Aspect Ratios and Free-Cropping

Recently among the responses to my posted image, “The Daughters,” I’ve had some particularly interesting feedback from @Max_Waugh and @David_Haynes regarding cropping and aspect ratios. Both authors commented that they crop by eye, and don’t usually think about aspect ratios.

Max said that,

“I have to be honest, I never think about aspect ratios unless I need to crop in a specific instance to fit a requirement (e.g., a print requested at a standard size for a customer, or to fit a space determined by a client). Some of my peers only crop their images at standard print sizes, I suppose for ease of ordering for their potential customers, but in some instances this has come at the cost of lessening the visual appeal of the resulting image. I always go by feel, trying to determine the best way to guide a viewer’s eye through the frame… and if it results in a “non-standard” or abnormal aspect ratio, so be it.”

And David said,

“I never ever choose an aspect ratio when cropping. Instead, I allow my eye to tell me where to crop and it’s strictly by what I feel.”

Well, I think I’m missing something that Max and David (and undoubtedly many, many other accomplished photographers) get. I definitely understand letting the image and my eye tell me where to crop; I always do that when I’m in post-processing. Heck, it starts behind the lens during composition, eh?

But I’m also always thinking about matting and framing at the same time. And because I’m just an old retired coot, and my photography is purely a hobby that doesn’t support itself, I can’t afford the habit of custom framing. So I reserve it for a very few images that simply won’t be satisfied/satisfying under the constraints of common-aspect-ratio frames. I also like some uniformity of presentation on my walls at home (which is the only place my images are ever likely to be displayed).

In my workflow, I always try to crop to my image’s ‘voice’, and I also try to fit that cropped image into an aspect ratio that’s commonly available for frames and mats. I have a couple of preferred ARs, but the cropped image makes the decision for me.

I don’t doubt that I’m missing something, but to me, the AR seems to be a crucial part of how I’m going to present my print. Right or wrong, I haven’t ignored it ever since I discovered that I have alternatives to 3:2 bring their own benefits to both composition and presentation. But then, I’m largely self-taught – which means that I’m always still learning from my mistakes and shortcomings – or at least trying to.

So I wonder if my description of how I use cropping and aspect ratios makes enough sense for anyone to critique my approach and tell me how I can improve this part of my workflow? Or maybe just talk to me about all this. Or maybe just let me know that I’m making something out of nada, and I should go see my witch doctor… :upside_down_face:

I’d like to hear more about this from folks who print their images. Am I just out in left field? What am I missing here?


I agree with both Max and David’s viewpoint on aspect ratio. The composition is everything and the AR subordinates to it. You don’t have to be locked into certain ratios if you don’t do your own framing. will allow you to order online a custom sized frame with customized matting. So definitely show the respect the image deserves with the proper frame.

Having said that I want to make a couple of points.
(1) There is a reason why standard sizes are standard. The ratios of an image are important to the human eye I believe. They somehow feel right. For example an image that is almost a square but not quite feels a bit awkward to me sometimes. There is a reason why a portrait is almost always a 4x5.
(2) displaying images on a wall close to one another looks wrong if they are of different sizes or aspect ratios. This is less of a problem if you have many because you can group them in creative ways and end up with interesting displays. But it can be a problem. You have to figure out the group relationship in advance and size the images accordingly. You can’t just keep adding images to a wall and expect them to look right continuously.


Michael, your comments regarding aspect ratio do make sense to me.

Obviously, if display strategy—which Igor alluded to… e.g., several prints displayed close to each other, creating sort of an unofficial series—or budget put constraints your options for cropping, matting, and framing, it’s totally understandable.

In most instances in which I’ve hung my own work at home or at our cabins, we rarely have spaces that fit more than one print, so the symmetry and similarity of the displayed pieces haven’t been a big issue (and to be clear: in my own home, matting/framing choices for a piece are dictated by its own surrounding space, rather than matching framed pieces in another room).

As for adjusting your strategies behind the lens to ensure easier choices or a particular cropping/framing strategy afterward… that’s a bit more challenging. So much of what lends itself to a strong, efficient composition is dependent on the elements in your frame. That includes not only your primary subject size and placement, but secondary and tertiary subjects, and of course, the background.

It might be easiest to accommodate a standard composition aspect ratio if you’re always shooting a single subject against the cleanest possible background… but as we know, things rarely work this way. With wildlife, we’re often dealing with multiple animals at times, messy/undulating perches, and dappled backgrounds. Landscape photographers are often lining up primary subjects with supportive elements elsewhere in the frame. While it’s not impossible to make everything we see fit the math consistently, it’s certainly a huge challenge unless we choose to strictly limit ourselves in our search for subject matter.

Hi Igor and Max, thank you both for taking time to read and respond to my question. I’m in agreement with your comments; I’m just a bit flummoxed by the idea of not taking AR into consideration while preparing a print. Do you gentlemen routinely cut your own mats and frame sticks? I think I’m going to have to do some experimenting: I’ll try processing my images without regard for aspect ratio. Perhaps then i’ll better understand. So if you don’t hear from me on this topic for a while, rest assured I’m not ignoring you, and I’m very grateful for your help. I’ll be busy trying to cast aside my old work habits to put your advice into practice! My thanks to you both for your replies and the time you’ve given me.

Best regards – Michael

Personally, I believe that adhering to standard aspect ratios in cropping is important. Here’s why:

  1. Standard Frame Sizes: As Michael said, this can be important when working with a traditional framer because it can be significantly more expensive. While standard frame sizes still matter, as Igor mentioned, this concern is becoming less so when working with a lab that creates frames or a non-traditional framer that you can find online. Also, many photographers are now moving to either plaque-mounted prints, acrylic, or metal prints which do not require framing and can be any size, so it’s certainly less of a concern today.
  2. Cohesiveness in Collections: Viewing a collection of images as a unified project becomes jarring when the aspect ratios are inconsistent. Uniformity in this regard lends professionalism and visual harmony to a series of photographs.
  3. Online Gallery Appearance: A gallery on your website can look untidy with mismatched thumbnails. Adhering to standard aspect ratios ensures a visually pleasing and organized appearance.
  4. Challenges in Selling Prints: Different aspect ratios can make selling prints on your website quite complicated. For instance, on Wide Range Galleries, setting prices is based on aspect ratios. Deviating from standard ratios means creating and maintaining unique price lists, a process that can quickly become cumbersome.

I used to believe that aspect ratios were primarily designed for aesthetic reasons, creating compositions that are pleasing to the eye. However, after researching, I’ve discovered that the story is more complex. While aesthetics played a role in some cases, many standard aspect ratios were born out of technological necessities, material constraints, and industry standards. That said, adhering to these ratios remains a worthwhile practice for maintaining consistency in our work.

I must admit, I once approached cropping more haphazardly, believing that composition was paramount. However, I soon realized the challenges I was facing and re-evaluated my approach. That doesn’t mean I gave up on cropping altogether! Instead, I now begin with an unlocked crop to experiment and find what works, then finalize my choice by cropping to the nearest standard aspect ratio. With a vast selection available, you can usually find something that fits almost perfectly. Here’s my reference list:

  • Standard Aspect Ratios (from most square to pano; the most common are bolded):
    • 1:1
    • 6:7
    • 4:5
    • 3:4
    • 5:7
    • 2:3
    • 3:5
    • 9:16
    • 1:2
    • 2:5
    • 65:24
    • 6:17
    • 1:3
    • 1:4

I also leverage different in-camera aspect ratios to aid my field composition. It’s disappointing that most manufacturers offer limited choices, but having even a few options can be quite helpful.

To me, adhering to standard aspect ratios doesn’t stifle creativity but instead adds structure and efficiency to the process. It’s a practice that has personally served me well, and I believe it can be valuable to many other photographers too.

Despite all of this, I want to make it clear that I don’t view free cropping as a wrong choice. If the considerations I’ve listed don’t resonate with you or don’t apply to your workflow, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t crop to what feels right for your vision. Photography is, at its core, a deeply personal and creative endeavor. The points I’ve mentioned stem from pain points with technology, old standards that have persisted, and my own experiences. But none of that should overshadow the importance of individual expression and creativity. Whether you adhere to standard aspect ratios or choose to free crop, what truly matters is that your choices align with your artistic intentions and the message you want to convey with your work.


Hi David, boy, I wish I could have stated it as well as you did. My own experience and mentoring by others taught me each of your points.

And I might add another point: a consistent aspect ratio also benefits the presentation of other kinds of projects beyond gallery presentations, such as book layouts.

It just never occurred to me that folks who print images wouldn’t be constrained by industry-standard aspect ratios for their choices of final composition, paper, mats, frames, glazing, etc. So my radar picked right up when I read the initial comments by Max and David. Add Igor’s comment into the discussion and I begin to see a trend – or at least a successful alternative to my own post-processing and printing workflows. But it’s a trend that I don’t think I understand yet.

I learned how to work with both crop and aspect ratios, relying on both of them using the same process that you described. It seems perfectly normal to me, and no more a constraint on producing a print than any other constraint in the photographic processes. (If I give it any thought at all, it seems just another of the many compromises that photography has always entailed.)

I’ve already begun experimenting in free-cropping without aspect ratios on a few of my old images; and at the moment, breaking free of the AR ‘constraint’ is far more challenging to me than relying on my old ways. :thinking:

I rather suspect that I’m not enough of a free-thinker to trade in the efficiencies and structure that ARs provide to my workflow. But this new (for me) “free radical” approach made me curious, and I’ll continue experimenting with a workflow without ARs. I’d like to see if I will appreciate the benefits of it for my own work – or at least come to appreciate this different way of working.

1 Like

One other thing came to my mind. Standard aspect ratios likely came from the world of art painters (although earlier paintings were constructed by the space available on a church edifice). But painters have much greater freedom than photographers. They go out there with their canvas stretched and sized and create a composition that fits within that rectangle. We don’t have that freedom. We need to recognize compositions as nature provides them. To me, rejecting compositions because they don’t meet standard aspect ratios makes little sense.

My rationale would be similar to David. The few images I have from Olympus cameras are cropped to 2:3 so it’s the same as the majority of my work. Having multiple aspects looks odd when presented together on a site and also confusing for people to buy. I also like having the creative constraint of trying to get it all into a predetermined aspect ratio. I rarely ever crop.

I read the original comments on Michael’s initial post with interest. I shoot with a 4:3 ratio in order to use as much of my micro-four thirds sensor as possible. I have never adhered to a particular aspect ratio in processing but if I have one, my favoured is 16:9, I think that I often have this in mind when I’m shooting, it allows for subject and context, something that I believe wildlife photos generally benefit from. So out of curiosity I began to crop a selection of my pictures to this after reading the discussion .
It’s been an interesting exercise, and I now have a set of photos that perfectly fit my display screen, I’m not sure if it has improved the pictures but I will carry on for a while,… and they look very tidy in a slide-show.

Hi Ryan, I agree that 16:9 provides for both subject and context. It even works well as a sort of panoramic view. And, like you, I use it for photos that I like to set as backgrounds or screen locks on my 16:9 LCD. I also use 16:10. It provides a bit of a ‘wide angle’ impression, and fits my 16:10 notebook screens for background and screen lock images. I don’t typically print images in these aspect ratios, but there are occasions.

Canon gear defaults to 3:2 AR, which I rarely deviate from in-camera other than sometimes working in 1:1. But in post-processing, a lot of my images benefit from 4:5, or even 6:7. For some reason, my photos don’t generally ‘ask me’ for a 4:3 ratio – but again, it does happen.

Periodically I want to find images that I’ve cropped to a specific AR. So, I’ve created keyword filters for the purpose. I use nested keywords in Lightroom, and one of my keyword categories is Aspect Ratios. When I create a virtual copy of an image using a specific aspect ratio, I enter the AR as a keyword under that category. Then I can always pull up any set of images for particular ARs.

I also have an “Orientation” category, and I keyword my images according to whether they are Portrait, Landscape, Pano or Square. Filtering by orientation and aspect ratio helps me gather images for consistent presentation purposes (hanging on a given wall, book layouts, etc.).

Thanks for joining this discussion, Ryan. I’m glad to see that it has interested you. Best regards – Michael

While I like to think that custom aspect ratios chosen to suit a composition would be the way to go, it turns out that I hardy ever do that. Looking at my favourite images from the past 10 - 15 years I would say that roughly 95% of them are a “standard” aspect ratio of some sort - 2x3, 4x5, 5x7, 3:1, etc.

Lately though I’ve been experimenting with using some mathematically inspired aspect ratios like Pythagoras’s Constant (1.414:1), the Fibonacci or Golden Ratio (1.618:1), the Silver Ratio (2.414:1), and the Bronze Ratio (3.303:1). The jury is still out as to whether these are useful (for me) but I guess time will tell.

1 Like

Do you gentlemen routinely cut your own mats and frame sticks?

I don’t do my own matting and framing. I’ve worked with a local framer for twenty years that does all of my personal projects, and I also refer local customers to her. Yes, it’s much more expensive, but she has a fantastic eye for matching mats and frames that work so well with my varied images (anything from velvet paper black and white wildlife images to metallic nighttime city shots) that it’s worth spending the extra dough for me to feel I’ve got the best presentation.

Incidentally, following up on David’s comment, my website does offer an option for customers to crop to a standard ratio before checking out, so I’m not completely eliminating that option by cropping the way I want. But print sales are still a relatively small part of my business too, so I’m not convinced I’m losing a lot of sales by not making more standard sizes available up front (or is it a small part because I’m not offering them? Hmm…). It might be an interesting experiment to try something like that on a third-party selling site, to see if standard ratios placed there would sell more frequently than off my existing print portals. Not that there’s time to tackle that… :wink:

Being new here, I just stumbled on this very interesting discussion. I have no particular practical need to stick to standard ARs, but I have found that the AR of the camera viewfinder fairly significantly shapes the way I perceive the landscape in front of me, and that I’ll walk away with a different image visualised in my mind when using 645, or 6x6, or 4x5 camera. I generally compose in camera, not least because in the analogue workflow it has direct bearing on metering and, with large format, on camera movements. When I do crop later, I tend to preserve the AR most of the time. The only significant difference to that is trimming to a square, but again, that decision is usually made already when taking the picture.

Hi I just read this thread as a new member. Can you share who your local framer is that you’re happy with?

Best, Lauren

Just sent a PM!

Thank you! I split my time between Chicago and Utah but its good to know.