When I take a photo, I sometimes have an aspect ratio in mind, as a creative choice. For example, I wouldn't use a widescreen aspect ratio for a portrait. As another example, if I'm shooting a landscape, and I have some junk in the immediate foreground that would distract from the view, a widescreen may work better to crop that out. But if the thing in the foreground adds to rather than distracts from the photo, a 3:2 aspect ratio may work better, to include it in the photo.

But these are specific cases. Most of the time, though, I have no specific opinion regarding what aspect ratio to use. In those cases, should I use the aspect ratio of the camera sensor (3:2), or the aspect ratio of my monitors (widescreen)? Should the aspect ratio of the camera drive my photography, or the aspect ratio of the monitors?

To put it differently, what default aspect ratio would you suggest when I don't have an opinion one way or the other?

When I view photos, I always prefer using the entire area of the screen to display the photo, even if the photo ends up going off the edge of the screen and being cropped along one dimension (like Lightroom’s Fill view mode). I don’t like letterboxing (like Lightroom’s Fit mode), because that means that that some of the space on the monitor is being wasted, and the photo is being displayed at a smaller size than it could and therefore loses its punch. I want to make use of every inch of screen space to display my photo.

My camera, the Sony NEX-5R, lets me shoot photos at 3:2 (native) or 16:9. When I set 16:9, the preview is cropped. Note that it doesn't display the entire image with a border around the part that it will retain. Rather, it shows only the part that fits the chosen aspect ratio. This camera has no viewfinder (whether OVF or EVF).

I shoot RAW, and opening the RAW in Lightroom shows the cropped image, but I can undo the crop because the information is still there in the RAW.

My monitors are all 16:10 (but I may buy a 16:9 monitor). Taking a step back from the detail of 16:10 vs 16:9, the point is that I use only widescreen monitors.

So, given that I want to end up with widescreen photos, in cases where I have no opinion regarding what aspect ratio to use as a creative choice, do I set my camera to widescreen? Crop in post? Don't crop at all? In more detail:

Option 1: Forget about the aspect ratio of the sensor. If you want to display photos full-screen on a widescreen monitor, use a widescreen aspect ratio while shooting photos. Get things right in-camera, and don't worry about wasting a few pixels (2MP of 16MP). Instead get the composition right.

  • The preview will match the aspect ratio of the final photo. A more accurate preview is better, right? This should let me compose a better picture if I can see the final result.

  • This goes for the review as well.

Option 2: Shoot at the native aspect ratio of the camera, and crop it in Lightroom or iPhoto to 16:10 to match your monitor.

  • This is good in that I can do the cropping on a 30-inch monitor rather than a 3-inch screen, so that I can actually see what I am cropping out, can try various options and see what works well, and I'm in no hurry. On a 3-inch screen, I'm effectively doing things blindly and hoping it turns out well.

  • This is bad in that I'm not getting things right in camera.

  • This is good in that I can crop to the exact aspect ratio of my monitor (16:10) in post, but my camera doesn't let me shoot at this aspect ratio (I have to go with 16:9).

  • This is good because I might realize after taking a photo that a different aspect would have worked better for that particular photo.

Option 3: Don't crop at all. Leave it to the photo viewer to effectively crop the photo while displaying it, like Lightroom's Fill view mode.

  • This is bad in the sense that the photo viewer either letterboxes (ugh) or chops off the top and bottom part of the photo to fit it onto a widescreen monitor, whereas if I had done it myself, I could have done a better job deciding what part to crop (perhaps only the bottom part, if it's noisy -- full of objects that distract from the composition). Basically, I can exercise creative control if I do the crop myself.

  • This is good because if I buy a monitor with a different aspect ratio one year, or five years, down the line, keeping all the data will let me display the photo best on that monitor. If the sensor is 3:2, and I crop it to 16:9 in-camera or in post, but 3:2 monitors make a comeback five years from now, I'd have painted myself into a corner.

As a general question, should my goal as a photographer be to get things right in-camera, or preserve as much data as possible to give myself flexibility later? These two goals are in conflict here.

Footnote: I shoot in RAW, so the data is not actually lost when I set my camera to shoot 16:9. I can, in theory, go back and undo or modify the crop later. But realistically, if I buy a 4:3 or 3:2 monitor five years from now, I'm not going to go redo the crop for thousands of photos, so for all practical purposes, the data is lost if I set my camera to use a non-native aspect ratio.

  • Now... after I read your question fully, it becomes unclear to me what you are really asking there. What is the question? By using RAW you already show that you want full data and flexibility for later. Is it not the same with sensor resolution? – Esa Paulasto Feb 12 '14 at 7:34
  • Thanks, again, for helping, Esa. As the footnote says, if I really wanted to preserve data and flexibility for later, RAW doesn't help -- should go with option 3. Please see the explanation about buying a new monitor. – Kartick Vaddadi Feb 12 '14 at 8:33
  • RAW saves full sensor data as you know, and not only in theory. You can have the viewfinder at 16:9 for easy framing and you still get the full 3:2 which you can easily change and adjust in Sony's Image Data Converter software. So, yes, shoot in 16:9 using RAW and not worry about what happens, or not happens, in 5 years. – Esa Paulasto Feb 12 '14 at 8:46
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    so how do you view images that you shoot in portrait orientation? – dav1dsm1th Feb 12 '14 at 9:56
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    I'm also struggling with finding the sense here. The framing is an important part of most photographs, and the idea that the shape of the display medium is more important than the original composition is a little hard to work with. That's generally only the case in photojournalism, where you don't know exactly where on the page the photo will need to fit and the photographer has little control (it's up to the photo editor, or maybe even the layout editor). If you're taking photos for yourself, I think you should consider the cropping part of the composition, not a display issue. – mattdm Feb 12 '14 at 12:09

I would never suggest the first option. Your second option is better in every way. Getting things right in camera only matters when not getting it right in camera detracts from the final image. A crop in post vs a crop in camera doesn't gain you anything other than giving up the margin of error. If you were shooting on a camera with OVF it would also prevent you from having any kind of accuracy to what you see in the OVF, though since you are shooting with an EVF it's slightly less of an issue.

Between the second and the third, it's more of a fair toss up. Personally, I would say that limiting your aspect ratio to that of your monitor is the biggest limitation of any of the possible techniques discussed. You have already pointed out that you are not losing much to give up the few MP of data that you are cropping, but it can even more easily be said that you are not giving up that much in those few pixels you lose on the screen from the aspect ratio not matching. If you are that worried about pictures not filling the screen, you also can't work on portrait orientation photos at all without either rotating your screen or using a very small portion of the screen.

A computer screen is also not high resolution. Even a 4k display only shows 8MP of information, a standard 1080p display only displays 2MP. There is a ton of information you are not seeing and if the crop really matters that much, your best bet is to get a bigger screen. In order to really look in to the detail of a photo, you are going to have to zoom in to more than full screen anyway, and at that point you can use the full size of the display. That extra space around the image can also be used for placing controls to work on the image.

So personally, I would lean towards the third option and continue to work with the full resolution and aspect ratio of the photos unless there was an artistic reason to want a different aspect ratio. The editing environment shouldn't limit your choices for aspect ratio and really shouldn't even be a factor in it. Ultimately though, only you can decide if you agree with me on that. If you don't, use the second option as it is the next best option hands down.

Footnote for your footnote: If the crop isn't actually cropping the data, then I'd probably use the crop in camera if you know the aspect you want to shoot at, particularly if you can have it still display the contents outside the crop area. I haven't personally been shooting with a different aspect ratio in mind, but I know my camera has a similar feature that lets me specify a crop ratio and will show a guide box to help line the shot up. This is a useful feature if you don't have an OVF as an option or really want to make sure to get your composition right to begin with (such as making sure that everyone will actually fit the crop when posing shots).

With that information, I would seriously consider shooting with the crop mode in camera when I knew that I would be shooting a particular aspect ratio, but I still would only do so if I had artistic reasons to do so.

  • Thanks so much, AJ, for trying to reason with this hard-to-understand question and trying to help me out. I updated the question to mention creative choice, to say that I have no viewfinder (whether optical or electronic), and to say that if I choose a crop mode, the camera doesn't display the entire data with a guide box. Instead it displays only the part of the photo that fits within the chosen aspect ratio. With this information, am I correct that when I don't have a specific aspect ratio in mind as a creative choice, I should use the native aspect ratio? – Kartick Vaddadi Feb 13 '14 at 7:00
  • I personally would but if you really know what you want the final output to be I could see shooting cropped if post will be very limited. I'd probably still shoot full aspect, but making sure the composition fits right in the final aspect can be tricky too. Not really a "correct" answer. Just a trade off. – AJ Henderson Feb 13 '14 at 13:27
  • If you are confident of your ability to eyeball the aspect ratio, I'd shoot the full shot to give you room to tweak. If not, then best to give up the flexibility and make sure you don't end up using too much of the horizontal space to fit your format. – AJ Henderson Feb 13 '14 at 14:12
  • I'm not confident in my ability to pick an aspect ratio looking at the scene, so I guess I'll shoot in the native aspect ratio, so that I can make the right choice in post, and that too on a 30-inch monitor (rather than a 3-inch one) where I can actually see what I'm doing. I think you helped me resolve this question. Thanks so much, AJ. – Kartick Vaddadi Feb 14 '14 at 4:43

I would never shoot to the aspect ratio of a monitor. Using one of my photographs as a backdrop is an afterthought, not a deciding a factor in how to frame a shot, and that would be the only reason I'd ever want a photo in that aspect ratio. Given that, I would always crop and scale in post. However, here's the basic reasoning I would have given your options...

If the image is cropped in camera, despite the fact you could undo it, you're not seeing the full potential of the shot from the beginning. The inability to immediately see the potential means that you can't reconsider after seeing the result without undoing what you've done and, well, rendering the concept useless. That's a weakness in the idea of in camera right there.

Secondly, you're assuming that format is best for all images, but that's absurd. If the best composition of an image is other than widescreen landscape, you're forcing a lesser view simply because of black bars on the edges and that makes little sense to me. Some images are far better seen square or in portrait mode, not landscape. Some landscapes are better seen 2x3 and not 16:10 (or 16:9). You're not getting it right in camera then.

There's a common English expression of "trying to pound a square peg into a round hole." This is what you're doing. Crop and frame your image to the story you're trying to convey in the shot, not your monitor. Shooting to your monitor is crippling the potential of every photo you take and that doesn't make any sense.


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