Why What You See May Not Be What You Print

Post & Photo by Joe Farace – Follow Joe on Twitter

When people are disappointed in the prints made from their digital camera is not usually about the quality of photograph but rather, what’s missing. What’s missing might be Uncle Bernie who was on the edge of the group portrait made at last year’s family reunion. It’s not that you don’t like Bernie— when you look at the file on a computer he appears in the image—it’s just that he’s a victim of a difference in aspect ratio between your camera and the print.

Aspect ratio is the relationship between the height and width of the image and is usually expressed with two numbers. 35mm cameras use a 24x36mm (3:2) format but digital SLRs and point-and-shoot cameras are available in different aspect ratios, and that fact can cause problems when making prints on standard-sized paper. A 4×6 print, for example, has an aspect ratio of 3:2 making it perfect for some cameras (no cropping) while an 8×10 has an aspect ratio of 4:5 making it “ideal” for others.

There’s a bit more here than just mismatched aspect ratios. Digital camera sensors are often cropped internally to match up with one of the standard print aspect ratios and that can cause some problems in the “what you see is what you get” department. If you’ve ever made a picture and knew that you captured the entire image but somehow the file seems “cropped” you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes this mismatch only crops the image a little tighter and most snapshots could benefit from being a little tighter anyway. It may not be a problem with most of your shots but difficulties can occur when a subject gets too close to an edge in the original file.

The above (left) photograph was made with an Olympus E-500 that produces images with an aspect ratio that’s close to that of 4×5 or 8×10 prints. It’s not a perfect match but like similar cameras, it’s so close that if you look at an 8×10 print made from this image file you won’t notice anything different from the original. Problems occur when you decide to make a 4×6 or 5×7 print from this file. When cropped into a 4×6 print (right) the bike rider gets dangerously close to the edge and since automated photo printers crop somewhat from all the edges, my guess is that an actual 4×6 print made from this file would clip the rider’s elbow. No big deal you say for this photo but what about a group shot of your son’s preschool class. You could crop one of the kids on the edge of the frame in half! Images © 2011 Mary Farace

Sometimes the best way to solve the cropping dilemma is to change the print size, which in turn changes the print’s aspect ratio. 5×7 is slightly different (wider) than 4×6 but by now you should begin to understand the cause of the problem.

Joe Farace is the author of a new book called “Studio Lighting Anywhere” that’d available in all the best bookstores as well as Amazon.com.


This post sponsored by PocketWizard