The Other Hand

Balanced commentary from an unbalanced mind.

Aspect Ratios

Take a photo, print it, mount it, and frame it. What could be easier?

I spend a lot of time wrestling with the sizing around all the above. Specifically, aspect ratio. That’s the ratio of the length to the width, or, how rectangular is it? You can express it by a number — usually the ratio of the long side to the short. For example, an 8½x11 sheet of paper has an aspect ratio of 1.294. A square photo has an aspect ratio of 1.000.

There is a major aesthetic question here, about what aspect ratio works best for a given image. It’s worth a lot of thought, but it’s not the issue I’m considering here. The simple reason is that I currently tend to compose based on the viewfinder image. So the image I intend is usually the same aspect ratio as my camera… but that varies, depending on which camera I use:

  • Digital SLR (Canon 5D): 1.5 (3:2)
  • 35mm film: 1.458
  • Point&Shoot (Canon A80, Canon G9, iPhone): 1.333 (4:3)

So already, the aspect ratio will vary depending on what camera I used. Assuming I don’t tweak the cropping, the next step is to print. Here things are consistent if you’re using European measurements, but vary using English:

  • 8″x10″: 1.250
  • 8½”x11″: 1.294
  • 11″x17″: 1.545
  • 17″x22″: 1.294
  • A4: 1.414 (about 8.25″x11.7″)
  • A3: 1.414 (about 11.7″x16.5″)
  • A5: 1.414 (about 16.5″x23.4″)

Within the English system, the ratios have a wide range. (I include 8×10, which is a common photo size.) The European has a consistent ratio – it’s how the paper sizes are defined. It’s also relevant, because I can get A3 paper more easily than 11″x17″. So right now I use 8½”x11″, A3, and 17″x22″ paper.

The problem is when there’s a mismatch between the paper size and what I want to print. If I’m printing a SLR image at a 1.5 ratio, the 8½”x11″ paper is going to be a lot more “square” than the print I want. That translates into oddly wide margins on the long edges. But conversely, if I’m printing something from my G9 onto A3 paper, the image is more square than the paper, so I’ll have wider margins on the short edge.

And then we get to mounting, matting, and framing. Here are some common frame (and thus matboard) sizes:

  • 11″x17″: 1.545
  • 17″x22″: 1.294
  • 16″x20″: 1.250
  • 20″x24″: 1.200
  • 18″x24″: 1.333

This adds +2 degree of difficulty. For one thing, I usually have a ‘reveal’ on my overmat that pulls back from the edge of the print — revealing blank paper. This reveal is consistent across three sides of the print, but bigger on the bottom, for title and signature. I typically use ¼” on three sides and ½” on the bottom. Also, I will try to weight the bottom mat edge more heavily than the other three sides. This looks natural and “balanced” when framed. Ideally, the mat width on the top and sides would be equal, with the bottom a bit heavier.

I could cut custom mats and frames to make this work, but I don’t like that. For one thing, it’s harder! But I think photos look odd on the wall if they’re all in different frame sizes. I prefer to keep the frames consistent, so I stick with standard sizes and adjust the margins each time.

Then, I add one more variable: some photos are horizontal, some vertical. This matters again because I’m trying to weight the bottom more heavily. So ideally, I’d mount a horizontal photo on board that’s more square (has a smaller aspect ratio), but a vertical photo goes best on a board that’s more rectangular (bigger aspect ratio).

So this makes for a complicated setup. My current project is only printing on A3 paper and mounting on 16″x20″ board. But even locking those in, I have four combos — either narrow SLR photos at 1.500 or stocky point and shoot photos at 1.333, and printing either horizontal or vertical photos. So I have notes with four different sizes for print width, mat width, and mounting position. Change over to another size, and I have to redo all these calculations. It’s enough to give me a headache!

And, as I mentioned earlier, there’s nothing sacrosanct about staying with the camera’s aspect ratio. I’ve done so until now, both because of how I shoot, and as a self-defense measure. But it’s worth exploring alternatives. Brooks Jensen, at Lenswork, argues that the Golden Ratio would be interesting to try. I just might experiment with 1.618 — after this project is over.

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Written by cisko

17 May 2010 at 09:15

Posted in Photography

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