Consider the Crop: Don't Be a Slave to Your Sensor Aspect Ratio

Consider the Crop: Don't Be a Slave to Your Sensor Aspect Ratio

As photographers, we choose many things. We select our camera bodies, lenses, filters, gear, and settings galore. Why do so many photographers settle with the natural aspect ratio of their camera sensor?

Aspect ratio is the difference between the height and width of an image. I'll admit that a large portion of photographs are composed to utilize the entire sensor, whatever that aspect ratio happens to be. When we take our photographs, we are limited by the cameras and lenses we are using. We use lenses with many different fields of view — wide, normal, telephoto — all landing on that same sensor; yet all too often, people just settle with whatever final aspect ratio the camera gives them. I see it all day long: photographers posting their images online in the default aspect ratio of their camera without a thought-about aspect ratio.

However, there are some images that I feel would be much better if cropped to an alternative aspect ratio. You may use a wide lens because of your subject width, which then leaves a lot of area at the top and bottom that doesn't quite contribute anything to the photograph.

Shoot as if You're Going to Use the Entire Image

When I compose a photograph, I always frame it as though I'm going to use the whole photo, even if I think I'll crop it to some other aspect ratio in post. I do this for two reasons. First, sometimes you end up preferring the full photo better than the crop you had in mind. Second, sometimes, I change the crop to be vertical instead of horizontal, and the extra image area helps with that.

"Beetle Boogie" - I shot this image in a horizontal orientation. At the time, I liked the emptiness around the weed, the blue sky, and the bugs; however, during post-processing, I decided on a vertical crop.

If I think I'm going to be cropping the image to a 2:1 aspect ratio, I'll still align the horizon or subject using a pleasing method, such as the rule of thirds. When I crop to a 2:1 aspect ratio, I'll often leave out a little of the top and bottom of the image.

Consider if the Subject Is Best Shown in the Aspect Ratio of Your Sensor

First and foremost, you'll need to consider the use of the photograph. There's a big difference between social media, commercial ads, print sales, stock use, phone wallpapers, etc. If it's merely an image for social media, I'll often crop it to whatever aspect ratio I feel the image looks best. I do, however, have a preference for 2:1 aspect ratios with my landscape images; it's part of my style.

"Under the Storm" - I shot this photo with the full intent on cropping it to my favorite 2:1 aspect ratio

Think about this: Why should a square or round object have a rectangular crop? What is that extra space contributing to the image? Not that negative space isn't useful, it can be. However, uneven space can sometimes be distracting. For example, take an image of the eclipse of 2017:

"Totality" - Great American Eclipse, August 21, 2017, Cerulean, Kentucky

This image could work as a rectangle crop, but it also works well as a square 1:1 crop.

"Sam" - This image of my dog Sam just seemed to look best with a square crop

I don't recall where I first heard it, but someone once said: "No one knows what you left out of the photo." This is not only true for framing your composition, but also for choosing the final aspect ratio of the image. No one needs to know that above those impressive clouds was nothing but dull blue sky. No one needs to know that right next to that beautiful flower was an ugly patch of grass. What you leave out of an image is almost as important as what you include.

Get over the fact that you're cutting down an image, and focus on what looks best. If you're producing physical prints, you'll probably be limited to the standard framing sizes anyway, and a lot of those aren't the 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio that your camera sensor is, so you'll be cropping. Although I prefer to sell images that are the same proportions as the original image, the reality is that people often want images that they can get an affordable frame for, such as 8x10, 11x14, etc.

With the emergence of different platforms such as Instagram and mobile phones, the old school mentality of "use the entire image" just doesn't work anymore. Heck, even computer screens are now going super-wide, so just about every platform such as mobile, standard TV, HDTV, computer screens, magazines, and websites have a different preferred aspect ratio.

The Alternative to Cropping

For those that don't want to lose precious pixels, there is an alternative to cropping: stitching multiple images together will produce high-megapixel images that have plenty of resolution.

"Watching" - This six-image panorama stitch measuring in at 18,552 x 7,384 (137 megapixels) leaves room for cropping at many different aspect ratios, such as the 3:1 aspect ratio shown here.

These images don't always have to be wide panorama shots. You could also shoot multiple rows to create a large image to crop however you want. Often, I'll shoot just a three or four-shot horizontal panorama with the camera in a vertical orientation, which when stitched together, often comes out very close to the 3:2 aspect ratio as my sensor, however, at a much higher resolution. For the above, the center three 22-megapixel images become about a 50-megapixel image at almost precisely a 3:2 aspect ratio when stitched.

Conclusion

Don't be bound by the aspect ratio of your sensor. Just like framing your shot, when you crop, no one ever sees what you have left out of the image. Feel free to crop the image however you see fit. If that image has the feel of a wide-open expanse, a wide image may help convey that feeling. If the subject has a similar height and width, maybe a square crop would work better. Do you crop your images to a different aspect ratio than your sensor? Let me know in the comments!

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12 Comments

Stuart Carver's picture

Fully agree. I mean it’s awesome if you can nail that shot in 3:2 and it works exactly as it is but more often a different ratio or small crop can improve the shot no end.

This works great for landscape images but can be challenging for portraits. I really wish cameras had a 4:5 preview grid, especially for vertical images. Framing a person in 2:3 exactly as you want the composition can yield some pretty bad results when cropping to 4:5. Things like limbs getting chopped off in odd places, eye height getting bumped to a different position in the frame, etc. Obviously this isn't a hard rule but I find in a lot of cases if you want your vertical portraits in 4:5 you really need to think that way when you're shooting, so shoot a little wide and plan to crop for your composition later.

There is a workaround for studio images, if the background is fairly uniform and/or abstract. Instead of composing wide with the intention to crop in, I shoot at the exact composition I want and then use Photoshop to expand the canvas to 4:5 rather than crop in to 4:5. Content aware usually does a pretty good job, and then you've got a "larger" image where you can always crop back into the original 2:3 later if you want. Again, not applicable in all cases, but works pretty well for many.

I feel cropping an image image, whether it is to the original aspect ratio or a different one, is an important tool for photographers. Cropping is just one of many changes that can be made to a photo.

Stuart Carver's picture

On my Fuji i can set the crop pre-shot to either 1:1, 3:2 or 16:9 but id like the option to also have 4:3 and 4:5 on there.

Stuart Carver's picture

No it changes the EVF to the actual crop using black bars, im going to be honest here and say i rarely use it because i forget haha, but when i have tried it its useful.. the 16:9 is one for Landscape, and of course if you plan on using a square crop that one makes life a lot easier too.

I would say you should perhaps try your brands version of the Mirrorless as it would make an awesome 2nd camera with the adapter for lenses, and if i recall you use Nikon?? the Z7 is ridiculously good. I wouldnt ever tell anyone to get rid of a DSLR for one though as they serve different purposes.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’d say for what I do (Landscape) the EVF and subsequent LCD offer some invaluable features, the live exposure preview (white balance etc, plus it even working with an ND attached) and having the ability to see the histogram, level, thirds grid and pretty much anything else on screen are where Mirrorless really shines. Fuji themselves have great stuff like the timer going up to 15 minutes in full stops which are really useful and negate the need for an app, stop watch or one of them remotes.

The OVF still has its place massively though and if the one on my D5300 wasn’t so crappy I’d be using it a lot more. My plan is to pick up a D7500 when they drop below £500 then sell the D5300, I’d like to use a DSLR for motorsport stuff.

Stuart Carver's picture

It’s the stupid decision to have it 95% coverage that annoys me, the higher end APS-C are really good these days though

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

Hey, I'm so sorry to diverge but I can't figure out how to contact admin. My notifications have failed to load. It says "unable to load notifications"

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

Thank you very much, It has been sorted!

Stuart Carver's picture

It’s been happening to me today but seems ok now. I’d say bear with it and it should be sorted soon.

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

It was Indeed, thanks

Lee Stirling's picture

The only time I am unwilling to crop my shots to a different aspect ratio is when I am shooting my Yashica TLR which shoots a 6x6 square crop on film. I will crop these photos, but retain the square format.