Aspect Ratios in Landscape & Nature 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

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