Working your aspect ratio muscle

I’ve been saying for many years now, that certain aspect ratios are easier to work in than others. Choosing the right aspect ratio for your own aesthetic temperament will aid you in finding compositions, whereas working with a difficult aspect ratio will hamper you. The thing is, you need to find out which aspect ratios work for you.

I’m still surprised that so many buy a digital camera and don’t consider the aspect ratio it shoots in. I have always thought that 3:2 is a particularly difficult aspect ratio to work in and choosing a less panoramic format such as 4:3, 4:5 or 6:7 would be easier to help you compose in.

Anyway, the reason why I am writing this post today is to say that by choosing different aspect ratios to work in, you force your eye to move into regions of the frame that you don’t normally visit with your eye.

If we consider the 3:2 format below, I’ve marked the region where most of us tend to spend time with our eye in black. The white areas of the frame are where we spend less or no time looking in.


I like to think of the black areas of the frame as ‘concentrated areas of experience’ with the white areas being ‘areas of little or no experience’.

If you choose to shoot in another format for a while, the different shape of the chosen aspect ratio will force your eye into areas of the frame that you wouldn’t ordinarily visit.

I found with square, my eye was visiting more of the frame, as is illustrated below


Interestingly, I found my eye had less to travel to reach the far corners of the frame than in a 3:2 format. My ‘area of experience’ isn’t too far away from the corners of the frame.

As a result, I started to put objects at the far corners of the frame.

This isn’t something I was ever comfortable doing with 3:2 or 4:5.

After shooting square for a few years, I found that when I did return to 4:5 or 4:3, I found that all those exercises of putting things in the far corners of my square aspect ratio helped me use those corner and edge areas of the rectangle aspect ratio. As in this picture below:


Working with different aspect ratios is a good exercise to do. Move around between them too much and perhaps you won’t learn anything as I do believe you need to settled into one or two ratios for a few months if not years. But certainly it is true for me, that by moving to a different aspect ratio for a while, has changed my photography and how I compose when I have returned to an aspect ratio I used many years ago.

Your visualisation skill is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If you never force your eye into the corners of your frame then I think you lose the skill to visualise compositions that can produce very dynamic work.

Square Variations

Today I feel like posting an old post. The post below was written in 2012. I feel it’s just as valid now as it was back then. Today I’ve been talking to a few people about aspect ratios. Since I wrote this piece, I’ve seen a few camera manufacturers offer more aspect ratios in their cameras, but it’s still not enough. Aspect ratios should be programmable on all contemporary cameras. It should also be implemented in a way that works without it being a bit of an afterthought (Canon, Nikon). Through the more recent introduction of mirrorless cameras, some have embraced aspect ratios (my favourite is the Fuji GFX50s which has just about every conceivable aspect ratio available, and it can be programmed as a dedicated button on the body).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this article about me shooting images in Scotland.

Enjoy, Bruce.

April 2012

This past weekend, I was in Torridon conducting a weekend workshop. We had some very rainy weather, and one of the group - Steve - mentioned to me that he was glad the weather had been bad, as it gave him a chance to see he could actually make some good images despite the weather.

Top right

Top right

I often feel, that the reason why Scotland is so photogenic, is because of the changes in the weather. One minute it's misty, the next it's clear. And fog or low cloud levels can be a great way of making simpler images. Take the shot above for instance. This is Loch Maree. Normally, this group of trees have the massive Slioch mountain dominating the background. But with a bit of rain and poor visibility, Slioch was invisible. We were left with no horizon - nothing to give the shot context.

I loved the group of three or four trees clumped together. They were actually a subset of a larger group of trees, but I felt that we could easily 'remove' the rest and keep the entire shot very simple if we just had this small gathering of trees.



I made this shot on my little Lumix GF1. It's a great camera because it has interchangeable aspect ratios. I felt that square worked really well for this shot, as I could easily place the trees in three quadrants of the frame - top right, bottom right and middle right, as you can see in the above triptych. Question is, is one better than the other? And I like to consider that there is always more options than just one. So I guess the answer is 'it depends'. My personal favourite composition out of the three images is the first one. I feel the picture has a more 'uplifting' feeling than the rest, and it has more presence, because I'm really exaggerating the empty space in the frame more than the others. I also love the reflection of the trees.... I feel they have space below them to 'breathe'.

The middle composition, where the trees are placed in the bottom right, is perhaps less engaging for me, because the trees aren't so tight against the bottom of the frame. The picture feels less focussed for me, in terms of composition. I'd liked to have moved the trees even further down the frame, but I felt the reflections would not have enough space. I felt I had to keep moving the trees further up the frame. But it's a more relaxed composition than the first one - which I feel is more 'graphic' than being a photograph.

The far right composition is perhaps my less favourite. It is more of a 'standard' composition. I feel the horizon has been carelessly composed - for my taste. It's just a little below centre, and I think it might have benefited from being slightly above centre - giving that 'uplifting' feeling I was talking about in the first image, while at the same time, being more in-line with a 'standard' landscape image.

As much as I love square, maybe it might have suited more a 4x5 aspect ration as seen above?

4x5 crop

4x5 crop

Ultimately, when you have a simple subject such as this - trees and reflection, and nothing else, it's much easier to get down to the basic tasks of composition and placement in a frame. The less objects you have in the frame - the better, I feel.

I was immediately attracted to this scene when we were driving past, because there's little in there to distract. When was the last time you went out with your camera to shoot when the atmospheric pressure is so low, that almost nothing is visible?

Aspect Ratio Solutions

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while, or have attended one of my Scottish workshops, will know that I have a few theories about aspect ratios. Specifically, that I believe that some aspect ratios are easier to compose in than others, and that for most beginners or amateurs, the aspect ratio of 3:2 is not an easy aspect ratio to master the art of composition with. For beginners, 3:2 is like giving yourself a handicap before you’ve even started.

I wrote an e-book about my theories as to how certain aspect ratios can aid or hinder your development. I finish my e-Book with an open letter to camera manufacturers to provide selectable aspect ratios in all of their cameras, not just the pro-level models.

If you've never thought about aspect ratios before, and don't know if your camera offers different ones, then it's something worth investigating. Many models do offer such options, but they are often hidden, or at best, poorly described. For instance, Nikon calls it 'picture style' I think. Canon hides their aspect ratio options under their custom function menu. And some models offer more than others. The Canon 7D for instance, has a collection of aspect ratios available, whereas the 5DMk 1, Mk2 have none, while the Mk3 I believe, only has 4:5 and 2:3.

My e-book has not been able to offer a solution for those of you who own cameras where the aspect ratio cannot be modified in some way. The good news is that I have seen a (slow) change in camera production over the past 4 years and note that more and more models are offering different aspect ratios for the live-view preview screen (which as you will know if you have attended one of my workshops - is a tremendous aid to composition). But the truth is that still many cameras do not offer a choice of aspect ratios.

Choice of aspect ratio may seem gimmicky to some, and pointless to others. I’d go the other way and say that by using a camera with an ill-fitting aspect ratio (i.e, one that does not suit your eye), is a seriously debilitating place to be with your photography.

I’m always amazed that most do not even consider the aspect ratio of a camera upon purchase. It doesn’t even come into the equation, and yet for me, it can be a deal breaker. I’ve found that ever since I moved from 35mm film up to medium format, my compositions seemed to be much easier to arrive at.

3:2 is difficult to compose with because it is heading towards panoramic - it is a letterbox format. Too wide, and not too tall when used in landscape mode, too tall and too narrow when used in portrait mode. Going 4:5 or 6:7 yields a much easier aspect to work in, because all the objects within the frame are never too far away from each other (and therefore their relationships to one another are easier to see and associate). If you don’t know my thoughts on this already, then I would recommend getting my aspect ratios e-Book.

So, I’ve been meaning to write for a while about two solutions I’ve been informed about regarding altering your camera to a different aspect ratio. One of them is a software solution while the other is a hardware solution. I have tried neither and offer them to you for your own investigation. Please do let me know how you get on if you try some of these:

Software Option (Canon users only)

Magic Lantern provide a software upgrade to your camera to offer additional features. One of these is to offer crop marks on the live view of the camera. It requires that you upgrade the firmware of your camera. It sounds risky, but there is plenty of information as to how to recover in their FAQ. The instructions on the website are pretty simple for setting up. First you have to make sure you have the most up to date Canon firmware installed, then you simply update the firmware again using the magic lantern files on the root of a CF card.

You can find more about the crop mark functionality from Magic Lantern here:

Hardware Option

Probably the best way to go, is to have the ground glass of your camera laser etched, or buy a replacement that has been pre-etched for you:


Again, I have not tried any of these, and merely offer them to you for further investigation :-) Good luck, and let me know how you get on :-)