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What’s up with Camera Firmware?

Aspect Ratios and Masks

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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The 3x2 ratio that is the de-facto standard of the majority of digital cameras and the accepted wisdom is that this standard is a legacy of the birth of 35mm cine film (patented in 1891 and originally referred to as Edison size) and Oscar Barnak’s decision to use two cine frames side by side when he created the Leica prototype in 1913 (“Intended as a compact camera for landscape photography, particularly during mountain trips, the Leica was the first practical 35 mm camera that used standard cinema 35 mm film” - Wikipedia).

There isn’t any firm evidence why he chose two cine frames side by side but we can make a few assumptions from available evidence. First, one of the standard film sizes for 120 and 620 medium format roll film cameras was 6x9 and hence most prints being made had the same aspect ratio. Secondly, the image circle of the 43mm Mikro Summar (microscope lens) used on the prototype ‘ur-leica’ has an estimated image circle of just bigger than 9cm (although a bit blurry at the edges). Did he choose the lens first or the aspect ratio? We'll never know.

Re-reading the accepted history of the modern 3x2 format makes me realise that Oskar Barnak wasn't the first person to popularise the 3x2 format at all! Old medium format cameras were already using an approximation of the 3x2 format - 3.25” by 2.25” as used in the Kodak Folding Pocket Camera from 1897. This actually had a printable area of 3x2 so can be thought of as the first available camera with that aspect ratio.

It should be borne in mind that this format was almost always used in the horizontal format (apart from a tiny minority of experimenters and visionaries) and in that orientation it’s very well suited.

However, as has been mentioned in the past, it isn’t particularly suited to the vertical orientation and other aspect ratios have been popular (since the birth of photograpy!). (p.s. it’s well worth reading Joe’s articles again).

Other Aspect Ratios are Available

Why should we be so limited by aspect ratio though? Ever since the start of photography, cameras have had ‘custom’ aspect ratios. Nicéphore Niépce’s first image made looking out of his window was made on a 5x4 metal plate but Louis Daguerre’s first photos were 5x7. Whilst most of Henry Fox Talbot’s images were 4x3, quite a few were 6x7, 5x4 and even a 2x1 (and portrait orientation at that). Film cameras since then have covered most of these formats and many more (whole plate, half plate, quarter plate, 7x11, etc)

Enter the Digital Age

And so we enter the digital age and everything seems to have distilled down to three sizes. You can have 3x2 & 4x3 and if you don't like them the camera manufacturers have recently been kind enough to give us 16x9 (although that was a result of the video revolution), 1x1 and 5x4 (depending on which camera manufacturer you like - Sony offers bugger all apart from a video oriented 16x9, Canon offer 1x1 and 4x3 and Nikon offers 5x4).

What do we want?

What we want and need is a way of visualising different aspect ratios. I once owned a Sony A900 and I went to the rather extreme lengths of buying four different focussing screens and using double sided sticky tape and kitchen foil to mask off the aspect ratios I liked using (5x4 mainly but also 6x12, 1x1 and 6x17). Changing these in the field was a PITA to say the least but it did allow me to visualise the world differently (even though I couldn't see the crop during playback - a bit of an annoyance).

I would like the camera manufacturers to allow me to enter a list of aspect ratios (after all they are just defined by a pair of numbers) and choose between them with the simplicity that I can change white balance.

Alternatively, allow us to upload a simple 'mask' that is overlayed on the viewfinder and the playback. We could create these masks in Photoshop and simply upload onto our compact flash cards. This would also allow us to define transparent areas and mark out important zones.

Although setting up custom masks may be hard for DSLRs with their optical viewfinders (I don’t know quite how the LCD mask works on most modern cameras), it should be trivial for the modern mirrorless camera to combine a custom mask with the image coming through the viewfinder. Here’s a few examples of how this could be used.

Magazine Front Covers, Formal Portraits, Then and Now

This gives an interesting possibility. You could upload the front cover design of a magazine, setting up the mask for the aspect ratio, marking out the magazine title and feature list and badges and then you would have an instant guide to how to build a perfect composition for supply to your favourite publication.

mask viewfinder

You could also have a ‘formal portrait’ template so all of your football team have a similar composition (for instance) or security shots place the eyes on the right line.

It would also make it possible to upload a photo of a scene you wished to duplicate for a ‘then and now’ project and be able to place things in exactly the right place. (e.g. for receding glaciers or urban growth).

Copying Compositions

overlay-saltwick DSC07618

Imagine being able to download a favourite photograph, create an outline view and upload it into the camera so you can copy it perfectly! ….. OK, pretend I didn’t say that one.. [awkward!]


Ignoring these complex masks for image placement and text layout for a second, the simple ability to include most of the common aspect ratios that have been in use for hundreds of years would be a massive creative boosts for many photographers. I have just spent a week travelling with Canon and have seen David Clapp making creative use of just the 16x9, 4x3 and square aspect ratios that the Canon M3 offers and he has said that it has really revitalised his photography. So in a big call out to camera manufacturers - please, please, please let us choose the aspect ratio we want to shoot. If you can't give us everything then please provide us with the following as a minimum

  • 1:1
  • 4:3 (this covers 645)
  • 5:4 (this covers 67)
  • 5:7
  • 2:1
  • 6:17

What do you think about the limitations of the current camera systems in terms of aspect ratios? Do you think it would be useful for your photography? Do we need any more 'basic' aspect ratios?

  • PeteRob55

    Interesting question. For the basic formats the end result comes from masking so perhaps an alternative question is “what is the optimum sensor geometry”. Does 3:2 lend itself most flexibly for masking to the suggested options? For the magazine layout etc, this seems a gift of an idea for tethered shooting if a bit cramped for an traditional viewfinder. I haven’t tried it but a felt-tipped pen on a live-view display might provide a short cut!

    • I think 3×2 is probably a bit ‘long’ to be most useful. I would go for 5×4 as it fits in the middle of 3×2 and square quite nicely. However, 3×2 is a good middle point between square and 6×12.

  • bax

    I was talking about this last week on my workshop in Cornwall and wishing that different aspect ratios were offered that affect the RAW file too. With EVF it would be far easier to implement than create greyed out masks in an optical viewfinder. I cherish the 5×4 option in my D800 and shoot all ‘portrait’ images in this format and the majority of ‘landscape’ too. I seldom ‘see’ in 2×3, don’t know why, but it’s always been the case! However there are times when I crave 6×12, but have to shoot in 2×3 and trust I can get the crop instead knowing I’d composed correctly. If square and 6×7 were there, then these too would be used on regular basis.
    I do wonder why manufacturers persist in offering the multitude of jpg sizing and quality options which apart from ‘finest’ remain unused by anyone I’ve spoken to.

  • Joe Rainbow

    For what it is worth, I have always wanted alternative aspect ratios, and find it incredibly annoying that this most basic of asks is not fulfilled. I even bought the Mamiya medium format film camera because of the 6×7 aspect ratio, just because it made composition so much easier and more pleasurable. I would have thought it is perfectly easy to add your own aspect ratio in camera, just like in Lightroom and PS. Then you could save it as a custom ratio? Anyway, I think it is so much more fundamental to Photography in general than nearly every other feature. It beggars belief that camera manufacturers have not sorted this out yet! P.s. Canon, add a viewfinder cover on your cameras please :)
    P.p.s If you don’t do it already, then adding a 6×4 overlay grid on live view and ignoring the top line gives a good idea of 5×4.

    • mario cugini

      Couldn’t agree more!

  • Bert Vliegen

    I use for my Chamonix together with the 4×5 a Linhof 6×7, 6×6 and a Horseman 6×12 filmback. Gives me, beside a back injury, lots of possibilies to shoot:-)
    But I do agree that only a 2:3 format in modern camera’s is simply not enough and would hamper my creative proces….

  • tobers

    I create a lot of vertical 4×5 images. 2×3 always seems too “tall” in portrait orientation to me. I just shoot a bit looser and allow space top and bottom which I know I’m going to crop out. Additionally, with so many pixels from my A7R I can crop like mad and still have plenty of resolution.
    It would be nice to have configurable aspect ratio “masks” but it’s so easy to sort it out afterwards. Didn’t someone recommend having a set of paper cards with different size apertures cut out that you can peer through to assist composition – that may be a cheap alternative.

    • That’s exactly what I do but it would be a lot easier to get the ‘edges and corners’ perfectly composed if you could see it accurately in camera.

  • Adam Pierzchala

    My old Lumix LX3 was excellent at quick and effective variations to the aspect ratio. I discovered that for portrait format landscapes I really like 4:3 (probably due to my experience with 645 film) and I have marked out this ratio on the screen protector on my Nikon. I use this aid extensively and it didn’t cost a penny.
    Occasionally i will post-crop a 3:2 ‘portrait’ original to 5:7 where I want to emphasise height, for example in some tree or cliff face compositions. For ‘horizontal’ scenes I think the width of 3:2 helps to emphasise the breadth of a scene, though again 5:7 and 4:3 can work really well – the latter especially so when I want to show a lot of dramatic sky. Occasionally I also shoot square (ah those happy days with a Rolleicord!).
    It’s easy to select different aspect ratios on my micro 4/3 camera. So why not on my DSLR? Could this be done in firmware updates to show the crop on the rear monitor?

    • It definitely should be able to be done in camera, hence the Magic Lantern plugin allows this..

      • Hi Tim. What is the Magic Lantern plugin? Is it something specific to the Lumix LX3?

  • andrew farrington

    Olympus (m4/3 at least) have a good variety of crops available, but not 5×4 which is my favourite for portraits – it also applies the crop to the RAW in Lightroom but this can be reset to 4/3 at any time.
    I would love it in the Sony A7x series and use the 5×4 crop on my Nikon D800 all the time; however, this physically crops your image so you are stuck with that.
    So near yet so far!

  • Sometimes it felt like I was cheating if I cropped a picture to a custom ratio just to suit the composition but since there is no good historical reason to use familiar 3×2 and there is no relation to my understanding perhaps I should be more relaxed and use custom ratios since the natural world is not built in the same manner.

    • Adam Pierzchala

      Quite right Roger, we do not need to be constrained by any ‘standard’ aspect ratios. When I used to enlarge and print in a darkroom, I and my photographer friends cropped according to the needs of the subject. The only downside was wasted paper strips but then these were very useful as test strips for the printing.

  • I find it maddening and very strange that so many compact cameras offer far better aspect ratio options than their larger siblings. Take Sony for example… my husband’s little RX100 has many of the above. I don’t think any camera offers a decent pano crop though? Does any dslr etc have more than 16:9?

    One can approximate out in the field, but you can never be entirely sure where your edges are – again, maddening! ;)

    It is interesting, though, how many people don’t at first think of going beyond the native aspect ratio of their camera – something I’ve noticed a lot during recent workshops – but, when they start to do so, they seem really to enjoy the freedom of being able to choose their own preferences…

    What chance of manufacturers actually listening to us though?

  • Chris Raymond

    I use the Nikon framing grid, it helps to get 1:1, 5:4 and about 16:9. You just have to work out which lines to use/ignore. However a mask would help to keep ones attention on the correct area.

  • I couldn’t agree more. Yes, manufacturers, please please give us this creative flexibility. And, given no high-end DSLRs currently offer such flexibility, it could be a major creative differentiator for a new model (or at least an interesting plus point!).

    We are not all 3×2 envisioners. Like bax, I seldom see in 3×2. I prefer a relatively contained, stately feel to an image (no foreground-to-background rush), and this tends me towards square – or alternately panoramic, where I can give a scene room to expand without front-to-back rush. I just ‘see’ in these shapes.

    My solution in the DSLR world has been to cut masks from very thin but stiff cardboard, and insert these between the rear LCD and its protective plastic cover. Combined with a rear-monitor magnifying loupe like the Zacuto Z-finder or LCVDF, your eye up close, it gives a wonderful immersive experience, with the image completely masked to your chosen format. But I find it super ironic that with a £x000 high-end DSLR, I am having to resort to a piece of cardboard to get the creative experience I want …

    It is, of course, a pain changing the masks. And it obscures menu items. And you still have the full frame on disk, a good portion of which (if you are seeing panoramically) is just occupying unnecessary disk space …

    Oddly enough, like you, Tim, I had interchangeable focusing screens masked down to my chosen formats, in the days when I used 35mm film cameras, before moving on to medium format square and panoramic. And now, my masked 35mm focusing screens are coming back into use. With the 35mm equipment and DSLRs sharing the same image area, an old beloved Nikon F4 (with its masked focusing screens, but no film loaded) travels with me as a pre-visualising aid … pre-visualising with the F4 is then like my “don’t get the camera out of the bag yet” exploratory experience, except with the added bonus that the lens angles of view etc match exactly, when I switch to the DSLR.

    As a final thought: another thing that high-end DSLRs have not matched, to the film equipment we used to use, is the beautiful bright viewfinders of the last high-end film DSLRs, the likes of the Nikon F4, F5 and F6. Anyone who has used these, or medium- or large-format ground-glass, will know how wonderful visualising on such a large, bright canvas is. The viewfinders of the current high-end Nikon DSLRs do not come close, I feel subjectively (I haven’t checked but think that the eyepoint statistics bear this out); the viewfinder on the Nikon D800E/D810 still feels diminished… Rear LCDs are a good substitute, so I guess this is not likely to change … but it’s such a shame to have gone ‘backwards’ in the viewfinder, too.

  • Lewis Golbourn

    I really prefer the 5×4 for vertical shots, and made a screen cover for my recently purchased A7R out of an old credit card. I left it in the house and found out purely by accident that the ‘square grid’ that comes as one of the composition aids on the Sony is 4 squares x 6 squares, and now just use that to get the ration sorted in camera. Also good for square shots and pano crops (4×4 and 2×6/3×6 respectively) – probably old news but this Sony stuff is all new to me!

  • I think the upcoming Pentax K1(circa. 36MP) will be the first dslr considered high resolution which allows you to shoot in square format and has a tilting rear screen. I dont think i could ask for more than that but until shortly, no other camera can offer this (perhaps the fuji XT1 replacement may go to 28MP which would be a consideration if kept square format and a tilting screen but will prob go to 24 MP as per Xpro 2).

  • I don’t think this answers the true needs of those who want to see that they are using every pixel in their composition, in their desired ratio, in their camera, but for those accustomed to using an external mask, then I can suggest an example of a modern equivalent is an iPhone app now called Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder. This allows the user to define virtual cameras which are a combination of camera/sensor, lenses and crop. In use, you can switch between “cameras” as well as identify the preferred lens. I have a “camera” for my regular ratio/crop and another for panoramas. I’ve added a post to my blog with more about how I use it.

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