Your camera is likely to have a native aspect ratio – 3:2, 4:5, 1:1, etc – but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. I have found that using different ratios can greatly impact the emotion and feeling of an image; I therefore utilise aspect ratios as part of my creative workflow. What do I find each of these ratios provides?
I often crop images from my Nikon D750 (native 3:2) to 16:9, 4:5, 1:1, or even 16:7 for panoramas. In general, the wider the aspect ratio the more cinematic and dramatic the image will feel. Why is this? I believe it is because we associate these wider ratios, such as 16:9, with modern big screen Hollywood productions. Likewise the opposite is true – square and narrower ratios are lodged in the our memories, harkening back to the likes of Hitchcock, Welles, and Kurasawa. The same parallels might be drawn to the shift in photographic technology over the last twenty-odd years from 6×6, 6×7, 4×5, and 8×10 film cameras to full frame & crop sensor 3:2 digital cameras.
Bringing this into landscape photography with some examples of my own: shooting a mountain range at sunrise or sunset? Perhaps try 16:9 to get that cinematic feeling.
3:2 can sometimes strike a good balance when wide ratios are too cinematic and narrow ratios are too minimal. Indeed, certain compositions demand certain aspect ratios and it is up to the photographer to wait for optimal conditions to match these two together to achieve the mood they are after.
Got an ND filter attached or using a telephoto lens to photograph a single isolated subject? Maybe leave enough room for a 4:5 or 1:1 crop in order to give a more peaceful feeling to the image.
Aspect ratios are a really powerful tool in your creative arsenal. I find myself trending towards 4:5 ratios more and more as I try to simplify and hone in my composition and subject finding skills; the 4:5 ratio feels strong, resolved, and intentional (you aren’t trying to cram as much of the scene in front of you into frame as possible): it focuses the viewers attention. That being said, there is always a time and place for each ratio and I will continue to use them as a creative tool in my landscape and nature photography.
Some final thoughts and action points. Consider what your final cropped image will look like when you are on location and photograph with this in mind. You will notice the effects of this even more when standing in front of a printed image as the matt and frame will accentuate the aspect ratio even further. Also, just to note that a similar thought experiment can also be applied to vertical vs. horizontal compositions. Horizontal images feel more calming where vertical images are more jarring (any changes to the way we naturally see the world through our eyes becomes immediately apparent).