Aspect Ratio and Printing Problems

There's a Reason for Tradition... nah!

by Mickey Maguire

My wife went online and ordered prints via a local photo lab's website. When she received her prints, people's faces were literally chopped in half by the lab technician. Her shots should have been printed "no crop" and there was no opportunity on the website to request that. She figured that the lab techs were highly trained professionals and would know that the images should be printed with white borders. She cropped the shots to use in her digital scrap-book layouts and needed them just the way she uploaded her pictures. This is a common problem in the photo print business.

After all the years that some labs have been in business, why do we still have problems with "Aspect Ratio" and what, if anything, can be done about it?

Photographic print sizes are a long-established tradition. It all started with those "antiques" known today as "view" or "large format" cameras. We've all seen images of a photographer with a gigantic box-shaped camera with a dark cloth draped over his or her head taking a picture of a big group of people or a famous landscape. Those old-time cameras used sheet film in sizes 4x5, 5x7, 8x10, and 11x14 that slid into the rear of the box and were exposed when the photographer clicked the shutter.

Sheet film was hard to handle, easy to damage, and expensive, but, at one time, it was the only game in town. When a picture was taken, the film was developed by hand and the resulting negative was often used to make a "contact print" (the negative was laid right on the photo print paper and light was shot through it. A 4x5 negative could make a very clear 8x10 enlargement. It was the same "aspect ratio" (the same ratio of length to width) and what you saw on the negative was what you got when you enlarged it. It was easy.

When 35mm film came along, a new ratio was born. This new format had a 24mm by 36mm negative. It was given the name 35mm (possibly to compensate for a little standard deviation and cropping around the edges of the negative, who knows). The ratio of length to width, though, was 1:1½ or 3:2, depending on who the author was writing about it. I like to call it 1:1½ since most people find it easier to understand when I describe it.

A standard 35mm print is 4x6, or a width of four inches and a length of one and one half times the width (six inches). Mathematically, it makes sense to print 4x6 from the 24x36mm negative. There is virtually no image loss. What you see is what you get.

With the onset of digital cameras came 4:3 ratio. WHAT?! WHY?! Because 4:3 is the aspect ratio of a computer monitor and the first digital cameras were invented by computer weenies. Their grand vision was taking pictures and dumping them on their hard drives, uploading to the internet and sharing them via their new inter-connected world. At first, these cameras did not have the resolution to make real photographic quality prints and filling your computer screen didn't require a lot of pixels. A 4:3 ratio made sense from that perspective.

Now add higher pixel counts to the mix, improving image quality with fine glass lenses and bring in the real camera makers. Suddenly image quality was high enough to print in real photo labs, but, with a 4:3 ratio, your digital pictures lose a lot of the frame on top and bottom when you print in 4x6 "standard size" prints.

Since 4x6 images are printed in every one-hour photo lab in the world, all digital point and shoot camera users face this same aspect ratio problem. Shooters need to be aware of the problem when they take pictures and plan for print formats used in one-hour labs. Not a big deal, just frame your shot with a little more space at the top and bottom. So, what happens when you order enlargements? Well, throw all the rules out the window. A 5x7 image is not the same ratio as 4x6 and an 8x10 image will be two inches shorter than a 4x6, so, any way you slice it, your picture is going to be cropped.

Are you confused yet? You should be.

I shoot digital SLR cameras with 1:1½ ratio. That is very common on digital SLRs. So, the problems I have are all related to printing full-frame in that same 1:1½ format, just like when I shoot 35mm film bodies. For me, I've had to deal with this for years, so, I know the drill.

Olympus came up with what they call the "four-thirds system" using a 4:3 ratio, just like your computer monitor. Panasonic is using it, too. Like point and shoot digital cameras, you lose a little of your image top and bottom with a "standard print". An enlargement size of 6x8 is the same aspect ratio as the 4:3 or four-thirds system, but, frames are hard to find and I have not seen a single pre-cut mat in that size, to date.

When you want 4x6 prints, you need to know that your prints will be a 1:1½ ratio and if you do the math, you can plan your prints and get exactly what you expect if you are careful. A good example is a two mega-pixel image 1200x1600 pixels. 1200x1800 would be an actual 1:1½ ratio. Your image will be printed 1600 pixels long and 1066 pixels wide. You are going to lose 134 pixels of your image width at the top and bottom of the prints. A good lab can shift that space and possibly keep from chopping off people's heads in the print, but, they can only do so much. This example is from a two mega-pixel camera, but, the same applies to any camera with a 4:3 ratio.

I hope this clarifies things for you.

Since 4x6 prints are the defacto standard today, it would have been nice if Olympus planned to follow that guideline, but, they were banking on the idea that 4:3 ratios will become the normal print size and the whole industry would embrace it. Since people still use film (mostly in disposable cameras loaded with 35mm) and one-hour labs have huge investments in their state-of-the-art equipment made to print those 4x6 "standard" prints, it is unlikely that anyone will start making printers that use a 4:3 ratio.

If I were Olympus, I'd already be tired of banging my head against a brick wall. I'd seriously start looking at what everyone else is doing and make things easier on photographers. I'd move to 1:1½ ratio like Nikon, Pentax, Canon and Sony digital SLRs, and I'd stop fiddling around with 4:3 ratios. The one caveat with that advice is that Sigma has already started producing lenses for that 4:3 system and their investment is probably appreciable. I'd hate to see them lose on the deal, but, picture poppers would have an easier time trying to figure out print sizes, enlargements, frames and mats.

Now that you are totally confused, just say the heck with it and go take some pictures. Worry about your prints later.

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