeter film photography. In fact, many photographs are taken with popular camera brands in a 3:2 aspect ratio today. Images with this aspect ratio include 4×6 photographs or 1020 x 720 images.

Why is the 3:2 ratio so popular? It best embodies the golden ratio, which is based on the Fibonacci sequence. Many famous artists throughout history, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Michelangelo, have used the golden ratio in their works. It also relates to the rule of thirds, which is a widely-used composition technique.

4:3 Aspect Ratio

Another aspect ratio of note is 4:3. Previously, this was the standard screen aspect ratio for film, but it dimmed in popularity with the advent of widescreen formats. 4:3 was the preferred format of standard definition televisions for decades.

Today, 4:3 remains a popular option for monitors and video displays. Images scaled for screens can work well in a 4:3 ratio. And micro four-thirds cameras use a 4:3 aspect ratio standard.

5:4 Aspect Ratio

You are likely most familiar with seeing printed photographs with a 5:4 ratio. This ratio includes standard printing sizes of 4×5″, 8×10″, 16×20″, and 11×14″.

7:5 Aspect Ratio

7:5 is another very common aspect ratio. 5×7 inch photos use this aspect ratio. Since many 5×7 inches frames are available, this is a popular print size.

8.5:11 Aspect Ratio

Another popular print size, 8.5×11 inches is a standard document size in the U.S. The corresponding aspect ratio is 8.5:11.

16:9 Aspect Ratio

Commonly used in motion pictures and high-definition television, the 16:9 aspect ratio is the widescreen video standard. It can provide a gorgeous, cinematic feel for films. It’s not a common ratio in still photography.

What is the Best Aspect Ratio for My Images?

You can now move from the basic question, What is aspect ratio? to the next common question. And that often is, What is the best aspect ratio? Since ideal aspect ratios vary by application, there’s not one simple answer.

aspect ratio

Are you printing your image? Will you use it on social media? Is it for digital advertising? You should answer those questions first when determining the right aspect ratio for your image. But there’s still much more to consider.

What is Aspect Ratio for My Printed Images?

Although digital images are everywhere, many people enjoy the beauty and appeal of a printed photograph. As you likely now understand from our review of common aspect ratios, there is not one aspect ratio for all printed images. You need to understand the standard aspect ratio for your camera–and the intended size of your printed image before taking a photograph.

The best aspect ratio for prints often ties to popular frame sizes. Those include 5:4, 5:7, and 8.5:11. Always keep the end goal of your project in mind from the outset.

What is Aspect Ratio for My Social Media Image?

Many people take pictures with the intention of posting them on social media. No surprise: Different social networks have different ideal aspect ratios. That can make image sharing a bit tricky–unless you know what you are doing.

If you want to level up your photography presentation on Instagram, you’ll want to understand which aspect ratios work best. And the same is true for posting digital video on YouTube.

aspect ratio

Ever wondered what is the aspect ratio for Instagram? At first, Instagram focused on square 1:1 images, which posed an interesting creative challenge for some photographers. But the popular image-sharing site relaxed its square focus. Now, you can post both portrait and landscape images with different aspect ratios through its mobile app. Importantly, you should know Instagram stories work best with a 16:9 ratio on mobile devices.

What about Facebook? Your wall posts on Facebook also have a square 1:1 aspect ratio. Keep in mind that when someone clicks on a wall post image, they can view a larger, higher-resolution version. For that reason, a 1,200 x 1,200 pixel aspect ratio works well for your Facebook posts.

Your next question may be: What is the aspect ratio is YouTube? In the past, YouTube force-fit all videos to a standard 16:9 widescreen format. The site used “windowboxing”–which means surrounding an image with black bars–to fit this standard. Today, the popular video sharing site adjusts to fit the aspect ratio of the content.

And what about sites like Pinterest and Google+? Those have different aspect ratio standards than the others discussed so far. 2:3 ratios work best on those social sharing networks.

As you can see, the answer to the question, What is the right aspect ratio for social media? isn’t straightforward. You should always plan ahead and know the ideal aspect ratios for the sites where you plan to post your images.

 aspect ratio Cole's Classroom

Why Does Aspect Ratio Matter?

You should understand that aspect ratio is more than just numbers. It influences the relationship between the subject and background in your images. Understanding aspect ratio can help you improve the composition of your photos.

You also need to understand aspect ratio before printing your images. Imagine you take a photo with a camera in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Then you decide to blow it up to an 8×10 size for printing. Your original aspect ratio won’t match up to the 4:5 aspect ratio of your print. Some aspects of the image will be cropped due to the different aspect ratio. Your beautiful composition won’t look the way you intended.

Learning how to adjust your aspect ratio to preserve the integrity of your composition is key to great photography.

How to Adjust Aspect Ratio

Always consider the final look and size you want for your printed image before you take your photograph. You may have a camera that allows aspect ratio adjustments–or you may need to use photo editing software.

Adjusting Aspect Ratio with Your Camera

Most cameras have a set aspect ratio standard–usually, that’s a 3:2 ratio. Some high-quality digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras allow you to adjust the aspect ratio before you take a picture. For example, top-tier Nikon digital SLR cameras allow you to select a 5:4 aspect ratio for your photo. You can go into your camera menu settings to make this change. This allows you to take photos scaled for an 8×10″ or 11×14″ output.

aspect ratio

Adjusting Aspect Ratio with Photo Editing Software

If you have already taken a photo, you can use photo editing software to adjust the aspect ratio during post-processing. But you never want to plug your photo into an image size converter and pick a size at random. Also, you should avoid freehand sizing with a crop tool. Both approaches can create problems with the look of your printed photo. Your print could end up with images that are off-center or that have key elements cropped out.

However, this problem is easy to avoid. Both Lightroom and Photoshop allow you to crop a photo to a certain aspect ratio. Using either application lets you preserve the integrity of your image and avoid any undesirable cropping.

In Lightroom, you will use the Crop Tool in the Develop Module. Click on the Aspect drop-down menu, then choose the preferred crop ratio for your image. You will see several options available. I use the original aspect ratio most often. However, if you are planning to print your image to a specific size, you can select the corresponding ratio.

The Photoshop crop tool works in a similar way. You’ll be able to select the aspect ratio of your crop when scaling your image.

aspect ratio

Always Keep Aspect Ratio in Mind for Every Image

Aspect ratio is one of the most critical concepts to learn in photography. The most crucial thing to remember when taking any photographs is to consider the look of the printed image up front. Are you shooting a family portrait that will be printed as an 8×10″? If so, you’ll need to adjust for a 4:5 aspect ratio. Aspect ratio also matters if you plan to use images for on-screen display. And you need to know about aspect ratio when shooting videos in order to avoid black bars. You may be able to adjust your camera settings to accommodate this ratio. If not, you should be able to address it with photo editing software, a motion graphics software like AfterEffects, or a video editing program such as Premiere Pro.

At times you may not have a vision for your printed photograph. You may not even have plans to print it at all. In those situations, always allow a lot of extra space around the central image. That will allow you enough extra space to cover any adjustments you may make in the future.

aspect ratio

As higher-quality cameras have grown in popularity, more people are taking and sharing photographs and videos. Anyone who doesn’t understand aspect ratio will most likely encounter frustrations. They can take gorgeous photos with their cameras that appear skewed when printed.

Understanding how aspect ratio works across a variety of platforms will help you evade this very common problem. Aspect ratio is a simple concept to master but it can have a dramatic effect on the quality of your photos.

Check out this video ALLLLL about aspect ratio in photography!