On image aspect ratios

I realise that this article will be highly controversial, but I have been meaning to rant about one particular image aspect ratio for a long time. It has skilfully eluded the wrath of my keyboard to this day, but the time has finally come to let it off my chest. Like a splinter in my eye, it started nagging me when I shot with a Nikon SLR for the first time, and it still bothers me today as I use my Sony RX100. As you might have already guessed from the cameras I have just mentioned, that splinter is the 2X3 aspect ratio: I totally hate it. And I never use the word "hate" lightly.

There is something fundamentally wrong and unbalanced about the 2X3 aspect ratio. It is neither here nor there for portraits, it is neither here nor there for landscapes; indeed, I cannot think of any type of photography that would naturally call for this image aspect ratio. To me, it is akin to a shirt buttoned the wrong way. Or putting on a chequered shirt with a striped tie. Or wearing brown shoes and a black belt. It just does not work and makes me cringe.

While there are pictures that can comfortably live within the 2X3 aspect ratio, I find that it is too awkward to be imposed onto most photographs. Images with the 2X3 aspect ratio more often than not seem compositionally contrived, as if there is unnecessary space or not enough space to put all elements in the most balanced manner. Such images seem to scream, "Crop me!" Which is exactly what happens to most of my images taken with cameras that have sensors (digital or analog) with this aspect ratio.

I do not like using cameras that have sensors with the 2X3 aspect ratio. Although in theory one can crop images to any aspect ratio after the fact, the reality is that aspect ratio of the viewfinder or LCD screen greatly influences how we compose images in the field. If there are two identical cameras with the 2X3 and any other aspect ratio, even an unconventional one, I would pick the latter on any given day. Any camera is a compromise, though, and I bought the Sony RX100 (and other camera with the 2X3 aspect ratio in the past) only because the overall package was compelling enough.

If you think that I am biased against the 2X3 aspect ratio because I have been shooting square images for too long, that is not the case. In fact, I am perfectly fine with any other aspect ratio. On the long–ish side, 6X12 or 6X17? Love them. On the square–ish side, 6X7 or 4X5? Just brilliant. Somehow, it is only the 2X3 aspect ratio that inescapably irritates me. As if it was specifically designed to trigger this reaction in me.

Nanxun, Spring rain #1

Nanxun, Spring rain #1

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Speaking of square format, while perhaps it is as visually screaming as 2X3, it is nowhere nearly as offensive. You can easily imagine someone cropping any other aspect ratio to square, but have you ever heard of anyone specifically cropping any other aspect ratio, including square, to 2X3? I seriously doubt it. Using square is a conscious aesthetic choice; using 2X3 usually means blindly following what the camera maker has imposed onto you (or it means prioritising maximising image area over image aesthetics).

The 2X3 aspect ratio screams, "35mm (D)SLR!" (one can argue that it shouts "6X9 medium format", but the probability of it being the case is very, very low; historically, the 2X3 aspect ratio is firmly associated with the 35mm format). There is nothing wrong with 35mm cameras per se, but I find it intrusive when aspect ratio stands out and clearly reveals what kind of camera was used. Even square images do not give away what tools they were taken with, because, as mentioned above, they could have been cropped from any other aspect ratio (and again, no one ever specifically crops to 2X3).

Other visual art forms and paintings in particular support my resentment towards the 2X3 aspect ratio. Go to any art museum, look at the work of the masters of the past, and count how many paintings have the 2X3 aspect ratio. As regular readers may recall, last year I spent quite a bit of time in Madrid visiting Museo Nacional del Prado many times. I thought about this issue at the time, and I specifically looked for paintings with the 2X3 aspect ratio. I could not find any. Not a single one. Now, think about this: the painters were not restricted by image aspect ratios in any way whatsoever; how come, then, that none of them ever used this particular aspect ratio?

The answer might actually be quite simple: historically, the 2X3 aspect ratio is a purely technical convenience that came about without much consideration of aesthetics or any reference to the history of visual arts. I suppose I have to be thankful that triangles or ovals were not technically handier.

So what is the point of this essay? Do I realistically expect the 2X3 aspect ratio to become less prevalent? No, of course, not. It is just that a number of readers have mentioned this issue in the past, and I thought I would make everyone a bit more aware of the elephant in the room. At worst, this can confirm to the photographers who feel the same way about the 2X3 aspect ratio that they are far from alone. At best, I hope that this will make us all more conscious of what image aspect ratios we choose and why.