Aspect Ratios in Landscape Photography

Aspect Ratios in Landscape Photography

Composition is often the key to the difference between a good landscape photograph and a great landscape photograph.  There are oft quoted rules that we all try to adhere to and break in equal measure (rule of thirds, leading lines, golden spiral etc.) yet when considering what we are trying to capture within the frame, we don’t always consider the frame itself.

The aspect ratio of the photograph can make or break the composition by both emphasising the subject and removing distractions, or by putting the whole scene off-balance.  When looking through the viewfinder, about to press the shutter, it’s a good idea to try and envisage the final shot, including the aspect ratio, in order to optimise your composition (too often the aspect ratio is an after-thought, being edited and applied during post-processing to correct for poor compositional choice).

But how does each aspect ratio impact our composition?  Hopefully, that’s where this article comes in.  I’m going to discuss a few common aspect ratios, with examples, and show the benefits and draw backs for each, considering where each one may be applied.

(Note, there is an argument for cropping your photo without sticking to a defined ratio to give an image a custom ratio based on your subject matter.  I believe that can make printing/framing awkward so will therefore be sticking to well-defined ratios that most should be familiar with).

1:1 –Square format

The square format can often be used to simplify an image and give a subject a striking presence at the centre of the frame.  By keeping the width equal to the height, the way in which we read the photograph changes, as there is less of a need to move left-to-right through the frame.  The square format lends a good opportunity to break the rules we so often follow – place the horizon along the centre of the image or place a subject in centre of the frame, and the composition may only get stronger.  You’ll often see a 1:1 aspect ratio used to emphasise minimalism (again, along the theme of simplification).

Derwent Water, Lake District, UK presented in a 1:1 aspect ratio

A 1:1 aspect ratio used to add to the simplicity of this image

4:3 – Four-thirds format

This format is the default aspect ratio of cameras that use four-thirds sensors.  The image is wider than it is tall, meaning that the eye naturally wants to move left-to-right through the image.  However, given that the image is still fairly tall, in relation to the width, this ratio is perfect for leading the eye into the scene through leading lines from foreground interest.  The relative height of the image encourages the use of wide-angle focal lengths to capture the depth of a scene within an image, without capturing excess details at the edge of each frame.

Lavender field at sunrise presented in a 4:3 format

A 4:3 format allows for capturing close foreground detail and leading lines to draw the eye into the image

6:4 – 35 mm format (also called 3:2)

This is the default aspect ratio for 35 mm film, and therefore for full frame and APS-C sensors used in most Nikon/Canon cameras.  The width of the image is significantly wider than the height that, again, encourages reading through the image from left-to-right, meaning diagonal leading lines can work a treat.  A limitation of this aspect ratio is that the height is that much shorter in relation to the width, meaning that capturing foreground detail using a wide-angle lens becomes more difficult due to the limited vertical space with which to work.  It can cause the subjects within the frame to become too disparate and therefore lose impact.  The 6:4 ratio can however be a format that is suited to capturing scenes where there is little to no foreground interest, with mid-range focal lengths (e.g. 35 mm).

Rain over Lake Como presented in a 6:4 aspect ratio

A 6:4 aspect ratio is used here as no close foreground detail is being captured, yet the scene still benefits from a wide aspect

16:9 – widescreen panoramic

This format was supported in film by the advanced photo system (APS) on its introduction and has recently become more popular due to the prevalence of 16:9 aspect ratio displays in the home – tvs, computer monitors, mobile devices.  With this format, the width of the image is dominant, meaning leading the viewer in from the foreground is difficult, but the format is ideally suited to presenting portions of landscape scenes captured with longer focal lengths (i.e. zoom lenses) from a distance.

Beach abstraction presented in a 16:9 format

A wide and narrow 16:9 format was used here to emphasise the horizontal bands of colour

12:6 or 18:6 – panoramic (also called 2:1 or 3:1)

I’ve chosen to adopt 12:6 or 18:6 as the panoramic format here for a few reasons.  Both 2:1 and 3:1 seem to be fairly well supported in that panoramic picture frame options are typically either 2:1 or 3:1.  2:1 is a panoramic format supported by a number of medium format film cameras and 3:1 was supported by the APS.  Typically, panoramic ratios will be used to present the result of stitching 2 or more images together – it’s quite challenging to capture a 3:1 aspect ratio image from one frame and it sill be large enough to print at any meaningful size – and often frames to be stitched will have been captured using a longer focal length in order to pick out details distant in the landscape.  There is no real option of including foreground detail here.

Chalkfields at sunrise presented in a 3:1 aspect ratio

An ultra-wide 18:6 (3:1) aspect ratio was used to present this panorama of 7 stitched images, captured using a focal length of approx. 140 mm

‘Portrait’ mode

I’m aware that I’ve discussed a number of different aspect ratios in the ‘landscape’ format and not in ‘portrait’ format.  That is because I believe the options for successful presentation of landscapes in ‘portrait’ format to be much fewer in number.  For a landscape to work, you need to balance the composition throughout a frame and aspect ratios such as 6;4 make that very difficult due to the image being too tall, relative to its width.  For ‘portrait’ landscapes to work, fatter rectangles such as 4:3, 7:6 or 5:4 are ideal, 5:4 being heavily used by professional landscape photographers using medium and large format cameras.  These formats allow the eye to be taken through an image, still from-left-to-right, without having an excess amount of sky putting the frame off-balance.

Bwlch Y Groes, Wales, UK presented in three different portrait formats

From left to right: 6:4, 4:3, 5:4. Which one looks best?


Whilst I have tried to describe specific uses to certain aspect ratios, I am aware that not all scenes will follow the suggestions I’ve made, and some images may well work in one ratio, not another, contrary to what I’ve suggested.

However, I’m hoping this introduction to aspect ratios will encourage you to think about them when composing your shot, before pressing the shutter.  It isn’t always ideal to fill the frame of your camera with the landscape in front of you, and knowing that the aspect ratio you choose is not dictated by which camera you use means you may be able to use them effectively to boost the impact of your landscape photographs.

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Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

Some Older Comments

  • tina gleisner July 7, 2013 08:00 pm

    Thanks for bringing me back to the purpose of the photos, to tell a story and it's the picture, not the display device that makes the difference. With that said, I still have to give direction to my editor ... so probably going to stick with 4:3 as I simply don't like the HDT stretch look

  • john pickens February 27, 2013 05:47 am

    excellent discussion.

  • John Styer February 23, 2013 08:25 am

    As a novice photographer, I found the information on aspect ration very interesting. My interests in photography are landscapes (shots from mountain tops) in my personal life and crime scene photography in my professional life. I use a Canon Elph on my mountaineering trips and a Fuji S5 Pro at work. I use them both in pretty much the same way; point and shoot. Any framing is done with the zoom, which I gather does not alter the aspect ratio; the format for both would be 6:4. Right? At work, I would like to use diptych in my scene and examination notes. Does the Fugi provide the aspect ration selections to build an effective diptych, or should I look at using offerings from Canon (EOS 60D) or Nikon (D200)? Also, are Perry's books written so a novice will benefit from reading them?
    I will appreciate any feedback or advice.

  • Chris Newham January 4, 2013 08:59 am

    An interesting article and I like your insight to the use of the various aspect ratio's I am however surprised at the way you quickly gloss over custom ratios. I have never shot to a fixed aspect ration except when doing Holga work rather I visualise the final image and frame/crop accordingly to produce an image I am pleased with.

    I mount my own work there is no problem with mounting I just custom cut a matt for each image I produce. My aim is to produce a high quality piece of art I am please with, ratio's be dammed I do what feels right to me at the end of the day it's all down to your personal preference.

  • marius2die4 November 9, 2012 08:16 pm

    I use also 4/3 sensor. From time to time I use 1x1

  • Ed Hamlin November 9, 2012 04:40 pm

    This is great information for new and mid level photographers. I would recommend a post on print sizes in relationship to the ratios discussed is important. The topic is especially for the photographer who wants to print high quality prints for sale and art shows. I have seen some good images which could have been great if ratio and prints sizes were considered when preparing to shoot a subject.

  • Hew Hamilton November 9, 2012 04:19 am

    As someone who makes a living framing artwork, there is absolutely NO reason to adhere to any set ratios on our account! Everything in a custom picture frame shop is cut to order! a 26 3/4 x 14 1/2 inch photo is no different than a 16 x 20 for a frame shop, at least the good ones!

    Many times, a piece can be more dramatic, and fill a space on a wall better, if it is drastically different than some of the more boxy aspect ratios.

    Crop your images to where they look good to you, and don't worry what the exact numbers are. The frame shop will make it work no matter what the size.

  • marvin andariego November 9, 2012 04:04 am

    Thanks for a clear and well-written discussion of the formats. I also default to 4:3 for use of a four-thirds sensor but have recently been shooting with 1:1 square cropping in mind. The impact of square aspect in landscapes is something I've only recently got in to, so pleased to see it covered here with some explanation as to how eye moves through frame.

  • Duncan Fawkes November 8, 2012 01:52 am

    Thanks Elliot.

    To be honest 4x3 is quite pleasing as well (they all are in their own way depending on the shot!), and is a good compromise between 3x2 and 5x4 - being that bit squarer but still having the width.

    Subconsciously I'm now thinking of 5x4 as my default (so ignore the very sides of the LCD) using 3x2 if there's stuff going right to the edge that I care about. I don't find width problems with 5x4 - but we all shoot different things and many of my images are intimate, self contained portions of the landscape that perhaps lend themselves to this aspect ratio, where wider shots wouldn't work so well.

    Ultimately the point is that there is no "correct" aspect ratio, perhaps one you prefer, but that making a conscious decision about the crop rather than leaving it at default is an important aesthetic consideration.

    It's a good subject to bring up for discussion.

  • Elliot November 8, 2012 12:23 am

    Great comment there Duncan.

    I realised I hadn't really discussed 5x4 very much but I think that is because I struggle to use it effectively for landscape-orientated compositions. I've recently seen the benefit for portrait-orientated images, however I typically find the width constraining in landscape, so I typically default to 4x3.

    That is probably out of laziness on my part. I use a four-thirds sensor and so 4x3 is the default aspect ratio. I am used to thinking about cropping whilst still utilising the full width of the frame (i.e. 4x3 down to 3:2) but I haven't been thinking about shooting for a 5x4 aspect whilst composing the image, i.e. framing the subject whilst thinking about cropping the width whilst retaining the full height of the image.

    It is definitely something I want to explore further.

    The sample of Bruce Perry's eBook looks very interesting, may well have to give that a read, thank you.

  • Duncan Fawkes November 7, 2012 11:52 pm

    Great post on what I think is a very important topic Elliot. Most of us take aspect ratios for granted and stick with what our camera provides (in most cases 3x2). If you think about it this is very strange!

    The frame and so our aspect ratio is the key thing that decides what is in our image and how those elements relate to each other. Using the same aspect ratio for every shot is akin to being a victim of the camera, rather than taking control of what is a fundamental part of the image.

    In some ways this is understandable - for years we've been chasing extra megapixels in our cameras, why on earth would I want to throw them away?! However the joy of (and arguably the point of) higher megaxpiel cameras is to give us greater latitude with our cropping options to better realise our vision. Rather than cherishing them, we should realise they are there to let go.

    I think thinking about the image that you want and being mindful of the aspect ratio that will best suit it is very useful. Better yet, with more modern cameras than my 5D2 you can select the aspect ratio that you see on your LCD (in reality it places black bars over the cropped section, you still capture the full native image).

    I've come to realise that 3x2 is a difficult ratio to work with - in landscape it's too wide and short, and in portrait it's too tall and skinny. Especially in landscape I find it difficult to get everything you want in height-wise yet keep out all the stuff you don't want width-wise.

    Although you only mention it in passing, 5x4 is by far my preferred ratio - in most cases it seems both width enough to not bring in extraneaous elements, but tall enough to include what I'm looking for. Perhaps more interestingly is that this year I have started shooting the vast majority of my landscape shots in 5x4 portrait as you also mention here. I have proportionately fewer landscape shots, and even fewer of those using 3x2.

    I'd recommend playing with the aspect ratios on some of your images to see how it affects them - particularly for a landscape shot I find it is rare that I need the full 3x2 width and so a 5x4 crop gives a tighter, more focused image.

    As you can see it's a subject I find very interesting and could talk about at length! :)

    Bruce Percy has been a big influence in giving me a better appreciation of aspect ratios, and his eBook on the subject goes into a lot of discussion. I'd highly recommend it if this post interests you:

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 5, 2012 12:51 am

    Great Info... I always love the 1:1 format but sure it is not something that is suitable for all types of shots but it sure gives an outstanding feel in my eyes.

  • af November 2, 2012 07:14 am

    Thank you for a really well presented review of a topic I've wanted to understand better for a long time. The choice of aspect ratio in cropping has always seemed annoyingly arbitrary to me until now.
    Nice pictures, too, especially the 1:1.

  • Mei Teng November 1, 2012 11:33 am

    I like the 6:4 portrait mode. The square 1:1 format is great too.

  • Scottc November 1, 2012 10:38 am

    Interesting comparison, never given it much thought before but I do seem to custom crop more with landscapes.

  • Guigphotography November 1, 2012 05:47 am

    What a valuable post. This will definitely add to my pre-shot planning as I tend to use standard ratios. Thanks Elliot!

  • Steve November 1, 2012 05:35 am

    I think the aspect ratio is determined by what you want to get in the composition minus however much you decide to crop out in post processing

  • EnergizedAV November 1, 2012 04:56 am

    Great post. I became a framer just for this reason. To be able to see the finished piece before photographing it. Most times, the composition will determine the aspect ratio. When in doubt take several versions and include a little extra margin to crop in edit.
    Thanks Elliot

  • Mridula November 1, 2012 02:53 am

    I thought that apart from the panoramic shots it was the rule of the thirds in different ways!