In Praise of 5x7
I don't quite know why, but over time I have grown to believe that the most beautiful ratio for photos is 5x7. I don't mean print size itself, because 5x7 inches is much too small, but rather the ratio between the short edge and the long edge of the prints.
Call it what you will; 5x7, 10x14, or 15x21, but I keep going back to that same ratio. (For the record, the 5x7 photos on this site are offered at one print size, 15x21.)
No camera nowadays natively shoots at a 5x7 aspect ratio. Most DSLRs are 2x3, and many smaller cameras have a 3x4 ratio. Even in the golden days of film, very few cameras shot at a 5x7 ratio. The largest film cameras typically shot 4x5 or 1x1, and smaller formats tended to be 2x3. Panoramic cameras existed, too, typically at a 7x16 aspect ratio.
So what is it about the 5x7 ratio that is so beautiful? Beats me. I have a couple of theories, although I hate one and the other is pretty deep into the subjective.
The first theory is math-based, which I hate. In fact, I have never been one to say that certain numbers are inherently more beautiful than others simply because they show up a lot in math. However, whether it is a coincidence or not, there is something interesting with the ratio 5x7: it is remarkably close to the square root of two. 7/5 = 1.4, whereas √2 = 1.41.
Is this important? I sure hope not. Reducing complex photographic compositions into mathematical numbers is a backwards concept in my mind. Art cannot be rationally explained, especially not by numbers. A "good" image is one which combines several different properties: creativity, interesting subject matter, and an aesthetic composition.
There's a touchy word: aesthetic. Could this be related to the square root of two? I doubt it. For me, aesthetic tends to refer to the amount of balance in a photo. The better that a photographer uses balance, the more aesthetically pleasing the composition is. Often, well-made photos are intentionally imbalanced to add tension to the frame, and in fact this imbalance can be just as aesthetically pleasing as perfect balance. I don't think that such a dynamic concept as balance can be condensed to a single number, no matter how prevalent that number is in mathematics.
So, then, why is a 5x7 ratio so pleasing? I have already said that a number is not inherently beautiful, so this may seem like a contradiction. However, I don't believe that it is.
Imagine, as an example, that you crop your photo to a 1x10 aspect ratio, a super thin rectangle. It would be very easy to make a roughly-balanced image, just because you have so much space on either side of the center line. However, I cannot imagine such an image being aesthetically pleasing; the ratio is just too thin. Thus, super-panorama photos are very rarely "beautiful," even though all that they have going against them is their aspect ratio.
On the flip side, a square frame also tends to be very difficult to balance properly. It is the opposite reason, though; a square just isn't inherently dynamic. I know that all Instagram photos are square, and I also have seen several successful square images in my life. However, I find the ratio of 1:1 just inherently unappealing.
Most of this is because of balance. When you have a square ratio, it is awkward to place something too far off center. Unlike rectangular ratios, you can only move a subject off to the side in a square frame slightly before it presses against the edge of the photo.
Square frames are symmetrical in four ways (top/bottom, left/right, and two corner/corner symmetries). Rectangles are only symmetrical in two ways (top/bottom and left/right). Rectangles are inherently less-balanced than square frames, and therefore more dynamic. Perhaps it is just me, but I always find that my eye has far less space to move when I look at a square photo.
So, then, if a square is not dynamic enough, but a 1x10 panorama is far too thin, where is the happy median? Here's when it gets theoretical.
I think it is an easy mistake to think that a longer rectangle is more dynamic than a shorter rectangle (say, 1x2 versus 2x3). At some point, the dynamic advantage of a rectangle begins to taper off, and making the rectangle thinner does not add any more movement to the frame (or, at least, not an appreciable amount more).
It follows, then, that the way to achieve the most aesthetic ratio for a photo is to make the photo as square as possible (to add balance) without the photo looking squarish (because that would make it less dynamic). Contradictory? Yes. But, by this definition, there is an ideal ratio, where a photo is as balanced as possible while still adopting the movement inherent in a rectangular frame.
The more that I work at photography, the more that I have come to believe that 5x7 is that ideal ratio. It is enough of a rectangle that, at least for me, I do not inherently think "square" when I see it. On the flip side, the 4x5 ratio that is famous among landscape photographers is square enough that I notice it every time I look at the frame. Same with 3x4, to a lesser extent.
This is a very personal feeling. In fact, alongside 5x7, my favorite aspect ratios lie somewhere in panoramaland. I haven't composed enough panoramic scenes to tell for sure, though, so I can't really pin a number on it. Somewhere between 1x3 and 1x2, though.
However, for non-panoramic photos, 5x7 is, in my mind, the most beautiful ratio for a photo. It seems that I can crop almost any of my 3x2 photos to 5x7 without losing much along the sides, and it somehow adds balance to the frame.
Why, then, are the vast majority of the photos on my site in the more rectangular 2x3 aspect ratio, not 5x7? Two reasons: first, I just recently came to realize the beauty of 5x7, in part based off the few photos that I had cropped that way over time.
Second, and more importantly, I composed most of the photos on the site intentionally to fit a 3x2 ratio. Cropping to a 5x7 will cramp the frame too much, simply because I had not shot the scene with the intention of cropping it later. For example, the photo below would lose important context with a 5x7 crop, and it is much better as a 2x3, as shown.
It goes without saying that all of this is very subjective. It lies on the idea of making a photo as square as possible without it being "squarish," which is a confusing task, if not an impossible one. Every photo is different, of course, and it is a bad idea to crop photos to fit a 5x7 ratio just to make them look "better."
A 2x3 photo, when cropped to a more square 5x7 ratio, will not look nicer the vast majority of the time. A 5x7 ratio is easier for me to arrange the elements of the frame how I want. Cropping to a 5x7 does not help this for most of my photos, which I have already composed around a 2x3 frame.
That's the key: choosing an aspect ratio that makes it as easy as possible to arrange the frame how you want. The aspect ratio of the photo should not be so obvious that it is the first thing that people notice about the photo (super-panoramas, for example, and square crops to a lesser extent). For me, a 5x7 aspect ratio is easy for me to work with. I've decided to compose more of my photos in the future with the intent of cropping to 5x7. Not because the 5x7 ratio is inherently beautiful, but because it is inherently easy to work with.
More than any other aspect ratio I have used, the 5x7 frame calls no attention to itself. It is neither particularly squarish nor particularly rectangular, and as a result it seems to fade into the background. With a 5x7 frame, I find that the image itself takes center stage.