I hope you’re enjoying my weekly Tech Tip series! This week I’m explaining crop ratios, something that often confuses and frustrates anyone who shares or prints photos, from an average person with a cell phone camera to experienced professionals. It all boils down to math, which was my favorite subject in school, so hopefully I can help clear up some questions you may have.
What is a Crop Ratio?
Crop ratio, or aspect ratio, is the term used to describe the ratio of the height and width of your photo. This tells you how long and skinny your photo is or how short and fat it is. People often confuse crop ratios with print sizes, and while they are related, crop ratios don’t have a unit, such as inches, centimeters, or pixels. A typical 4″x6″ print has a 2:3 crop ratio, because 4/6 (four-sixths) equals 2/3 (two-thirds). Remember simplifying fractions back in school? Yea, it’s that again. As far as standard print sizes go, a 4″x6″ (2:3) print is a fairly long and skinny photo. Whereas an 8″x10″ print has a crop ratio of 4:5, which is fairly short and fat. The next common ratio is 1:1, which is a square print. There are other print sizes that use the 2:3 and 4:5 ratios besides the ones mentioned above. For example, the popular 16″x20″ print is the same 4:5 ratio as an 8″x10″ print, while a 16″x24″ print is same 2:3 ratio as a 4″x6″ print. Below is a table of common print sizes, grouped by crop ratios, and in order from long/skinny to short/fat, then square.
Why does the crop ratio matter?
Crop ratios matter when you are trying to print a photograph at a different ratio than the digital image. If you have a digital photo that is cropped to a 2:3 ratio (which is what many digital cameras use), but you want to print an 8″x10″ print, part of the image will be cut off. It will happen digitally, but it’s not much different than if you were to just take scissors and cut off the sides of your photo. With most print labs, you can adjust what part of the image will be cut off when placing your order, but people often miss this option if they aren’t paying close attention.
This cropping is an unavoidable circumstance when printing to a ratio that differs from your digital image. In order to make a long, skinny photo fit in a short and fat frame, you will lose part of the image. There is no magic way to make a photo “fit” into another ratio without cropping. The only other way to do it would require you to stretch or squish the photo, which would distort the image, making the people weirdly short and fat or tall and skinny.
You can crop in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other editing software to the desired ratio you want to print at before saving the final image, or you can crop through your print lab when ordering, but you will have to crop at some point if your print size doesn’t match your original digital image. The image below is cropped to the 2:3 ratio, and would look just like this if printed as a 4″x6″ or 16″x24″ print. However, if printed as an 8″x10″ photo, the family is too crowded in the frame and the girls’ hair is chopped off on both sides.
This is the reason that people who are inexperienced at ordering prints will often ask, “Why is part of my picture getting cut off? How can I fix that?” And the answer is often to re-shoot the photo. Sometimes it can fixed by “extending the canvas” in Photoshop (stretching a part of the image that the people aren’t in to change the ratio of the digital image). Or if the problem is the result of an overly tight crop done during the original editing process, you can go back to the original crop if you have it.
How can I avoid problems when printing?
The biggest issue people run into is that when they want to print at another ratio, an important part of the image is in the section gets cut off. The best way to avoid this is to give your subjects some room. Back up or zoom out when shooting to leave empty space around your subjects, and don’t crop too close when editing your images. Leave room around your subject for various crops. One of the common mistakes photographers make is taking the image too close so there’s not enough room for various crop ratios when editing or printing.
Using Lightroom to view crop ratios
Lightroom makes it easy to view various crop ratios while editing by using the the crop overlay tool. You can set the common print sizes that you want to appear, and then check when editing or cropping in Lightroom to see how the image would look at various crop ratios. I keep mine set to 1:1, 4:5, 5:7, and 2:3, because those cover the whole range and are the most common sizes I print at.
To set the crop overlay ratios in Lightroom:
- Press R or click the Crop icon to activate the cropping tool.
- Go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay > Choose Aspect Ratios.
- Select the aspect ratios you wish to see in the crop guide overlay.
- Click OK.
- To view the crop overlays, press O while the cropping tool is active.
- Lightroom cycles through several different overlay styles, so continue pressing O until the aspect ratio overlay appears on your image.
The image in the next section shows the overlays in Lightroom so you can see what it looks like.
For more information on preparing images for print, see my tech tip Understanding PPI.
Which crop ratio is best?
There is no objectively correct answer to this question. Everyone has their own opinions about what method is best. I will explain what I do and why, so that you can make your own decisions about what’s best for you and your clients.
As a photographer, I crop most images for my clients galleries to the 5:7 ratio using Lightroom for clients to order prints in a variety of sizes and ratios. I typically use this ratio for my personal images as well. The reason I use the 5:7 ratio is because it’s a good middle ground between the popular 2:3 and 4:5 ratios, and it is also a common print size itself. Some photographers use the exact middle between 2:3 and 4:5, which is 11:15, but I find that is confusing for clients, because there is no such thing as an 11″x15″ print. By using a 5:7 ratio, I can easily explain that the images I’m providing are sized for 5″x7″ prints, and if my client prints 5″x7″ or wallet size prints, they won’t have to crop the image further. If the client prints a 4″x6″ or an 8″x10″ print, or other prints with these ratios, they won’t have to cut much off either side when doing so.
Here’s how the image above looks how I actually cropped it for the client. Notice I left a lot more room around the family than I did in the example above. I turned on the crop guide overlay visible from Lightroom, so you can see how it would look at the various aspect ratios. You can see that to print a 2:3 ratio image (like a 4″x6″ print), a small amount will be taken off of the top and/or bottom. In this case, you’d want to adjust the crop when printing to take the extra space off the top so that the girl’s shoe is not cropped, instead of cropping equal amounts from top and bottom as the guidelines show. To print a 4:5 ratio image (like an 8″x10″ print), a slightly larger amount will be taken off of the side(s) of the image. But there is no danger of cropping anything important from the subjects. This image is shot with enough room around the family that they could even print the image as a square (1:1) print, or use a square image for their profile photo on Facebook or other social media.
The only time I regularly use a crop ratio other than 5:7 is with my corporate headshot clients. I find that when I shoot headshots with a portrait (vertical) orientation, the images look best in a more square ratio, so I crop vertical headshot images to 4:5. I also check how they will look cropped further to a 1:1 (square) ratio, as many people use their headshots on social media, like LinkedIn and Facebook, where profile pictures are typically square. In the example below, you can see the same headshot at two different crop ratios. The 4:5 ratio looks much more natural and comfortable to me, without too much awkward space above her head. Which crop do you prefer?
Other Crop Ratios
There are other crop ratios besides the ones I discussed here of course. I only included common crop ratios for portraits and other framed prints in this article. My recommendation is to stick with these common ratios and leave space around your subject for printing in ratios other than your digital image. If you crop to a ratio other than the ones listed, you may have trouble finding a frame to fit your print, or finding a photo lab that will even print it. I definitely do not recommend cropping to a completely non-standard ratio by doing a free-form crop in Lightroom or other photo editing software, as it will only useful in digital/online format.
The other common print ratio that I didn’t discuss here are those meant for panoramic prints. There are some popular panoramic print and frame sizes, like 12″x36″ (1:3), but there are a wide range of options for various panoramic needs, so I recommend checking with your preferred photo lab and frame supplier to determine the size you would want to use for your panoramic photos.
I hope you enjoyed this Tech Tip Tuesday! Comment below to let me know what you think, or if you have any questions about this or other topics you’d like me to cover in the future.
My name is Kelley, and I am the owner of Kelley K Photography, a portrait photography business based in Smyrna, Georgia. I am a member of the Click Pro network of photographers since 2016. In addition to photography, I have 20 years of experience in the IT industry, including consulting, technical writing, web design and hosting, and IT regulatory compliance. I publish weekly Tech Tips on my blog, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as offering mentoring to photographers on technical issues relating to photography, from Lightroom to web hosting.