As soon as a photographer enters the weird and wonderful world of printing, he/she is in for a number of head-scratching experiences. Suddenly confronted with a plethora of paper sizes, frame sizes, mat (passepartout) opening sizes and aspect ratios one can get overwhelmed by these seemingly technical choices. It gets worse once he or she realizes that these are artistic choices as well. Let’s have a look.
Modern DSLR cameras follow the sizes and conventions of 35mm film, that means they produce pictures in a 1.5 (3:2) aspect ratio. Paper is sold in Europe in DIN-A sizes, which uses a 1.41 (√2) aspect ratio. Standard frame sizes are e.g. 30x40cm (1.33 aspect ratio), 50x40cm (1.25 aspect ratio) or 70x50cm (1.4 aspect ratio). If one uses a mat with an opening the standard openings are 29x19cm (1.52 – close enough to 1.5…), 39x19cm (1.34) etc.
One thing you will notice is that hardly any opening fits naturally the 3:2 format – these seemingly small differences in aspect ratio can lead to quite akward results. If you in addition plan to leave a space between the photograph and the mat opening (so the mat doesn’t rest on the inked parts) things start to really go south.
The first time I experienced this I just couldn’t believe how difficult it was. Of course, there is always the option to crop/resize to fit the photograph. But in that case the photo printed isn’t the same as taken and compositional elements can change. That is the point where the problem turns into an artistic challenge. I haven’t figured out a way to see other aspect ratios (with one exception but on this later) while looking through the viewfinder in the camera. One would have to leave a lot of “dead” space around the real composition to allow for all this cropping. Luckly, after some searching, I found a wonderful little workshop in Germany that not only has a wider selection of standard mat openings but also makes for me mats with any size of opening. So without having to resort to cutting my own mats and without having to crop I can now deliver prints that harmoniously fit to a 70x50cm or 50x40cm mat.
That was – until I discovered that my camera also can take photos in a 5:4 format. The camera throws away a couple of million pixels that way, but shows the correct frame in the viewfinder. This format has been a staple in old school large format photography, where plates used are 4×5 inches or 8×10 inches. As many of the most famous landscape photographs (e.g. a lot of work from Ansel Adams) have been shot in that format, it looks very familiar. But it has many other advantages: it works equally well in landscape or portrait orientation, while in 3:2 upright (portrait) orientation the photo easily looks too long or too high. But to me also many compositions just seem to better fall in place with this format.
In short, I fell in love with a format – and how weird is that! Now the ony challenge was to redo the exercise to define new frame/mat/opening sizes… (sigh).
By now you’ll be asking yourself, whether there is anything in this blog post for you. Maybe yes, because: once I had wrapped my mind around these formats and aspect ratios, I started to notice them in every museum and painting. Have you ever asked yourself, why a painter has chosen a certain size/format/aspect ratio for the canvas (other than not having enough money to buy a bigger one)? My tip: test it the next time you visit a museum, it can open an additional dimension to appreciation of a work.
I keep working with both aspect ratios 3:2 and 5:4; in fact I recently finished a whole series in 3:2 only. But I also notice that I use 5:4 more often: spaces seem to distribute more evenly and naturally and one can use tension by compositional imbalance without going over the top, if that makes sense to you.