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Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

Updated: Mar 24

The history of image ratios in photography is rich and diverse, reflecting the evolution of technologies and aesthetics over time. Each ratio carries a cultural dimension that influences how photographers approach the composition of their works while enhancing a scene in harmony with their creative intention.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

© O. Robert


Image ratios such as the classic 3:2, the traditional 4:3, the balanced 1:1, and the expansive panoramic offer unique ways to observe and represent the world. They directly influence the composition, the interpretation of the captured landscapes, and the emotional impact on the viewer.


Introduction

The art of landscape photography lies in its ability to capture and communicate the essence of an environment, transforming ordinary views into extraordinary scenes. At the heart of this transformation is a fundamental choice, often underestimated: the ratio. And this choice is not merely technical. It is intrinsically linked to the photographer's artistic vision and how they wish the viewer to experience the final result.


In this article, I explore the evolution of various ratios throughout their history, their advantages, and their disadvantages in landscape photography. By wisely choosing their image ratios, photographers can maximize the valorization of their scenes. Also, they can stand out in a world saturated with images of conventional formats, guided by aesthetic rules that seem difficult to deviate from. And yet...


Here are my observations on the 4 ratios that I have used or still use today in landscape photography.

 

Contents of the Article:


 
Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

The 3:2 Image Ratio

The history of the 3:2 ratio in photography is closely linked to the evolution of 35mm film, used for cinema and later becoming a standard in the photographic industry. The 3:2 is a very common image ratio in photography, especially for those using analog SLR cameras (24x36mm) and digital cameras (with or without a mirror) with full-frame sensors.


Here are the main milestones in its evolution:


1. Origins of 35mm (late 1800s): The origins of 35mm film date back to the early 20th century. It was closely linked to the development of cinema before becoming a standard in photography. The invention of 35mm film is often attributed to George Eastman, founder of Kodak, who played a key role in the democratization of photography.


35mm film was initially invented for cinematic use. In 1892, Thomas Edison and his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, chose the 35mm format for their kinetograph, one of the first movie cameras, and the kinetoscope, a viewing device. This format was chosen for its balance between size and image quality, allowing for easy handling while providing sufficient resolution for the time. The film was perforated along the edges to allow precise advancement in the camera and projector.


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2. Adoption in Photography (1925): The transition of 35mm film from cinema to photography was significant. In 1913, Oskar Barnack, an engineer at Leica in Germany, developed the first prototype device using 35mm cinematic film. His goal was to create a compact and easy-to-use camera for field photography, as opposed to the large cameras that were dominant at the time.


The 3:2 ratio was definitively popularized in photography with the introduction of the Leica I in 1925. Barnack designed a camera that used 35mm film by scrolling it horizontally, producing a 24x36mm image, which corresponds to the 3:2 ratio.


Nikon, Canon, and other manufacturers later produced their own 35mm cameras, contributing to the rise and popularization of this ratio.


3. Reasons for Popularity: The 3:2 ratio offered a good balance between image size and film economy. The 24x36mm size allowed for 36 exposures on a standard roll of 35mm film, which was considered very efficient.


4. Standardization: The success of Leica cameras led to the standardization of the 35mm format and its 3:2 ratio in photography. Other manufacturers began producing cameras using this format, and it became the norm for amateur and professional photography.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

5. Usage: The 3:2 ratio is appreciated for its versatility. It is suitable for a wide variety of photographic styles, from portraits to landscapes, and is easy to print and frame as it has become an international standard (labs, galleries, museums,...).


6. Legacy: The 3:2 has influenced the design of digital devices. Many devices, from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras, use sensors with a 3:2 ratio. Thus, they continue the legacy of this historical format, embedded in the public consciousness for decades and easily recognizable in exhibitions or the press.


7. Continued Presence: Today, the 3:2 remains one of the most commonly used aspect ratios in photography, both in analog and digital, testifying to its enduring impact on the world of photography. It has become the international standard with what is now called "full-frame." It is common to refer to 24x36mm to compare the multiplication factor of APS-C or medium format lenses to a full-frame equivalent.


However, like all ratios, the 3:2 has advantages and disadvantages, which I believe are the main ones:


Advantages:

1. Sensor Size: Since the majority of DSLR and mirrorless cameras use this ratio under the "full-frame" denomination, the captured images reflect exactly what the photographer sees through the viewfinder, without the need for cropping, thus preserving the original composition.


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2. Visual Balance: The 3:2 ratio maintains a pleasant balance between width and height, which is often ideal for landscape photography. It allows including enough presence of the sky and foreground elements without one dominantly overshadowing the other, thus favoring a so-called balanced composition.


3. Versatility: This ratio is versatile and well-suited to a variety of photographic genres such as landscapes, portraits, street photography, and sports. It makes 3:2 cameras practical for versatile photographers. Moreover, it represents the ratio closest to a panoramic format. Thus, the necessary cropping to reach a 2:1 ratio, for example, allows limiting pixel loss and therefore maintaining better resolution.


4. Ease of Sharing and Printing: The 3:2 format adapts well to standard printing formats and commercially available photo frames, thus facilitating the sharing and display of images.


Disadvantages:

1. Limitation in Creative Compositions: For scenes that would benefit from a wider or narrower frame, such as panoramic views or accentuated vertical compositions, the 3:2 ratio can become limiting. It necessitates, in fact, cropping in post-production.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

2. Less Suitable for Digital Publications: Some social media platforms and computer or mobile screen formats favor different ratios, such as 1:1, 4:5, or 16:9. The 3:2 then requires adjustments or cropping that can alter the original composition.


3. Conventional: The 3:2 ratio is so widespread that it can sometimes seem conventional or less innovative for creative projects seeking a unique visual presentation. Due to its versatility, it has become the preferred ratio for generations of photojournalists and documentary photography specialists. As such, it is less commonly used in artistic photography when the artist wishes to give a distinctive identity to their work.


Therefore, the 3:2 ratio is appreciated for its balance and versatility, providing a solid expression ground for natural and harmonious compositions. However, its conventional nature and limitations for certain compositions or specific publication formats may encourage photographers to explore other ratios to find the best frame for their creative visions. Here are some alternatives.

 
Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

The 4:3 Image Ratio

The history of the 4:3 ratio in photography is closely linked to the evolution of digital photography and video cameras. This ratio has origins and uses that differ from those of traditional film ratios.


The 4:3 in photography is the result of adapting video and television technologies to digital photography, focusing on compactness and portability. Although it has its specificities compared to traditional film formats, it continues to play an important role in the world of digital photography.


Here are some important aspects of this ratio:


1. Origins: The 4:3 ratio was adopted in television and video in the early years of television development, becoming the industry standard for the majority of the 20th century. This choice dates back to the 1930s when the National Television System Committee (NTSC) in the United States began to standardize television broadcast formats. The 4:3 ratio was chosen as the standard format for black-and-white television, a decision that was widely adopted worldwide.


This adoption was partly because the 4:3 ratio roughly matched the format of films at the time, thereby facilitating content sharing between cinema and television. This format remained the dominant standard until the introduction and gradual adoption of the 16:9 format in the 1990s or early 2000s, which is better suited for widescreen displays and home cinema experiences, reflecting the evolution of public preferences and display technologies.


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2. Adoption in Digital Photography: With the development of digital photography in the 2000s, some camera manufacturers adopted the 4:3 format for digital image sensors. This choice was partly due to technical and economic considerations, as it was easier and less expensive to manufacture sensors of this size and ratio at the time.


Later, this ratio was also adopted by major medium format sensor manufacturers such as Sony, for example. The sensors produced are then in a 4:3 ratio (44x33mm). This ratio corresponds to twice the 3:2 ratio (arranged vertically).


Hasselblad and Phase One are among the first and most notable manufacturers to have adopted and popularized the 44x33mm format in their product lines. Hasselblad, with its H System, was one of the pioneers in integrating these medium format sensors into digital cameras, offering exceptional image quality for professionals.


3. The Four Thirds Standard (2002): Olympus and Kodak introduced the Four Thirds system in 2002. This was a standard specifically designed for digital cameras, with a sensor smaller than traditional 35mm devices. This standard aimed to optimize digital camera performance by reducing the overall size of the camera while maintaining high image quality.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

4. Advantages and Technical Limitations: The 4:3 ratio offered several advantages, including a reduction in the size and weight of the camera, which was ideal for travel and everyday photography. However, it also had limitations, especially in terms of low-light performance and depth of field, compared to later medium format sensors.


5. Micro Four Thirds (2008): Olympus and Panasonic later developed the Micro Four Thirds system, an evolution of the Four Thirds standard. This new system removed the mirror and optical prism from DSLR cameras for a mirrorless design, allowing for even more compact devices.


6. Current Situation: Today, although larger sensor formats such as full-frame are more widely adopted among professionals and enthusiasts, the 4:3 ratio remains a popular option, especially in the segment of cameras integrated into mobile phones. It is appreciated for its balance between size, weight, and image quality.


Advantages and disadvantages of this ratio in landscape photography:


Advantages:

1. Balance Between Width and Height: The 4:3 ratio offers a pleasant balance between width and height, which can be ideal for capturing landscapes with an impressive sky or interesting foreground without sacrificing too much horizontal detail.


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2. Versatility: This format is versatile for various types of photography, including landscapes, as it allows capturing both details and a reasonable extent in a single image. It is also well-suited for portraits and street scenes, making it a good choice for photographers looking for an all-in-one format.


3. Intuitive Composition: For some photographers, according to studies, composing an image in a 4:3 frame seems more intuitive. It offers enough space to play with composition without feeling restricted by too wide or narrow a frame.


4. Less Distortion: Images in the 4:3 ratio show less distortion than those taken in wider formats, especially when photographing straight lines or architecture, which can also benefit urban landscape photography.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

Disadvantages:

1. Less Expressive for Panoramas: For vast landscapes, the 4:3 ratio can seem somewhat restrictive. It does not capture as much of the horizontal or vertical expanse as a panoramic or even a standard 3:2 ratio, which can lead to less expressive images.


2. Limited Framing Choices: In some cases, the 4:3 ratio can limit framing choices for photographers wishing to capture large-scale scenes or preferring a more dynamic and varied approach to composition.


3. Adaptation to Publications and Printing: Although common, the 4:3 ratio may not perfectly adapt to all types of publications or printing formats, where more standard ratios like 3:2 or panoramic are often preferred.


The 4:3 ratio can therefore be very effective for landscape photography as it offers a good balance and versatility that can suit many styles and approaches. As mentioned in a previous article on the evolution of image formats, 4:3 remains my favorite ratio after 6:6 and 6:7. However, its use will largely depend on the personal preferences of the photographer and the type of landscapes they seek to capture.

 
Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

The 1:1 Image Ratio

The square format holds a special and distinct place in black and white photography. Its unique characteristics have influenced both the aesthetic of photography and the way photographers approach composition.


Designed to simplify composition by eliminating the need to choose between portrait and landscape, the square format encourages a different approach to composition, focusing on symmetry, balance, and a strong focal point.


Here are some key aspects of the square format's role in black and white photography:


1. History and Popularization: The square format finds its origins in the early 20th century with the invention of medium format single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Notably, the Rolleiflex, introduced in 1929, popularized this format. These cameras primarily used 120/220 film (invented by Kodak in 1901), producing 6x6, 6x7, or 6x4.5 cm images.


2. Composition and Aesthetics: The square format offers a unique approach to composition. Without the conventions of portrait or landscape imposed by rectangular formats, photographers are often led to think differently about the composition of their images. This leads to more dynamic compositions and a reinterpretation of classic composition rules, such as the rule of thirds.


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3. Impact in Black and White: In black and white, the square format accentuates the play of contrasts, shapes, and textures. The absence of color focuses attention on these elements, and the square format enhances their impact by concentrating attention on the central subject, without the distractions of additional horizontal or vertical spaces.


4. Use in Portrait and Art: The square format is particularly valued in portrait and artistic photography. It is often used to create intimate portraits and capture subtle details. In the realm of art, it allows for a more abstract exploration of form and composition.


5. Influence on Modern Photography: With the advent of digital cameras and smartphones, the square format has experienced a resurgence in popularity. Platforms like Instagram initially used the square format exclusively, leading to a new popularization and appreciation of this image ratio.


6. Landscapes in Black and White: For landscape photographers, the square format can also be beneficial in black and white. It allows for capturing scenes in a more balanced and often more abstract manner, emphasizing lines, shapes, and textures. However, it is more suited to highlighting simple elements than complex scenes.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

Although this ratio is my far preferred one over the others, I must remain impartial. So, as with the previous ratios, here are the advantages and disadvantages I identify:


Advantages:

1. Focus on the Subject: The 1:1 ratio forces the photographer to concentrate on the essence of the subject or scene, eliminating peripheral distractions and highlighting the core of the image. From this perspective, it is perfectly suited for minimalist photography.


2. Balance and Symmetry: This ratio encourages balance and symmetry in composition, offering a pleasing and sometimes meditative aesthetic. It is particularly effective for centered subjects or for creating harmonious compositions. From this standpoint, it allows for a departure from commonly established rules of framing.


3. Flexibility in Composition: The square ratio can be less restrictive in terms of composition, allowing the photographer to explore arrangements that wouldn't work as well in rectangular formats. Particularly enjoyable to use in photography, this ratio quickly becomes a new creative expression field for photographers who discover it.


4. Adaptability to Social Media: With the rise of platforms like Instagram, the 1:1 ratio perfectly adapts to social media feeds, allowing for optimal visualization without the need for cropping.


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Disadvantages:

1. Restriction of Space: For vast landscapes, the square format can be restrictive, limiting the ability to capture and convey the horizontal or vertical expanse of a scene.


2. Composition Challenge: Although flexible, composing in a square ratio can be disconcerting at first, especially for photographers accustomed to traditional formats. Finding balance without the natural guidelines of a rectangular format requires increased reflection and creativity.


3. Public Perception: Some viewers may find the square less conventional for landscape photography, preferring more traditional formats that more closely match the human field of vision.


4. Limitations for Printing and Display: Although increasingly accepted, the square format can present challenges for printing and display, often requiring special frames or dedicated spaces for proper presentation.


The square format in landscape photography offers a unique perspective, another way to valorize subjects, and a series of creative challenges. It compels the photographer to rethink composition and narrative approach, providing the opportunity to render complex landscapes into captivating and memorable images.


The continued use of the 1:1 ratio in both film and digital photography attests to its timeless appeal and its ability to capture the world in a unique and captivating way.

 
Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

Panoramic Image Ratios

The panoramic format in photography refers to an extended shot that offers a wide view of a landscape or subject. This format is characterized by its width-to-height ratio, which is larger than those of traditional formats. The most common ratio for panoramic is 2:1 or more, with popular ratios including 3:1, 4:1, or even more, allowing for the capture of even broader expanses.


There are various ways to achieve panoramic photographs. They include the use of cameras specifically designed for this format, as well as post-production techniques that stitch together multiple standard ratio images to create a longer panoramic view.


Several types of cameras can be used for panoramic photography, such as:


1. Panoramic Cameras: Some cameras are designed exclusively for taking panoramic photos, such as the Hasselblad Xpan and the Fujifilm TX-1. These cameras use traditional films (like 35mm for the Xpan) and expose a wider area of the film to create the panoramic effect.


2. Cameras with Panoramic Function: Many modern digital cameras and smartphones include a panoramic function that allows the user to take a series of photos by moving the camera from one side to the other. The camera's software then stitches the images together to create a continuous panoramic view.


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3. Digital SLR (DSLR) and Mirrorless Cameras: Although not specifically designed for the panoramic format, these cameras can be used to take a series of images that are assembled in post-production to create a panoramic photo. This method offers great flexibility in terms of resolution and ratio.


The panoramic ratio in landscape photography offers a series of advantages and challenges that can influence a photographer's choice depending on the context and the objective of the shot.


Advantages:

1. Extended View: The panoramic ratio captures a wide portion of the landscape, offering an immersive view that can better reflect the real-life experience of being in a place.


2. Enhanced Details and Composition: This ratio allows for including more details in a single image, facilitating a rich and diverse composition. This can be particularly useful for capturing various elements of a landscape, such as mountains, lakes, and the sky, in one harmonious composition.


3. Visual Impact: Panoramic photos often have a strong visual impact, thanks to their unique format and their ability to encompass spectacular views. They attract attention and can convey a sense of space and grandeur.


4. Creative Flexibility: By offering the possibility to explore different compositions and perspectives, the panoramic ratio opens creative avenues for the photographer, who can play with the horizon, leading lines, and the distribution of elements within the space.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography


Disadvantages:

1. Technical Requirements: Creating a quality panoramic photo may require specific equipment, such as a tripod with a panoramic head, and a good understanding of image stitching techniques, which can be a technical challenge for some photographers.


2. Composition Difficulties: Composing a panoramic image requires particular attention to balance and the distribution of elements within an elongated frame, which can be challenging. It is essential to maintain visual interest throughout the length of the image to avoid empty or monotonous areas.


3. Display and Printing: Panoramic photos can also pose challenges in terms of display and printing, due to their unusual format. Finding suitable frames or exhibition spaces that can accommodate large panoramic prints can be complicated and more costly.


4. Viewing Limitations: On certain mediums, especially small screens or in some publications, panoramic images can lose their impact because they often need to be reduced or compressed, diminishing the ability to fully appreciate the details and scope of the photographed scene.


The panoramic ratio offers a captivating and expansive perspective on landscapes. However, it requires careful consideration of technical and compositional aspects, as well as anticipation of the desired effects to not disadvantage the display and final presentation of the works.


Optimizing Image Ratios for Creative Landscape Photography

The Final Word

In our quest to capture the essence of nature through landscape photography, the choice of the image ratio transcends a mere technical decision. It becomes a philosophical reflection on our way of perceiving and representing the world around us.


Each ratio, whether it be the traditional 3:2, the classic 4:3, the balanced 1:1, or the expansive panoramic, provides a distinct window onto reality, defining not only what we see but how we see and represent it. This diversity of frames reminds us that photography, far from being a mere reproduction of reality, is a subjective interpretation, an artistic choice that reflects our worldview.


The advantages and disadvantages of each image ratio primarily underscore the importance of the intention behind each shot, prompting us to think about what we wish to communicate through our images.

 

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