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Aspect Ratios – Legacy or Aesthetics? (Part 1: The Golden Rectangle)

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Leica 35mm f/2.8 Summaron @  ISO 2500, cropped to 24mm x 65mm Xpan format (a/r 2.708)

I’ve wrestled with the concept of aspect ratios, for as long as I have been into photography. It was simple enough in the film processing days, where photographers mostly used 35mm (135) film or medium format (120) film and standard print sizes at your local labs were 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, etc. Aspect ratio was physically limited by the physical size of the film/slide used and the available developments, unless, of course, you cut the photograph to size after the fact. Digital could have changed all this. But it didn’t. And why is that? Is it because of legacy or aesthetics?

Legacy Shmegacy
I can imagine a variety of arguments in support of the traditional 2×3 (a/r 1.5) 35mm format, such as “our modern day FF and APS-C sensors are based on this format and our old and new lenses cover this format.” Yes, this is a legacy argument. But with digital cropping, you can easily achieve different aspect ratios. Also, manufacturers are forever coming up with new camera lines with new mounts and new lenses. What a perfect opportunity to change the aspect ratio.

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Zeiss SEL55F18Z @  f/2.5, ISO 250, 1/200s, cropped to 24mm x 65mm Xpan format (a/r 2.708)

Realists might say “but if you crop, you are not using your sensor to the fullest.” Yes, but with today’s high megapixel 24MP or 36MP cameras, you can easily afford to lose 10% or more of those megapixels and still retain a huge image. Olympus fans may jump in and say “Ha! We have thought of this so we use the 4/3s format.” Yes, to which we will collectively roll our eyes at the 4/3s format (a/r 1.33) for its hideousness in proportions, at least in the landscape perspective. Remember our old (now “retro”) cathode-ray tube television boxes. Looking at it now, they are hideous compared to our 16:9 HDTVs. What changed? Our of-the-moment sensibilities or something more?

Funny_pics+Funny_cat_sleeping_on_TV+Funny_tv_pics+Old_tv_vs_new_LED_tv+difference_big_tv_slim_tv

 It is an established scientific fact that cats prefer older televisions. 

The Golden Greeks
Thinking about this aesthetic idea some more, I came across something what the ancient Greeks called the “Golden Rectangle.” It is based on the Golden Ratio that most of us will be familiar with (i.e. the mathematical spiral that determines the spiral of certain sea shells) and the Wiki article describes it as the following:

Some twentieth-century artists and architects, including Le Corbusier and Dalí, have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio—especially in the form of the golden rectangle, in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter is the golden ratio—believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing

As it turns out, the 35mm film’s aspect ratio of 1.5 is very close to the Golden Rectangle’s ratio of 1.618 (ever so slightly wider than film).

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Aesthetics is a difficult thing to objectify and I’m sure part of it is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, at the same time, certain proportions and symmetries in nature, architecture, and art has influenced what we perceive as beautiful. So, beauty may not be completely subjective and abstract, because humans over the years has preferred certain dimensions over others as a matter of: (1) the of-the-moment tastes (e.g. plus-sized women in the Baroque era when everyone else was starving and waif-like women now when most of us can lose a few pounds), (2) artistic influences from other mediums (e.g. paintings, sculptures, and cinema), (3) the laws of nature (e.g. certain facial and body structures that may signal health and vitality, which subconsciously trigger the goal of evolutionary success, coupled with the way our eyes process visual information).

Rubens and Kate Moss

The Three Graces by Rubens, known for drawing full-figured women, and Kate Moss, icon of the waif movement.

A Three Part Series
Relating all of this back to photography and before I conclude Part 1 of this discussion, I want to share that my recent fascination with aspect ratios was inspired by the latest YouTube video from DigitalRev TV. Kai W. and Lok C. did segment on “How to Get Bigger Than Full Frame without Breaking Your Bank or Arm” (below) in which they reviewed a panoramic 35mm camera called the Hasselblad Xpan. Subsequently, I found works by Matthew Robert Joseph here that I find truly amazing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38plXCYCvKQ&w=640&h=360]