Jeff Smallwood Photography
No Photo For You! - A Soup Nazi Perspective on Photography and Aspect Ratios
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May 20, 2013

If you were upright and breathing during the mid 1990s, you probably remember the pop culture phenomenon and oft-quoted “Soup Nazi” from the show “Seinfeld”. For those few that aren’t aware of the character, he was an intensely passionate chef who had very strict rules in his restaurant when placing an order. And if you got the order procedure wrong, you’d find yourself refused service and chastised with his signature line “no soup for you!”. The episode certainly pushed the boundaries of the time-tested business adage “the customer is always right”.

But what does the Soup Nazi have to do with photography and aspect ratios? Well, the arts is one area where the “customer is always right” concept can be frequently tested. Whether it’s a painting, sculpture, photograph, or any other work of art, the creator is usually putting something personal into the end product. But photography is unique in one way: the end product can be acquired and displayed in not only different media (canvas, metal, photo print, etc), but also in different sizes. And not every photograph “works” in the size that someone wants.

Why Does Aspect Ratio Matter?

As a creator or consumer of photography, you need to be aware of aspect ratios. Not sure what an aspect ratio is? You’ve already taken notice of aspect ratios if you’ve ever watched a “standard” definition television show on a newer HDTV and seen the black bars on the right and left side of the screen. Standard definition has a 4:3 ratio while HDTV has a 16:9 ratio.

Just as in television, different print sizes have different aspect ratios. Take an 8x10 print for example. The aspect ratio is the relationship between the short edge (the 8” side) and the long edge (the 10” side). In an 8x10, the long edge is 25% longer than the short side. But in an 11x14, the long edge is 27% longer. And if you look at the native size of most camera images (which is 2x3 aspect ratio), you’ll notice the long edge is a full 50% larger than the short edge. Here’s an example to demonstrate the differences:

sample aspect ratios
Aspect ratios and their typical print sizes.
 

When it comes to photography (or any two dimensional art), the artist is striving for a pleasing composition. The arrangement of the elements and subjects in a scene is sometimes the critical distinguishing factor between a good photo and a great photo. The problem is that all the lines, layers, negative space, flow, and just about everything else that contributes to a photograph’s composition are impacted by viewing it in different aspect ratios. When the aspect ratio changes, parts of the image have to be cropped and sometimes what is cropped makes the end results unacceptable. Take a look at the following photo.

This image only works as a 1.5 (or 2:3) aspect ratio and I only offer it in prints that match (8x12, 12x18, 20x30, etc). I do not offer it as an 11x14 or 8x10 print, and even if a customer asked me for it, I'd have to turn them down. Why?  Well, let's see what happens if I try to crop this as an 8x10. Bringing up the crop dialog, here's what we see:

Cropping the original (1.5 aspect ratio) to an 8x10 (1.25 aspect ratio)

One way or another, some part of the image has to be cropped. Either the top, the bottom, or a little of both. But in this photo there are significant elements that push the edge of both sides. The tops of the masts and the bottom of the boat and reflections are both too close. Below are two examples of cropping the photo at 8x10. 

Top Crop

Bottom Crop

Cropped off the top, the sailboat mast is
lost and the photo feels cut off

When cropped on the bottom to preserve
the mast at the top, the boat is cut off and
the photo feels quite different.

As you can see, there's just no way to preserve the integrity of the subject if the image is cropped to a different aspect ratio.

It’s also important to be aware of this situation if you participate in photo contests. Some contests I’ve seen have rules that dictate a particular size or aspect ratio. I even heard of one contest that dictated all prints had to be 8x10. So if you’re thinking of submitting that awesome photo you captured for a contest, be aware that you might be forced to crop it, and suddenly your awesome photo might have an obvious flaw.

I try to ensure the artistic integrity of each photo I sell. This is not only done by the choosing high quality products and prints, but also by limiting the aspect ratios in which a photo can be ordered. Whenever someone wants to order a print from my website, the list of available sizes only includes those I’ve personally reviewed.


The order page for this photo only displays 1.5 (2:3) aspect ratio prints
so that people can't order sizes that don't work.


 

Doing this ensures the resulting crop won’t negatively impact the final result. You want that sailboat photo above in an 8x10? Sorry, I’m gonna have to pull a Soup Nazi on you and say no :)

Change What You Do In The Field

If you aren’t already paying attention to how each of your photos might look when cropped to standard sizes, I’d encourage you to be aware of it. Once you’re more aware of the crop and how it impacts the output, you’ll be more aware of it when you take photos in the field. Sometimes including a little more room around your subject when you take the shot can afford a lot more flexibility in the long run. There’s nothing wrong with planning to crop a shot even as you’re snapping the shutter. If you photograph the original scene too tight in the field, you might find you’re stuck with only being able to output a limited range of sizes. If I had time to take that sailboat image over again, you can be sure I would have zoomed out a little more, which would have given me the freedom to create an 8x10.

Like so many other things in photography, what you learn on the computer or when you generate a print can contribute to making you a better photographer in the field. And after all, getting it right in the field is what we’re all shooting for.

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