What Gets Lost in the Crop? How Aspect Ratios Shape the Way We See the World


February 15, 2021


Nika Simovich Fisher


From the Zenith Porthole TV to Zoom, Nika takes a journey down memory lane in a brief history of aspect ratios in tech.

Photographs carry weight. As a child, I thought of them as time machines – tiny glimpses into a life experienced before I was born. Proof that existence occurred prior to my arrival and confirmation that my family members had at one point been young, too. Of course, the photographs' subjects tell a story, but the finite qualities of the image and its inherent aspect ratio are revealing, also, perhaps even more so than the images themselves. What gets lost in the crop?

In the past 20 years, digital media has evolved and permeated into all aspects of life. In 2011, theorist Nathan Jurgenson explored digital dualism in his article, 'Digital Dualism and the Fallacy of Web Objectivity'. Jurgensen presented the idea that online and offline life are not separate entities – digital networks reflect real life because they are real life, and there is no distinction anymore. More recently, curator and writer Legacy Russell expands this notion through her book Glitch Feminism. She describes the path to "become one's avatar" through a critical lens of the digital age and an exploration of her identity.

Throughout this transition to perpetual connectivity, our portals to the digital world have transformed, too. In terms of web experiences – the development of responsive web browsers allows for malleable browsers sizes and an ability to view websites on an assortment of devices. When placing a photo on a webpage, a designer has many options to display that picture across different sizes. With responsive web advancements, layouts can change to work better across devices, but the content can change, too. With imagery, this functionality is often used to set up a "better crop," meaning to pick the photo's focal point and make sure that's optimized on different screens. This decision is interesting because the image itself becomes malleable – different scenes can be used in tandem to describe a specific event. The ability to use two different photos interchangeably shifts the perception based on the device it's being accessed. On the one hand, we're seeing the evidence that a designer selected this edit, but on the other hand, part of the image is concealed, perhaps replaced altogether. In these instances, is the original, "whole" image more communicative, or is the designer-selected highlight the more precise detail? If you remove responsive design out of the equation, the default HTML img tag will display the image at its original, full size and the scale remains fixed as you resize the browser. As you scale the window up and down, you can explore different image details, creating your own crops within the photo's finite landscape. In some ways, the native HTML presentation of the image provides more control to the user to view it as they'd like. Still, in others, it can become a challenge to view the whole image without zooming out, preventing a user from experiencing the entire asset at once.

A scrapbook next to me is filled with snapshots of party guests taken on a Polaroid camera. The images are expressive and imperfect – in many, the camera was too high or too far over to one side, so the individual's head is a small bob hovering dangerously close to the edge of the frame.

The finite square is perhaps the least natural proportion.

Cameras like the Polaroid that use this size also have an inherited nostalgic sensibility to them. The images fade, allow for light streaks, and have the physical quality of stylized party shots. Historically, Instagram bound all photos to this image size, and while it has since evolved, the photographic user grid is still in this format. While this aspect ratio encourages people to fit within a frame literally, it captures a mood. Especially in the case of Instagram, this mood is often heavily curated and forced, removing the documentarian aspect of an image and positioning these cues as extensions of one's public style. In the analog counterparts, the film's tactility and the setting, which are frequently special events and art-directed photo shoots, communicate the mood. While you do not see the entire environment and scene, the tight crop feels deliberate. The story is in the decision and the direction – this is what you should look at and what you should remember. The immediacy of this visual cue is so intense that it can pause reflection and additional thought. When I go through my digital archive of the thousands of iPhone photos taken in years passed, a sense of annoyance permeates when square cropped images emerge in between uncropped assets. The initial feeling is that the image itself is damaged or inaccurate, that it is not the real scene nor the real picture. However, upon further reflection, I realize that these cropped images are more telling and accurate as they highlight the image's intended usage and distribution.

Circles are 1:1 aspect ratios, too. The 1950s era Zenith Porthole Television screen was a TV set with a circle screen, available as 12", 16", and 19". While these models are no longer in use, the circle viewport poses a different perspective than square images. You don't come across perfect circles or squares in nature, but curved and circular lines feel more organic. Despite this, the perfect circle viewport feels even less natural than a square, most likely due to its lack of prevalence in today's digital landscape.

Our world looks quite different if you replace all hard edges with rounder, more organic shapes. Would Instagram feel different if the grid was circular rows rather than squares?

The images' margins would grow and have more prominence, perhaps allowing more breathing room for the individual shots. Circular polaroid images could feel like tokens of parties past, and I can imagine the clumsy crops of people forcing themselves into rounder shapes.

The Zenith Porthole TV also had a control that switched the picture from fitting into the round screen or showing at a 4:3 aspect ratio, the standard definition ratio for television sets at the time. Today, 4:3 aspect ratios are less common than the 16:9 aspect ratio, currently in use on most television sets and computer monitors. On YouTube, when you watch an older television recording, the video player resizes and accommodates for that size. This design addition is a noticeable progression to the black borders that would appear above and below a video when watching a widescreen film on an old television set.

These black bars became an interesting discussion in regards to vertically recorded videos. In 2012, the YouTube channel Glove and Boots posted a video called "Vertical Video Syndrome a PSA." In it, two puppets mock and criticize the amateur quality of vertical format movies. In the 2014 article, Vertical Cinema: New Digital Possibilities, Miriam Ross and Maddy Glen reflect on the video and share that "at the time of writing, none of the hundred-plus comments had seriously questioned why films should not be shot in vertical, nor asked what types of new composition and framing could arise from using a different alignment." Through their article, Ross and Glen highlight the newfound accessibility and opportunities for filmmaking and digital media when everyone has access to a camera and the new technologies' restrictions, and capabilities are embraced.

In the 1999 Disney movie Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, a lighthearted film about a teenage girl in 2049, several fictitious futuristic technology scenarios are presented. For example, Zenon makes video calls, attends a school where the teacher is a hologram, and the students connect remotely. Interestingly, these technologies became realized in the 21 years following the movie's release. While the ability to video chat and attend online school is no longer futuristic, the film dates itself with the aspect ratios used for these screens. In one view, the remote video calling device looks more like a chubby TV screen than the widescreen monitors we use today. Curiously, we've achieved the proposed technology in Zenon's world, but its depiction of the device a dead giveaway that the movie is from the past.

In recent years, vertical monitors have become used in home computer setups. The portrait orientation allows for more text on the screen, which helps programmers see more of their code at once without scrolling frequently.

The vertical screens also provide a comfortable reading experience for other text-heavy documents. Typically, portrait monitors are secondary screens in these settings since many software and web experiences do not support them. Some monitors can be rotated, giving users more control over how they'd like to see the content, similar to the Zenith Porthole's switch.

During the pandemic, daily life became even more connected. Zoom became a staple in many people's workdays and we connect almost exclusively through video calls. Though video calling technology has been around for over a decade, it became entirely widespread now. Universities and schools across the United States adopted distance-friendly learning methods. Zoom became an even increased standard tool to aid with this transition. You can choose your video's size to be 16:9 or the "original ratio", which is often 4:3, the two most widespread aspect ratios. Though the aspect ratios are ones we're accustomed to, body language and bodies at large get cropped from the viewport. Overall, Zoom provides enough context for a professional conversation but forces you to fill in the blanks otherwise. I recently met someone that I only communicated with via Zoom, and upon seeing her in person, I was surprised by her height: she was quite tall and I had imagined her to be shorter. My guesses of her stature were completely arbitrary, and interestingly, I wasn't aware I had made any assumptions until I saw her in person. Her facial expressions and demeanor were as I recalled it; however, bodies and height are essential parts of our presence, and while video calls can feel like a full picture, specific details get omitted.

My family's photo albums were a finite collection of black and white and color memories, stylized and curated in a set of leather containers. During the pandemic, my father scanned and preserved all of them and distributed them between us digitally. While the albums would take an hour or two to go through, there is a manageable number of pictures, all of which my parents carefully curated and organized. Our digital selves are extensions of our physical bodies, and as we have more tools to document our lives, our memories get stored and saved in numerous ways, making the memories hard to keep track of, and more overflowing than ever before. I wonder what the best option for preserving snapshots of our lived experiences is throughout all the options available on the expansive digital landscape. Perhaps there is no best option, but a meaningful selection of mixed media and mixed crops might feel the most honest, and stand the test of time, regardless of the aspect ratio.

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About the author

Nika Simovich Fisher is a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, educator, and writer based in New York. She is currently a partner at Labud, a design and development studio she founded in 2018 and teaching at Parsons School of Design and the University of Pennsylvania.


February 15, 2021


Nika Simovich Fisher


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