Have you ever printed a digital image and you just knew something was missing? Like you captured the entire scene, but somehow the shot seems cropped? Well, you’re not alone. And this happened because of the difference in aspect ratio between your camera and the print.
What Is Aspect Ratio?
The aspect ratio refers to the shape of an image and is described as the numerical proportion between the width and height of the image. The two most common aspect ratios created by digital cameras are 3:2 and 4:3. The first number always represents the width and the second number is the height. So, both numbers express a relationship and not a particular measurement.
Aspect ratios vary from one camera producer to another and even between various camera models from the same manufacturer. The 35mm film cameras have the standard 3:2 format, while digital cameras come in different aspect ratios, which is why so many prints return cropped from the lab.
For example, most DSLRs have a 3:2 aspect ratio, whereas video monitors usually use a 4:3 aspect ratio. A monitor with a 1024 by 768 pixels display has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so most entry-level level cameras use a 4:3 aspect ratio for their photos.
To determine the aspect ratio, look at the pixel dimensions of the photo. An image with dimensions of 2048 px wide x 1536 px high has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (length divided by width), whereas one with 3504 x 2336 has an aspect ratio of 1.5:1.
So Where’s The Problem?
The problem with printing digital photos is that the image and the paper are not the same aspect ratio. Basically, every 8×10 print made with a 3:2 sensor camera will get cropped. If you print your photos to a paper size with a different aspect ratio, you’ll have your images bordered to match the aspect ratio of the paper or randomly cropped.
Common paper sizes include:
|Print Size||Aspect ratio|
|4 x 6||3 : 2|
|5 x 7||7 : 5|
|8 x 10||5 : 4|
|20 x 30||3 : 2|
As a rule, an aspect ratio of 3:2 matches the aspect ratio of a common 4 x 6 print. If you use a camera with a 4:3 ratio (like all Olympus DSLRs) all of your 4 x 6 prints will come back cropped from the lab.
The good news is that even though parts of the image will still be cropped if you print at 5 x 7 or 8 x 10, the amount cropped from is much less than if you’re shooting with a 3:2 sensor camera. If you want to print a 3:2 photo on an 8 x 10 print size paper, the photo gets automatically cropped to fit the standard aspect ratio of the paper:
|Original 3:2||Print 8×10|
No More Arbitrary Clipping
So how can you fix this problem? How do you make sure your prints come out totally resembling the originals? What do you do when you want to make some big 8 x 10 prints? Well, for starters, don’t get too close to your subject.
In the example above you can see that the original 3:2 photo is closely cropped around the bird and there is not much space left. If you want to print it on a 8×10 paper, the bird’s beak is getting cut.
So, instead of getting so close to your subject, try to leave some breathing space. This way you make sure that no part of the subject gets clipped off when you take your shots to the printing service. Some cameras let you choose between different aspect ratios of the photo from the camera settings menu.
Crop Before You Print
Another option is to crop the photos yourself. Since aspect ratios match standard print sizes, by cropping the photos yourself you make sure than the photos are no longer randomly clipped off by the people at the lab.
Many editing programs have a Crop Tool that allows you to select the desired aspect ratio of the tool. For instance, you can set the Crop tool for a 3:2 ratio, which is great for 4 x 6 prints. Or, you can choose a 5:4 aspect ratio if you want to make 8×10 prints.
To preserve a high visual quality even after the cropping, make the shots at the highest resolution possible. This way, you can safely cut out areas of the image without affecting their visual quality. Plus, in most cases cropping the images yourself helps improve the overall composition of the image.
The golden rule: always make your edits on a copy of the original, and not on the original photo itself. Some editing programs automatically open a copy or save your edits as a copy. If you edit the original, make a mistake and then accidentally save that version of the image, the changes are permanent and cannot be undone.
But if you have saved a copy of the original, you can start the editing process again working on a duplicate copy. Remember that whenever you crop an image, you pull out pixels from the digital file. So if you crop the image and the final version seems pixelated, undo the action and cut less.
Here are some of the reasons to crop your photos:
- it improves your composition
- adds more focus on the subject
- cuts out distracting elements
- “zoom in” on your subject
- changes the aspect ratio
When cropping the images yourself, make sure to select a DPI (Dots Per Inch) of at least 300, which, is the printer’s output resolution. A lower DPI may produce poor colors, whereas setting a DPI creates much better prints.
If you know you’re going to print most of your photos at 4 x 6 (or don’t print at all) the best thing to do is get a camera with a 3:2 aspect ratio (Canon, Nikon or Pentax). However, if you prefer making large prints of your shots, opt for a camera with a 4:3 aspect ratio (Olympus or Panasonic). This way, you won’t have any (cropping) surprises when you get back from the lab. And don’t forget to watermark your photos!