Composition is often 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 (the rule of thirds, leading lines, golden spiral, etc.), yet when considering what we are trying to capture, we don’t always think about the frame itself.
The aspect ratio of a photograph can make or break the composition by either emphasizing 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 optimize your composition. Too often, the aspect ratio is an afterthought, applied during post-processing to correct for poor compositional choice.
But how does each aspect ratio impact compositions in landscape photography?
That’s where this article comes in. I’m going to discuss a few common aspect ratios (with examples). I’ll show the benefits and drawbacks for each, and explain where each aspect ratio may be applied.
Note that there is an argument for cropping your photo without sticking to a defined ratio; in other words, that you should give an image a custom ratio based on your subject matter. But that can make printing and framing awkward, so I 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 your subject a striking presence at the center 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 from left to right through the frame.
The square format also offers a good opportunity to break the rules we so often follow; place the horizon along the center of the image or place a subject in the center of the frame, and the composition may only get stronger.
You’ll often see a 1:1 aspect ratio used to emphasize minimalism (again, it’s the theme of simplification).
4:3 – Four thirds format
This format is the default aspect ratio of cameras that use Four Thirds sensors.
An image with a 4:3 aspect ratio 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 drawing the eye into the scene through leading lines.
The relative height of a 4:3 image encourages the use of wide-angle focal lengths to capture the depth of a scene, without including excess details at the edge of the frame.
6:4 – 35mm format (also called 3:2)
This is the default aspect ratio for 35mm film, and therefore for full-frame and APS-C sensors used in most Nikon and Canon cameras.
With a 6:4 image, the width is significantly wider than the height. This encourages viewing the image from left to right, meaning diagonal leading lines can work quite well.
A limitation of this aspect ratio is that the height is that much shorter in relation to the width. So capturing foreground detail using a wide-angle lens becomes more difficult due to the limited vertical space with which you can work. A 6:4 aspect ratio can even cause the subjects within the frame to become too disparate and therefore lose impact.
The 6:4 ratio can, however, be suited to capturing scenes where there is little to no foreground interest, especially if you’re using midrange focal lengths (e.g., 35mm).
16:9 – Widescreen panoramic
The widescreen panoramic format was supported in film by the Advanced Photo System (APS) upon its introduction, and has recently become more popular due to the prevalence of 16:9 aspect ratio displays in the home on TVs, computer monitors, and mobile devices.
With this format, the width of the image is dominant, so 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 (e.g., zoom lenses) from a distance.
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.
First, 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 two or more images together; it’s quite challenging to capture a 3:1 aspect ratio image in one frame and still be able to print at any meaningful size.
Often, frames to be stitched will have been captured using a longer focal length in order to pick out distant details in the landscape. There is no real option to include foreground detail here.
I’m aware that I’ve discussed a number of different aspect ratios in “landscape” format, and not in “portrait” format.
But that is because I believe the options for the successful presentation of landscapes in “portrait” format are much fewer in number. For a landscape to work, you need to balance the composition throughout the 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. In fact, 5:4 is heavily used by professional landscape photographers with medium and large format cameras. This aspect ratio allows the eye to be taken through the image from left to right, without having an excess amount of sky knocking the frame off-balance.
While I have tried to describe specific uses of certain aspect ratios, I am aware that not all scenes will follow the suggestions I’ve made. Some images may work well with a certain ratio that’s 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 with the landscape in front of you.
And knowing that the aspect ratio you choose is not dictated by which camera you use means that you may be able to use aspect ratios effectively to boost the impact of your landscape photographs.