June 14, 2009

Getting All Your Photo to Print

Have you ever ordered prints of your digital camera photos only to have them come back with details on the edges cut off? This is not a new problem with digital cameras; it existed with film cameras as well. The issue is one of different "aspect ratios".

An aspect ratio is the relationship of width to height in a picture (also called "proportion"). The problem with printing your pictures is that the proportions of the original digital camera image do not match the proportions of common print sizes. Here's what I mean:

You are probably familiar with the standard sizes of prints you can order from the photo lab. These are usually 4x6 inches, 5x7 inches, and 8x10 inches. Each of these sizes makes use of a different aspect ratio, the proportion of width to height. So the aspect ratio for a 4x6 print is really 2-to-3, usually written 2:3. The aspect ratio for a 5x7 print is just that, 5:7. The aspect ratio for an 8x10 print is really 4:5 (multiplied by 2).

The problem comes from the camera itself. A compact digital camera sensor (such as a Canon Powershot) has a natural (or default) aspect ratio of 4:3. You probably notice that this does not match any of the standard print sizes I described above!


A digital SLR camera sensor (like a Canon Rebel) has a different aspect ratio, 3:2. This one might sound familiar. It's the same as a 4x6 print, just flopped, (2:3 vs 3:2). Here's a list for you to compare them.

Print Proportions
2:3 (4x6)
4:5 (8x10)
5:7 (5x7)

Compact Digital Camera Proportions
4:3

Digital SLR Camera Proportions
3:2

So how does this relate to the problem of part of your photo being cut off in the print? Unless you make a picture with a digital SLR and order a 4x6 print (the same proportions as the camera's sensor), the print will always crop away part of your picture.

4:3 Original Photo Cropped to 3:2 (4x6) Proportions
(shaded areas on long sides will be lost)

4:3 Original Photo Cropped to 4:5 (8x10) Proportions
(shaded areas on short sides will be lost)

What can you do to solve this problem? Let's start with the compact digital cameras with the 4:3 aspect ratio. One thing you can do is to leave a little extra room around your subject, especially on the long sides of the picture. If you do this, then it won't matter if some of the edge is trimmed away.

Another option is to check with the photo lab to see if they offer "digital prints". This is a new print size (aka "proportion") that matches the proportion of compact digital camera photos.

Third, you can order a "full frame" print of your picture. This shrinks your photo slightly so that the entire image fits on the paper. Instead of part of your photo being cut off, you have a border (either white or black) on two edges that you can trim away yourself.

4:3 Original Photo Printed Full Frame on 4:5 Paper

Fourth, if you are comfortable with a basic photo editing program, you can make a copy of your original picture and crop the copy to the aspect ratio you want yourself. Then save the result and take it to the photo lab.

If you are using a digital SLR, you can try any of the above suggestions. In addition, you can order special prints that match the aspect ratio of your camera and do not crop the photo at all. I've already mentioned that a 4x6 print exactly matches the 2:3 proportion of this camera. You can request an 8x12 print, instead of an 8x10, and get all your photo as well. Of course, an 8x12 won't fit a standard 8x10 frame, but you can trim it yourself to the correct proportions without worrying about losing the top of someone's head.

3:2 Original Photo Cropped to 4:5 (8x10) Proportions
(shaded areas on short sides will be lost)

Finally, some compact digital cameras have the option to record the picture in a different aspect ratio than the standard 4:3. Look under the "Image Size" menu option for these options. Often there will be a choice for 3:2 (the same proportions as a 4x6 print). If you select this option, the LCD screen will black out the top and bottom edges so you can frame your subject to fit this aspect ratio.

In addition, some compact cameras have a "wide screen" image size or proportion. The aspect ratio of this size is 16:9, like a wide-screen television, movie screen or computer laptop. This setting creates a "panorama" type image (long and narrow) which can be fun to play with. But be aware that some photo labs may not be able to print this different aspect ratio.

So have fun printing your digital photos but remember to "mind the edges" of the frame so you don't lose important details.