Why the Print is Cropped Differently than the Photo (A Discussion of Aspect Ratios)


You've just bought a digital camera and taken some photos, and now you want to get some of those photos printed. As soon as you get the 4- × 6-inch prints back and look at the photos, you notice that they aren't quite right: part of the picture has been cut off. Similar to below, the left photo is as shot, the center is as printed. Compare the two photos; the difference is obvious, as in the right comparison overlay.

The difference here is obvious, but rather superfluous. The cropped area includes minimal border detail. With another photo, the cropped portion could be the top of somebody's head or similar!

The reason this happens is the difference in aspect ratio. Most digital cameras have an aspect ratio of 3:4. That means that the photo will be 3x wide and 4x long. A 4- × 6-inch print has a 2:3 aspect ratio; the print is 2x wide and 3x long. Because of the different shape of the digital photo and the print, the digital photo has to be cropped to fit the print size.

Differently sized prints have different aspect ratios:
Print sizeAspect ratio
Film (negatives and slides)2:3
Digital camera capture4:5, 3:4 or 2:3
3.5- × 5-inch print2:3
4 × 62:3
5 × 75:7
8 × 104:5
8 × 122:3
16 × 204:5

Dealing with Different Aspect Ratios

There are several ways to handle this problem. I suppose the easiest way to deal with it is just to ignore it--just get your photos printed and accept them however they turn out. There are two good ways to deal with the problem.

If you crop the photo yourself, how the print turns out won't be a surprise--it's as simple as that. Your photo-editing software almost definitely has a crop tool.

If you don't want to crop the photo, another good option is to adjust the canvas size--add some white space to the photo to create the correct sized print. Either way, you're controlling how the photo will be printed and getting the desired results.

Another point worth mentioning is that most photofinishers will overprint an image by about 5%. That means that they print the image slightly larger than the paper size to ensure that the photo is printed edge to edge.

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