If this isn’t a huge disappointment, please tell me what isn’t. You get a bunch of your point and shoot pictures printed, only to find out that the top and bottom of every photo has been completely cut off. As you stare at the faces and scenes chopped in half, you’re wondering what could have caused this and whether it is your fault as a photographer. Well worry no more. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation, and it has nothing to do with an error on your part.

It all comes down to the difference between point-and-shoot and film (and digital SLR) cameras. It also has a lot to do with a fancy thing called an aspect ratio. “What the heck is an aspect ratio?” you’re wondering. Let's start with that.

Aspect Ratio

The Aspect Ratio is simply the ratio of the width to the height of a photograph.

Let’s assume your photo were perfectly square shaped. If it were, the width would be the same as the height. In that case, the ratio of the width to the height would be exactly 1:1.

Now let’s move onto something a little more complicated. Let’s say you have a rectangle that is 4 inches wide and 3 inches high. If you were to do the math, the aspect ratio of this rectangle would 4:3. For every one inch of width you have .75 inches of height. The same ratio applies even if the size of the image increases. The aspect ratio of a 12 by 9 inch rectangle is still 4:3.

The reason your photos are printing with the top and bottom cut off (cropped out) is because the aspect ratio for a point-and-shoot camera image is 4:3 whereas the aspect ratio for a printed photo is 3:2. In order to fit a 4:3 image into the 3:2 print, the photo needs to be cropped. Usually they cut the top and bottom.

The red rectangle is a 4:3 image.
The yellow rectangle is the 3:2 image that will be printed.

The other way to do it is to resize the photo, so you see white edges on the left and right. Now while that keeps the whole of your original photo, it adds ugly bars. Most people don't like that, so printing shops prefer the crop option.

Your 4:3 photo resized in a 3:2 ratio print.
Note the white edges on each side.

3:2 is for printing

Why does the printed image have a 3:2 ratio when cameras uses 4:3? Why can't the printers use the same ratio, so the cutting isn't needed?

It's because film cameras use the 3:2 ratio. The entire photo printing industry (around well before the digital age) has adopted the 3:2 standard. That's why you didn't need to worry about cropping with your old film camera. In keeping compliant with the film model, digital SLR cameras have inherited the 3:2 aspect ratio. So if you have a DSLR camera, you don't need to worry about cropping for printing.

Point and Shoot cameras were first designed to show on a computer screen, so create an image with a 4:3 ratio - the same as the computer screens of the time.

Avoiding the Chop

If you want to avoid the dreaded chop, there are a few things you do.

Shoot your photos knowing part will be cropped away

This is probably the easiest and most practical solution to the problem. Just try not to place anything of importance, such as a person’s face, in the upper or lower portions of the photo. What can you place in the those parts of the photo? You can shoot the sky, hills, and other background elements. So long as there is no subject matter in the top or bottom portion, you do not run the risk of cutting that subject matter in half.

Print with vertical bands

You can tell the printer to keep your whole photo and print white vertical bands on the left and right of the image. You can cut the bands off yourself later if you want.

Crop your photos before the printer does it for you

Remember, the printer will take any photo shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio and try to cram it into a 3:2 space. But you can beat it to the chase! Some photo kiosks will show you your photo beforehand, and allow you to select what part of the image to cut. You can move the 'cut marks' around so you don't cut out anything important.

You can also use image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop to crop either the top or the bottom of the photo before you send it to the printer. You can also look for the handy 'crop for printing' option available with some other image editing programs. Photoshop doesn't have that, but here's how to do it:

  • Open up your point-and-shoot image in Photoshop. Go to the rectangle selection tool. On the upper toolbar (just below the File, Edit, etc. menu), there will be some options labeled “style,” “width,” and “height.”
  • Under style, select “Fixed aspect ratio.”
  • In the width box, type “3,” and in the height box type “2.” You guessed it. That’s the aspect ratio of a digital SLR picture.
  • Now simply use the rectangle selection tool to select the part of the photo you want to print. As you do this, you will notice that the rectangle is constrained by the aspect ratio you specified earlier. Whatever you select, it will always be 3:2!
  • Once you are happy with your selection, copy it, create a new file, and then paste your selection into that file. Save your new file with a clever name to remind yourself that it is the cropped version. I like to add “_crop” after every cropped photo.
  • Take your new files to the printer and enjoy life without the dreaded top chop!

The chop can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you just threw away a bunch of money. So do your duty as a good citizen, and tell people about it so they don’t make the same mistake.

And if you have any photos that look much better after cropping them, . I’d love to see a before and after comparison. I’ll pick the most dramatic comparison and discuss it in the next photo critique.

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