Photo Aspect Ratios and Picture Frames

Sooner or later you’re going to want to print your photos and sell them or show them to others. But what aspect ratios are standard? What if someone wants to print and frame your image later? Are they going to be able to get it to fit a standard frame size? These are the questions you may ask yourself right now.

These are very good questions. Here are some answers.

First, a definition of “aspect ratio.” “Aspect ratio” is the ratio of the length to width of a photo. 4:3 is the ratio of many point-and-shoot cameras. 3:2 is the ratio of most (if not all) standard dSLRs and film cameras. But how do these aspect ratios fit with standard frames? And what about non-standard photos like panoramics that are way wider than they are tall? Panoramics are often 12:36 (1:3).

Here are some simple guidelines that will keep your photos “frame-able.”

  1. Your camera’s either shooting in 4:3 or 3:2 ratio. Keep it in whatever size gives you the maximum pixels that your camera can provide. Odds are you will crop the photo later and then you will still have a decently-sized photo.
  2. In post-processing, initially crop to 3:2 if possible. This is the basic professional photographic standard and a lot of picture frames are sized around this aspect ratio : 4×6, 8×12, 12×18, 16×24, 20×30, 24×36
  3. Second choices for cropping are 4:3 and 5:4.
  4. 5:4 is a common photo crop aspect ratio and large format photos traditionally have came in these sizes so there are frames available for it: 4×5, 8×10, 16×20, 24×30. I hardly ever use 5:4 because it is not as aesthetically pleasing in my opinion.
  5. 4:3 is also popular because computers and most point-and-shoot cameras shoot in this ratio. This has led to the creation of frames to fit this ratio: 6×8, 9×12, 12×16, 15×20, 18×24, 21×28, 24×32, 27×36.
  6. If your photo is panoramic, then crop it to 3:1 ratio to fit a panoramic photo frame size of 12″ x 36.” Some photos are not going to fit this 3:1, so then choose the second best of 2:1. But 2:1 is not that panoramic in my opinion, so I don’t use it very often. 8:3 (also used in Cinemascope films), or 16:9 (also called “wide”) ratios also exist but frames probably do not exist for these. Super wide panoramics are 5:1 ratio, but much less common.
  7. If your photo is going to be matted for museum-type viewing, you can consider using a 1:1 ratio if it fits with the photo. Some photos look good square, but most don’t.
  8. If your photo lacks something and all else fails, try the unusual aspect ratio of 144:89. This is “the Golden Ratio” and has been used for centuries in creation of works of art (usually by placement of items in the art at Golden Ratio node points, but sometimes by overall size). This ratio can beautify a photo.
  9. Experiment with other ratios as well if nothing seems to work. Sometimes a 10:7 ratio looks better than most as it is the ratio of IMAX movies.

These are the guidelines I use, but I sometimes stray from them as well. That’s why they are called guidelines and not rules. If I know I am preparing a photo for framing, then I make it to a ratio that will fit a frame. It’s that simple!

Here’s my simplified guide:

Standard Photos:

  • 3:2 is my first choice for standard photos.
  • 4:3, 5:4 are my second choices for standard photos (but I rarely ever use these).

Panoramic Photos:

  • 3:1 is my first choice for standard panoramics.
  • 2:1 is my second choice.
  • 16:9 is my choice for small panoramics (a.k.a. wide format, but I rarely ever use this).
  • 5:1 is my choice for long panoramas (but I rarely ever use this).

Whatever aspect ratio you use, it must “fit” with the photo’s composition, and must fit into physical frame sizes (if you intent to physically frame it). Use your best judgment and experiment to find the right size.