WE HAVE just finished rewatching the original Brideshead Revisited on TV, being reminded just how ugly the 4:3 television aspect ration was.

Widescreen digital television transformed the medium, releasing it from the confines of the nearly square picture.

The change started some thinking about photography aspect ratios. Many cameras, like the Panasonic FZ60, have selectable aspect ratios not just for video capture (for which widescreen is the camera default) but also for stills. The FZ60 is typical in having 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1 picture formats.

Some cameras set 3:2 as the default, perhaps because that is the aspect ratio of a standard 10 centimetre x 15 centimetre commercial print or because it is close to a 35-millimetre film frame. Others set the default at 4:3, which is good for a 10 inch x 8 inch print, but in this country the standard A4 paper is close to 3:2. The only paper size we regularly use approximating 4:3 is A3, usually measured as 13 inches x 19 inches.

Obviously, the 1:1 option is included to satisfy converts from 120 format cameras, which typically capture a 6cm x 6cm image, which is aesthetically pleasing in its own right. From long experience shooting six-by-six film, we would be more likely to get the composition perfect in the camera when shooting square, and this means less (or no) cropping in the printmaking. Square was also the format of most Polaroid media and it is still loved enough to be the shape of pictures pushed through tablet filter apps and uploaded to Instagram.

The 16:9 ratio is ideal for images to be viewed on a widescreen TV or Android tablet that has a 16:10 aspect. For the iPad, 4:3 nearly fills the screen.

Landscape looks good in 16:9 ”landscape” mode but a portrait, with the camera held in ”portrait” orientation, will look better in 3:2, 4:3 or 1:1.

We asked a fastidious photographer friend who worries over ISO, picture sharpness, exposure, noise and so on what aspect ratio he preferred and he said: ”Whatever the camera default is. Anyway, I almost always crop the images in one way or another, so what does it matter?”

Obviously it matters to the fastidious snapper who cares about getting the framing and composition right in the camera. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson never cropped his images; to do so would be an admission of sloppy camera work.

Aspect ratio matters, and his preference was for 35:24 – which is about the format of 35-millimetre film.

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