When you say the word “photograph” to people, with the exception of square-cropping Instagrammers, most of us think of rectangles. This is because most consumer cameras produce photographs in the form of rectangles with aspect ratios of 2:3 or 4:3. The problem is that while most photographs fit well into these camera-defined format restraints, some images work better as squares—or elongated rectangles—depending on the subject or the layout of the photograph’s intended purpose.
To see how the shape of our camera’s frame lines affect the way we see photographically, we compared photographs taken with a full-frame 35mm camera (2:3 aspect ratio) with a pair of vintage film cameras that have aspect ratios other than the 2:3 and 4:3 configurations typically found on modern consumer cameras, or smartphones, for that matter. Photographs that were taken with the Hasselblad SWC Superwide and XPan II were captured on Fujifilm Provia F and scanned using an Epson Perfection V800 Photo Scanner.
For our first comparison, we paired a Sony a7R II with a 21mm f/4.5 T* ZM lens with a Hasselblad Superwide SWC, a square format (60 x 60mm), medium-format film camera with a fixed 38mm f/4.5 Biogon T*.
What the abovementioned camera/lens combinations have in common is that they each capture pictures with 90-degree diagonal angles of view, albeit in the form of rectangles and squares. The pictures are similar, yet simultaneously quite different from one another.
For our second comparison we paired the Sony a7R II, this time with a 25mm Voigtlander Color-Skopar 25mm f/4 lens, and a Hasselblad XPan II Panorama Rangefinder—a dual-format 35mm film camera that, in addition to traditional 24 x 36mm slides and negatives, allows you to also capture 24 x 65mm wide-field (1:2.78) photographs.
In panorama mode, the XPan II with a 45mm Hasselblad XPan-series lens has the same 84-degree diagonal angle of view as the Sony a7R II (2:3 aspect ratio) with a 21mm lens, although, in this case, stretched out over a wider field. Once again, the resulting pictures are similar, yet quite distinct from one another.
Although the XPan is a 35mm camera, the three XPan-series lenses (30mm, 45mm, and 90mm) have image circles with circumferences wide enough to cover a 6 x 7 medium format frame. You might say the XPan is a medium-format camera in 35mm clothing.
While we were at it, we also captured comparable photographs using the Hasselblad SWC Superwide (left side, below) and Hasselblad XPan II (right side, below), two cameras made by the same company that deliver images that couldn’t be more different from one another.
As for choosing which photograph from each of the above series as the so-called best of the bunch—that is a tough one to qualify. Some ratios clearly don’t work while others are a toss-up. When comparing the same subject framed to accommodate differing aspect ratios, you have to consider the end-use purpose of the pictures.
Aesthetics aside, what’s the purpose of the given photograph? Is it intended for use in an advertisement, a billboard, a web banner, or perhaps a magazine cover or spread? Do you need to leave room for headlines, pull-quotes, body text, or is the picture purely about filling a wide open wall in your living room? In the first instance, images with open space, such as skies, are ideal for headlines and body copy. The photograph might initially appear stark, but once the text is in place, it comes together graphically.
In a perfect world, rather than being constrained to the confines of a camera’s predetermined aspect ratios (2:3, 4:3, 1:1, 6:45, etc.), we would be able to dial-in the aspect ratio of every picture we take based on the height and width measurements that create the best image composition. Until that time, we’ll have to settle for cropping our 2:3 and 4:3 rectangles to aspect ratios that best fit the image.
Do you have a favorite camera format? Do you prefer rectangles or do square format images “talk” to you more? Please share your preference in the Comments section, below.
For further information, read the B&H Explora article, Tips for Composing with Different-Format Cameras.