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Monday, 01 October 2018


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4:3 or 1:1 is are much better ratios for composition. You rarely need to crop so you can frame what you want in the camera. It's rare to see photos shot at 3:2 that aren't cropped, sometimes severely. With the GFX 50R I will finally have a 4:3 ratio in a camera I assume I will like. I frequently shoot my X Pro and X100 at 1:1 but I hate cropping of the sensor. I find the photos print OK at 12 X 12 but just OK. I wish someone would make a 1:1 sensor camera. I'm sure that will never happen.

When Four-Thirds came along in 2006 (or so—I don't remember the date, and the Internet is surprisingly deficient in answering the question "when was Four-Thirds introduced?")

You're a few years late. Olympus first announced the Four-Thirds system in 2001, and their first camera was released in 2003. I found this by the simple expedient of going to Digital Photo Review, looking at all interchangeable lens camera reviews, and scrolling down to see the oldest review of a Four-Thirds camera.

Kodak Disc Film was gawdawful. Even 110 was barely useable resolution-wise in hand-sized prints, and Disc, even with the new flat grains, was so grainy that... that I can’t even think of a pun to do it justice.

... Thinking of it, I guess it was partly such things that ingrained that damnable craving for ever higher image quality so many of us suffer from still, despite an iPhone now making outstanding images.

Ahh, APS. What a shame it is totally dead. I still believe the Contax Tix was the nicest premium film compact of it's era, certainly better than the now astronomically expensive T3.

Great to see there will be a book Mike! You're the perfect person to pull together a great story out of these bits of information, and to wrap some context around them. The story about the Space Shuttle Boosters was fabulous; I hope you can weave that into the book somehow.

Regarding the "awkwardness" of the 3:2 format, it being "too tall" in vertical and making composition difficult, I've never bought that. I've used square, 5x4, 6x7, 6x9 and 3:2. I don't find any one format more limiting than an other. I actually prefer 3:2 in vertical, probably because I've used that more than all the others combined. But I can work with any aspect ratio if I need to. Interestingly the only one I haven't used is 4:3 -- simply because I've never used a camera that shoots that size. I'd probably find it a bit squashed now, and it would take a while to get used to.

P.S. Marc Riboud was a superb photographer -- glad to see him getting a bit of profile here.

Bravo! TOP lucid insight at it’s finest.

Great information and presentation, thank you!

You should do a similar article or chapter on the effects of print paper format/aspect ratio.

I began doing photography when I was around 15 with a 6x4.5 cheap box camera that somebody gave it to me. Later, when I was 18 or 19, I began using my fathers Leica M4 and later, at around 23 years old, I bought my first new camera, an Olympus OM-1. Since that time, I never felt comfortable composing on the 2:3 aspect ratio, I was always croping the sides, and found the vertical (portrait) "mode" even worst, too hight. When my pockets allowed, I bought a wooden 4x5" and then a Hasselblad 503, and found both format much better than the 35mm. Today I use M43 cameras. So, to me, Oskar shouldn´t has been that famous :-)

Great article, look forward to your book! I seem to have read a couple of times, in a now distant past, that Barnack's invention was initially intended as a light metering instrument for movie-making: using the same film and processing as used for the movie proper and developing the test exposures quickly on the set.
As to the square images made on 120 roll film by my Rolleiflex T and beloved Mamiya 330 of yore, I never felt (nor 'saw') the square of the viewfinder as a composition goal or even -gesture. The viewfinder (and so the negatives or slides) was simply square because you looked down on it and could decide to go for an upright or oblong image - 99% of the time already at the moment of exposure. (I also think one should always feel completely free to give one's photo's any width x lenght ratio that is fitting for that particular image - the camera's is merely a suggestion IMHO.)

I'm one of those that really doesn't like the 3:2 aspect ratio. So thank you for pointing out something that should have been obvious to me years ago - the technique of "using a strong central vertical to break the space into two halves". The image you choose is perfect to illustrate this - wow.

As a counterpoint to your assumption of why APS-C is unappealing, I'll offer two of my reasons for moving to full frame Nikon from APS-C. First, I owned existing Nikon lenses from my film setup, most of which were prime lenses. I had no issue, and generally liked the APS-C cameras with the longer lenses. But there were no quality prime wide angle lenses. To get a simple 24mm field of view Nikon should have made a nice and compact 16mm lens, but the only thing we got were huge or slow zooms. This situation persists to this day.

The next is the size of the DSLR. Because they kept the same lens mount and spacing APS-C DSLRs were much larger than they really needed to be.

Buying a full frame D800E wasn't that big of a bulk difference over a similar APS-C pro Nikon body and it opened up the use of wide prime lenses again. Add in the cleaner image files and it was an easy decision. This only really applies to DSLRs, and the situation with mirrorless options makes APS-C (and MFT) an appealing option again. But I was soured on it by the manufacturers' early implementations and lens choices.

Great post Mike! Given the amount of time 2:3 ratio has existed, why do paper and frame sizes still persist in not matching this ratio? The 4x5 ratio still rules many of the frame and printing paper ratios.

Great article. It’s all your fault, Mike, with your Bokeh articles. You are the number one patient in this epidemic.

"that ancient, awkward 2:3 rectangle"...
Well, I have to disagree with the "awkward" part. With more and more pictures ending up being displayed on a computer or smartphone screen, the 3:4 ratio just won't do it.
I just came back from a long trip using a couple of Panasonic M4/3 cameras with the excellent 20M sensor, ending up with about 1500 files (note, files, but lots of duplicates). I was doing PP and I ended up almost always cropping away something from the top or the bottom. I thought I should be using the most of the resolution from the 20M sensor, but now I realised I should have just shoot at 3:2 ratio at 17M. This must have something to do with my 50 years of picture taking, starting with 35mm B/W film in a Werra rangefinder camera. The 2:3 rectangle - Ancient? Yes, Awkward? No. Maybe we should be moving to 9:16.
For the same reason, if I'm to get a Fujifilm GFX 50R, I'll be shooting at 2:3 ratio, ending up with only 45M, same as the latest Nikon FF sensor... a big consideration.

Wow - with first cup of coffee in hand and still lounging in bed - I just got a hell of a fine history lesson (on 35mm). Thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks.

Brilliant work,

Thanks -an excellent essay. I completely share your opinion about the aesthetics of 3:2.

One small note. I think the now-universality of color has shifted the role of bokeh somewhat, because the additional information in color images can sometimes make them appear so cluttered that it can be helpful to have some further *subtle* separation via focus - kind of like another type of burning/dodging, for emphasis.

I"the reason Ad-Ams loved big teles was for prestige, not picturetaking." Perhaps so, but for those of us who photograph wildlife, the length of the lens is a necessity, not a virtue.

What a great post Mike, one of the best I've read in your site, and one of the best I've read about photography. I love how it exposes the irrationality behind what it's supposed to be a very technical activity.

This article is spot-on in so many ways. I also find the 3:2 ratio too long for vertical pictures. God forbid you actually want to print an image taken at 3:2 using a standard frame size... Cropping nightmare. I appreciate the differences in image quality between 35mm and 4/3rds, but I also lament the costs, both in price and weight. People are easily caught-up in the ego-driven pursuit of "the best", rather than carefully considering what that might actually need. I hope that a variety of sensor sizes persist well into the future. Choice is good.

This was an interesting read that seems to express a sense of missed opportunity that I think others probably feel at this post-September-Revolution juncture.
However, I believe that the part about telephotos showed your own bias. You stated that you assumed bird/wildlife photographers would flock to m43 for the reach. And when they didn't you determined that they use big lenses for the prestige. It's pretty easy to find some impressive wildlife & bird photography out there by people using these lenses and I'd conclude that they're using them for the results, not the prestige.
Personally, I went years without a long tele (since switching from film to digital) and only recently purchased a Sony RX10 III. This should handle my backyard wildlife needs (though AF at the long end is dodgy compared to my DSLR). I'm not enamored with the idea of carrying around a big tele (nor do I see any prestige in it). But I've dabbled in it and read about it enough to believe that those who do bother carrying long teles do so because they're very passionate about what they do and about doing it well.
Personally, I see FOMO as being a bigger factor than prestige in people's irrational attraction to larger-than-necessary sensors. When I see the word prestige, I think of the guy in the Honda looking at the guy in the Mercedes. Maybe he wants a Mercedes, maybe he doesn't, but there's nothing wrong with his Honda. With cameras and sensors, I see the guy shooting APS-C looking at the guy shooting FF and wondering what he's missing out on. He's thinking about noise in 100% views at ISO 6400. If the FF guy is using a Leica and he's envious, then it's prestige, but if it's just a bigger Nikon, then I think it's insecurity.

Thank you, thank you, for this bracing Monday morning dose of sanity and gimlet-eyed overview.

Now, I'll have to become a Patreon patron to get your book.

Kodak and Olympus announced the Four Thirds system in Early 2001
And don’t google FFM.

Two other thoughts:
I remember that at one time 35mm cameras were referred to as single frame and double frame, plus esoteric formats like Robot and the larger Robot royal, and the Hasselblad X-pan (quadruple frame?)

Mirrorless has got to be one of the silliest terms for cameras. The vast majority of cameras have no mirrors, yet only some cameras are “mirrorless” including oddly enough by some accounts the Leica rangefinder camera’s which of course use a mirror.

the 4/3 format was introduced in 2003 with the Olympus E10

I suspect another factor driving “full-frame” camera sales is the availability of inexpensive, high quality, mid-format (up to 17x22 inches) photo printers. Advanced amateurs constitute a large share of the market both for those printers and for high-end digital cameras.

Of course, there’s no problem printing in that size range from a smaller format if you use all or at least most of the frame. But if you need to crop to get the image you want, the extra pixels available from the larger sensors can be useful: having them ameliorates the need to “uprez” and crank up noise reduction during post-processing, and gives the print that extra increment of fine detail that allows viewing at the metaphorical length of the proverbial photographer’s nose.

Interesting to note that the standard aspect ratio of the iphone is 3:4. I am sure Apple put some research into what is the most popular aspect ratio, although it might have been dictated more by the screen aspect ratio? Most standard computer screens were/are around 3:4, too.
Personally I was never fond of the 2:3 ratio, anything between 4:5 and 3:4 is what I prefer (there are of course exceptions depending on the image). That might have been one reason I always gravitated to large or medium format cameras.

Boy am I looking forward to that book!

"The fateful doubling of the 3:4 movie film ratio that old Oskar (d. 1936) settled on (who knows how) way back in 1913 is alive and well—and stronger than ever."

I suspect Oskar settled on the 24 x 36mm 8-perforation frame size because smaller increments yielded an effectively square image. For example, a 6-perf frame is roughly 24 x 26mm. If memory serves, there were a couple of attempts at 24x24mm cameras, but I don't believe they had much success.

There was also Kodak 828 film, apparently introduced in 1935 for the Kodak Bantam. This was the same as 135 film but without sprocket holes, allowing a 40 x 28mm frame (slightly squarer than 24x36mm). I imagine this format failed for the same reason you say 126 and others failed—the Bantam was a cheap, consumer camera. This is probably the closest they came to cassette-loaded 645 size film (40x28 is like "half-frame" 645). It's a shame, because it seems to me a great idea, removing the "unnecessary vestigial sprocket holes".

As for the focal-length multiplier of 2x on Micro 4/3, I think that not only are you right that people don't actually want long tele lenses, they also specifically want a good wide-normal prime. Unfortunately this means your existing lenses become telephoto. Whilst I like using a Jupiter-8 as a long portrait lens on my GF1, I'm a bit sad that the 2x multiplier means that in order to get a normal-wide FoV you need to adapt an ultra wide angle (<25mm).

Aspect Ratio: recall that many Japanese Woodblock Prints use this aspect ratio. It has more history as a "frame" than just 35mm film.

Thank you for this, the historical context is excellent.

I find myself almost without exception cropping my images to 4:3 and when I print doing so on 8x11.5 or 11x14 paper.

I lament Nikon not doing more with the small DX cameras in the area of producing small compact prime lenses, and perhaps the perfect sensor (for me anyway) would be a 4:3 aspect ratio APS-C sized sensor. Not going to happen, that ship has sailed. Mirrorless solves this in that you can choose an aspect ratio and see it fully displayed in the viewfinder or on the LCD. Panasonic has a camera with a lens dial where you can choose aspect ratio, that is kind of cool.

This is the most informative article I have read in a long time. Congratulations.

As i was reading this, I hoped that it was an excerpt from your book in progress, and I'm delighted that it is, and now await its release just a bit more :)

Fascinating and interesting. I never thought of 'full-frame' as being a historic hangover.

That is fascinating. Thanks! Can't wait for the book.

^^This^^, as they say in social networking commenting. After shooting many many frames of 24x36, I found it a strange format: too long for vertical and even some horizontal shots, but too short to look properly panoramic. I played with the XPan a decade ago and absolutely fell in love. The 4/3, 4x5 are all good, as is the medium format square. The only reason I use the 2x3 is because of my Leicas, and the images still look too oddly shaped to my eyes.

One of the reasons that I haven’t bonded with my Sony a6000 is the inability to change formats. Only 3x2. I have never been able to follow the argument “Just shoot rectangular and crop later” Does not work for my mind. And yet I can shoot with black and white in mind using a color VF.

Lee Friedlander was quoted as saying he loved square format because you got so much sky.

Nice! Keep going.

I have never liked the 3:2 aspect ratio and habitually crop to 4:3. For this reason I have never thought of 35mm or APS-C sensors as full frame. To me they are crop sensors. The native 4:3 aspect ratio of micro four thirds is one of its standout features and one of the main reasons I covet the Hasselblad X1D and Fuji GFX50R. These are full frame cameras.

As a M4/3 user (and 4/3 before it), I was always puzzled by the disdain it was shown by the press in general. Many of it's advantages (DOF, aspect ratio) being shown only as disadvantages. I suppose that's how entrenched 35mm is as a format.

More puzzling though, with the recent rush of new FFM, is that they all stuck to the 3:2 aspect ratio. I'd have thought (and I could well be wrong) that - aesthetics aside - 4:3 would make more efficient use of the imaging circle of the lens, and possibly be more efficient to produce (I always presumed this was why most digital compacts used it).

I do have fond memories of 110 film though. As a kid that was what cameras used - my parents used it too. 35mm seemed a bit daunting with it's fiddly spools. I'd say I got over that, but I recall misloading a roll when on holiday in my mid-twenties, and cursing the lost pictures.

Also I am now very much looking forward to your book.

An excellent overview of a complete mess. If we had used angles of view from the very beginning instead of focal lengths (which are less relevant to most photography), we'd be in a better place. 'Equivalent' focal lengths are the name of my photographic life, not least because I need to try to explain it to newcomers when all that really matters is angle of view.

If we all used angle of view, we could even get into the not-often-discussed area of A.o.V vs aspect ratio. (I think I like a slightly wider diagonal angle of view on 4:3 cameras than on 3:2 cameras.)

It's too late for current camera systems to switch but if some enterprising and radically different future camera technology used only diagonal angles of view instead of focal lengths, it might catch on.

As you imply, the adoption of 24x36mm as the standard size for equivalent focal lengths, and the use of the term 'full frame' has been a huge marketing boost for that format, quite possibly by accident. Very, very odd – now that the 35mm FF thing is kicking off, my jaw drops open at the sizes of the lenses; do the manufactures imagine that these things will become mass-market items? I can't see it.

I was reading yesterday about the French Republican Calendar that, among other things, divided the day into ten hours, each consisting of 100 minutes, each of which contained 100 seconds. It lasted just over a decade before the French reverted to 24/60/60. A camera maker that adopted diagonal field-of-view measurements in degrees would probably last a year before switching back unless the camera and lenses were truly exceptional.

Reading this, my face illuminated by the MacBook's display, a single tear rolls down my cheek as I whisper "amen."

Thank you.

Thanks for the well-written summary of the history of the 24*36mm format. I think you were a bit gentle on APS film, an ill-considered "new standard" that did not provide customers much or any benefits. The metadata aspects of the APS standard might have been useful, but I do not recall if any APS cameras wrote the data on the film, and customers were not ready back then to copy to a computer or use that data. The idea was valid. Do any lenses made for APS film cameras fit on M4/3 or APS cameras?

This is the best abstract of the 2018 edition of the Photokina that I have had the pleasure to read (so well written) and you really got the essence of the actual photography industry trends with all the historic background implied. That's why I keep coming back to TOP. So different, so good. (Seems I am ripe to become a patron/patreon?).

Great article, Mike. Can anybody enlighten me about why most FF sensors are not exactly 24 x 36 mm. For example, Sony gives 35.9 x 24 as the dimensions of the A7Rm3 sensor. The Nikon D850 is 35.9 x 23.9, according to the user guide. Admittedly, a tenth or two of a millimeter isn't much, but it seems never to be a tenth or two MORE than 24 x 36 (although I suppose one might start to worry about the size of the image circle).

If we’re going to field ideas about "pan sharpness" from the 20th century, could we also incorporate some thoughts from the depth of ancient history concerning the ideals of proportion. The math of 3/2 is a lot closer to the golden mean of rectangles than the result of 4/3.

From https://web.archive.org/web/20021205033057/http://www.a-digital-eye.com/Olympus43Q%26A.html">http://www.a-digital-eye.com/Olympus43Q%26A.html">https://web.archive.org/web/20021205033057/http://www.a-digital-eye.com/Olympus43Q%26A.html I'd gather that the 4/3 format was announced at the Photokina in 2002. The first 4/3 camera was the Olympus E-1 IIRC, 2003.

Lookin' forward for the book!

Well, the 2:3 aspect ratio does ease the application of the ‘Rule of Thirds’, for those who find that meaningful.

Love to hear your book is on the right track.
If it’s anything like this post, I’ll ne the first one online to buy it.

I assume the answer is yes, but I’ll ask anyway: is it going to be available online in Kindle format?

Keep on the good work!

I've never heard of the trick of using a strong central vertical. I will try this. I've hardly ever used any other aspect ratio but the 2:3 one, in 40 years.

The 4:3 shape doesn't suit me, but I want to try more pictures in the 1:1 ratio. I often crop to square, but sometimes that wasn't my intention when I took the picture.

I had my Lumix set on 3:2 for a while so that the images matched (by aspect ratio) my full frame. I finally got over it and set the M43 back to 4:3.

What's interesting in your excerpt is that you've manage to hilight at least a couple of mysteries... I would look forward to reading more in that regard, interspersed thoughout your forthcoming book...

As much as I love 2:3, one of the things I best like about digital is the on demand access to various other ratios- 1:1 and 3:4 respectively (although some camera manufacturers inexplicably don't offer the latter). Yes, one could always crop after the fact, but...

This Leica blog contains a quotation from Barnack himself (excerpted from ‘Viewfinder’ volume ii, no. 4, by permission), and explains the circumstances around his choice of film size...


Mike, the photograph by Marc Riboud that you used to illustrate the article is fantastic. No space in the frame is wasted. It's truly a compositional inspiration. Thank you for sharing it.

"(FFM as I call it—not sure if anyone else does)"...

I still bemoan the death of the EVIL* label - wasn't that your creation?

*Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens

Mike no need to guess, back-in-the-day they did slop-tests, using a bucket for film development. Typically they used about one foot of film from the movie-camera they were using. Exposure was just one thing they slop-tested. For Star Trek TMP Apogee had an old B&W news film processor that was used to slop-test motion-control moves.

Go to page 20 of this PDF to see LTM Leica single-shot cameras from the 1930s http://www.cameramanuals.org/leica_pdf/leica_accessory_guide.pdf

The German Wikipedia entry for Four Thirds says that the first Four Thirds camera (the Olympus E-1) was presented to the world in fall 2003.

Oops! I just realize somebody has said it before.

I think you will find that the proper use of the word is, "ensmallen" - the opposite of the oft-used "embiggen". Some experts disagree, but I'm told that both are perfectly cromulent words.

What a magnificent, informative article. You can put me down as a future buyer of your book. This is information that I've not seen in any other photo books, of which I have quite a library.

Whomever it was at Photo Techniques that gave us the word "bokeh" has a lot to atone for from these intervening years of obscuring blurriness and $600 Petzvals. ;-)

With all those wonderful old FF lenses out there waiting for a new life FF was never going away...just quietly waiting.

Kudos to Sony for leading the charge.


As a retrograde additive, the digital camera manufacturers could add onto the RAW files a pair of sprocket hole lines. And add appropriate coding just like the old films. :-)

You have made a common error like a long time friend/photographer recently did. 120 format film does not mean square format. Only the particular camera model defines it as a square image. Kodaks much older folding cameras and probably the box models too took longer images, roughly a 2x3 ratio.

Bought my 1st Oly 43 (e500)camera in fall 2005...wanted a liteweight cam for biking...

I was (am?) a 35mm half frame nut job. Since picking up a Olympus Pen original viewfinder type camera used in 1971 I’ve never been without a half frame (or several) half frame cameras. There is just something about the 3:4 ratio that pleases me. And you get used to seeing the world vertically when holding Pen cameras.
I’m also seriously ticked off that Olympus brought back the Pen F name. Now searching for ‘Pen f’ brings up a lot of the digital stuff. I have nothing against the digital Pen F, but I already have 2 film Pen F bodies and a collection of original lenses.
If I want digit digital I have a 6s iPhone.

Actually Mike, the transition from 24 x 32 to 24 x 36 wasn’t that fast. Both the Nikon M and the Nikon S sported an intermediate 24 x 34mm frame...

I had an S, but I didn’t use it much, primarily because printing from it required masking my 24 x 36 negative carriers.

As much as I enjoyed the history of 24x36 format (and I look forward to Mike's book), I am even more grateful for for the introduction to Marc Riboud's work, which I'm slightly embarrassed to admit never seeing before! What a master of composition, and so much to study in his photos. Thanks Mike!

I'll also add that cinematographers seem much more comfortable with changing format sizes and not worrying about lens equivalency as much as still photographers: they will usually talk about a lens with its actual focal length rather than as an equivalent focal length to some reference frame size.

I am about to send you, via e-mail message, an article in the Viewfinder (publication of the Leica Historical Society) by Norman Goldberg and based on a conversation with Ernst Leitz III. The articled, which is based on a talk that Goldberg gave, sheds light on the origins of the Leica, the 24x36 mm format, and even the shape of the camera.

Best regards,

There is also the remarkable persistence of ridiculous photographic paper sizes. And Imperial/US customary units.

Ahother point of view might be the economy of printing. Cutting the A4 size paper in half results in two A5 papers with the same aspect ratio (the square root of two), which is closer to 3/2 than to 4/3.

Well said.

In defense of the 3:2 format, it looks better on most tablet and computer screens. Another reason why it persists I assume. Also, I like it for landscape images and digital is a cinch to crop.

In terms of FF, I agree with you. MFT is near as darn-it as good as the 645 colour film that cost me an arm and a leg to print in the 80's. When I could not afford to repair my (very SH) Pentax, I gave up on it.

APSC, esp. in the guise of a modern 24MP CMOS sensor with all the bells and whistles, is a minor miracle. I have made A1 size prints (33X22 approx) which look amazingly good. I don't NEED any more, and if I did, I would need a lot more than 1 measly stop to make it worth my while.

In which case I would also have to spend around $500 just to get a single image printed.

Back in 2009, my old tech D700 with 12MP was necessitated by the rather off-hand attitude of Nikon and Canon to APSC. The quality control of APSC lenses was poor and there were few decent options, so if I wanted good glass and a solid camera, FF it was. Is was APS film all over again. But APSC sensors were also limited back then, with DR hovering at the 10EV mark.

By 2012, my Xpro1 with a 16MP EXMOR sensor comprehensively trounced the D700. Over time, Fuji produced excellent lenses and high-quality bodies, and I consigned my somewhat reluctant flirtation with FF to history.

The Fuji X series reminds me of all that I enjoyed about 35mm in the '80s, but with quality that would stand muster against a 67 negative. In colour, anyway. It's a cake you can keep on eating...

We live in world of carefully crafted marketing memes. They persist, until people eventually see through them. I think the current rash of FF uber-cameras are so far out of the financial reach of budding photographers that they will have the opposite effect that which was intended.

They will push new blood away from photography, and erode the relevance of the dedicated camera even more.

And that, in my view, would be a crying shame. There is a lot to be said for a beautifully crafted digital image which was laboured over lovingly. There is no comparison to an automated robot - however many computations it can do in a second, it will never have a soul.

And that experience should be accessible to every budding photography neophyte that wants to experience it, whether they have a few thousand dollars or a few hundred.

The industry just keeps digging its own grave.

My favourite film camera has been the Mamiya 67 and I've always preferred that ratio to 35mm/full frame. My hobby camera is a Lumix dx100, generally set to 1/1 or 4/3. I personally think it a shame that Panasonic didn't introduce a larger version of the micro four thirds, a sort of larger full frame 4/3.

Would love it if the Panasonic S1R came with a so called full frame sensor but with a 4:3 ratio!

Mike - this is a great article. There are a lot of excellent perspectives here. It sums up a lot of history that many of your readers lived through (well, the last couple of decades :-) anyhow).

Just one point to follow up on some of the other comments. In your anthropological dissection of categories of photographer, I think there is a conceptual difference between "subject enthusiasts" and the "Ad Ams". "Subject enthusiasts" likely came to photography through their love of their subject, and have chosen the gear in relation to the subject on the basis of what is known to work well.

Those of us who are enthusiasts for subjects such as wildlife (especially birds), aviation or some sports really do need the great big lenses to get the results we want. The early m43 cameras could not pick up focus on, say, a fast or erratically moving bird in flight and track it nearly as well as a DSLR, so the subject enthusiasts stuck with what worked, and ignored m43. Not only that, but until the last couple of years there wasn't a m43 lens to compete with a Canikon 500mm f/4. The subject enthusiasts have kept their big lenses and use them all the time. (The newer m43 cameras are a separate discussion, because then we get into the whole current mirrorless hoopla).

"Ad Ams" - I'm really not sure who they are - gear heads? I don't think I've ever actually met someone whose behaviour fits your description.

The 4:3 aspect ratio was used in television due to the circular nature of CRT screen (and to be compatible with a lot of Hollywood production in that format). Early digital photography sensor tech and nomenclature were derived from the cameras used to record television video. Of course that is an interesting parallel since movie film gave rise to the 3:2 photographic format.

Adherence to a specific aspect ratio seems odd to me and I find it weird that frame and matte manufacturers cling to traditional sizes that are not 2:3. The only commercial frames I see in stores that fit that profile are 9x12, and not all stores have them.

Isn't it weird that frame makers and film/sensor makers can't line up?

If we believe that the "free market" always knows what is best, then what explains this confusion?

It might be just down to habit.


Thank you, Mike. That was entertaining and enlightening.

The "outrage and ridicule" over the intentional use of bokeh sounds just like today's forum weenies.

Now, since we know that Full Frame has no inherent meaning, I think you should refer to 24x36mm as the Barnack Format. Or Oskar.

As a (retired pro) AdAm, I just spent a few days processing hundreds of vacation photos. I cropped every one at least a little, vertically or horizontally, or both. It makes no sense to me to avoid taking a shot just because the picture doesn't fit the shape of the sensor of a given camera.

I think a square sensor makes sense from an ergonomic standpoint, so that the controls, grip, mount, viewfinder, etc. can be optimized for a single hand-hold.

I want a camera with a round sensor. Our eyes see in circles (the brain merges the two circles into a sort of oval). Lenses make circular images. The natural world has lots of circles, but few 90-degree angles. It may not be the most efficient shape for sensor production, but I don't know.

I'm not a good enough photographer to make 2:3 images work very well most of the time. I set my camera for square. (I never have to hold it sideways.) If my camera had 4:3 I might try that, but square is great for us amateurs.

My return to photography coincided with the availability free film (in the form of reasonably priced digital cameras), inexpensive and powerful editing software and consumer-priced computers and disk drives to support it all. Not only was the film free but my "darkroom" required only a few square feet of deskspace.

At the same time, a new standard was emerging for television -- High-definition television which was higher resolution and 16 x 9. Thinking I was seeing the future and because I liked the results I cropped many (most?) of my images to horizontal 16 x 9. I still do.

Instagram has forced some of us to learn to make square images and the iPhone (I use the term generically) in popular usage has made 16 x 9 vertical images and videos de-rigueur no matter how much it hurts the sensibilities of the standard photographic world.

I sometimes edit to CinemaScope (2.66 to 1). It's nice to have choices.

Normally I wouldn't be so picky [yeah, right] but since this is eventually going into a book... Snopes.com took the story about horses and rocket engines apart. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/horses-pass/

I’ll add to the chorus of applause for your article, or chapter. Looking forward to the whole thing. Maybe Lenswork can actually turn it into print, that would be cool, though I’ll enjoy it as a PDF.

I used the 4:3 ratio for several years, enough to develop a pretty strong preference, but I can work with 3:2. I was considering using my 4/3 EM1 for an exercise where I only took verticals, just to see if I developed my eye more and got some interesting results. It would be fun if that IBIS device were flexible enough to fully rotate the sensor into the vertical position.

The 3:2 format (6x9 cm) was found in a number of old folding cameras. Wikipedia says that Kodak 105 film dates back to 1896, for Kodak's first folder.

I personally think one driver toward the wide aspect ratio was picture postcards. Those might have been perceived as being of a high standard. Picture postcards date back to the turn of the 20th century. The 3A postcard is about 83x140 mm, with an aspect ratio of 1.7. In vertical orientation, they're a good match for full-length portraits.

In 1899, as the picture postcard format was being standardized, Kodak introduced 116 film with 63x108 mm images, giving the picture postcard aspect ratio of 1.7. In 1932, 116 was joined by 616 which was the same film on a smaller spool.

Kodak introduced type 127 film in 1912, with 40x65 cm images (just over 3:2).

Very interesting. I’m looking forward to the finished product. I agree with Robert above…I think Oskar settled on the 24x36 standard because it was close to the golden ratio/golden rectangle.

Fascinating article! Thanks! You set so many bells ringing. Didn't the original Wrayflex (single lens reflex but no pentaprism - impossible to pan with!!) have a 35mm frame size of 32x24 - I seem to recall it had 40 exposures per film.

Excellent. Looking forward to the book. Will you be accepting pre-orders at some point?

[No. But whenever it appears (it'll be a while), Patreon supporters will receive it automatically, for free. --Mike]

Great post, and I'm looking forward to the book.
I shoot both m4/3 and FF, and one place that FF usually doesn't work well for me is in *rooms.* I know that cropping a full frame will give me as many megapixels (and maybe better ones) than the m4/3, but I'm not thinking about that when I'm shooting inside -- instead, I always try to make the aspect ratio somehow fit the room, to get the most out of the sensor, probably a habit left over from film days. Often, 2:3 doesn't work very well. Still, the main reason for m4/3 IMHO is size and weight and effectiveness in street shooting...which is important to me.

Kodak's history of consumer film formats can simply be explained by the profit motive of selling ever smaller areas of film at higher prices.

Actually, Tomas Jiricek, the square root of 2 is the exact geometric mean of 3/2 and 4/3 (it took me a shamefully long time to realise this). In practice I find that printing on A4 requires about the same amount of cropping whether I am shooting 3/2 or 4/3.

A very enjoyable read Mike. I haven't even started reading the comments yet, so I have more to look forward to.

Since this post features some fine black and white prints, maybe this is an opportune time to ask: what is the current state of black and white printing? Coincidentally, I was just looking to see what my options are for mailing negatives in for printing. 6x9 by the way..

In response to Gordon Lewis' comment about the format and existing lenses: "Pros did not want to have to buy a whole new set of lenses for 'cropped' formats and didn't like having their expensive wide-angle zooms transformed into normal range zooms. " Actually, all lenses (with some very highly specialized exceptions) throw a circular image. The sensor intercepts a rectangular part of that image. But there's nothing preventing a different rectangle with a different aspect ration from being drawn in that same circle, and in fact, the closer to square it gets, the more of the image circle is used. So it would have been perfectly possible to adopt a different format without abandoning the existing line of 35mm lenses.

I guess there is no "best" aspect ratio. Some photos can be made to fit the film/sensor and others will be cropped. There will be some cropping to fit the standard paper sizes. And viewing online isn't going to help one camera over another. I sit here with three devices within reach having aspect ratios of 1.6, 1.7 and 1.78 and my cameras have 1.5 and 1.33 ratios. My photos end up without cropping or cropped to the old 4X5 and 5X7 ratios of prints. When viewing there is almost always "dead space" on the screen. The only photos I take that fit the screen are made with the phone and viewed on the phone.

I think part of the modern prejudice against M43 and APS-C sensors is a hangover from the film days, both in cinema and still photography. Stepping down from Todd-AO 70mm to widescreen-matted 35mm (1:1.85) to amateur/TV news 16mm was a huge and obvious difference with each step, with greatly degraded tonality and color for the smaller formats. This was obvious even on a 21" NTSC television. Analog color TV has a resolution well below 0.3 megapixels, yet you can easily see the difference between 16mm and 35mm film origination.

Modern digital looks amazingly good from an iPhone on up, and M43, APS-C, and 24x36 digital is superior to Todd-AO 70mm, with the kind of color control in the grading process that used to take expensive Technicolor color separations.

The difference in sensor size for digital merely comes down to a stop or two of dynamic range, with very little sacrifice in color depth or quality. It's nothing like the appalling difference between 16mm and 70mm movie film ... but the memories of film limitations overshadow the real power of modern sensors.

Nice article Mike. I have posted a few times on DPR etc. about this topic when questions about "full-frame" come up.

I'd like to add a few more historical points. You were wondering about the first use of "frame" in this context. The word was certainly used in the cine world, and I can tell you that the 24x36 Leica format was, early on, somewhat commonly referred to as "double frame" because it occupied double the standard cine frame. As is the case with a lot of such trivia, it's easier to remember than to prove. But if you search for Gepe slide mounts, a product left over from film days, you will find them described as "double frame" and this goes way back.

There were actually a number of early-20c still cameras designed to work with 35mm cine film, sometimes to reduce the size of the camera (as in the Leica), but often more to enable as many exposures as possible in one loading. Of these, some used 24x36 or 24x32, but many used the same 18x24 cine frame (occasionally termed "full-frame" at the time!) The Tourist Multiple camera could load enough film for over 700 exposures, enough for a tourist to avoid re-loading during his or her holiday trip.

The most popular 1920s camera to use cine film was probably the Anco Memo, also using 18x24 film in single-spool cassettes - one for load film and one for take-up. Ansco partnered and later merged with German Agfa, and Agfa marketed the essentially similar "Agfa Rapid" cassettes decades later as their competition to the Kodak dual-spool Instamatic cassette system. Those "in the know" realized that the (only slightly) less-convenient Rapid system was superior because it enabled the use of a proper pressure plate to keep the film flat and precisely registered like a "real" 35mm camera. The Memo, as the Tourist Multiple (though much smaller) was a "tall" camera, the film ran vertically like movie camera so that the cine frame would be horizontal.

Kodak also marketed a line of Bantam cameras using 35mm film stock, paper-backed on 828 spools but with only one perforation between each frame. Thus the frame was larger at 28x40mm and could have been considered more "pro", but at that time "pro" was usually sheet film or dry plates; even 120 and larger roll film was mostly for amateurs in the 1930s. A similar film stock is what was later packaged into 126 Instamatic cassettes or "Kodapaks", but exposed to 28x28mm square.

So in summary, full-frame (a 2000s digital term) was originally double-frame, and half-frame (a 1950s/60s film term) was originally full-frame.

[Thanks very much Joel. This information will come in handy when I revise this chapter. The full chapter covers other related subjects as well and, by the way, does make the case for an "ideal" format. Or at least argues for balance instead of extremes. --Mike]

>> But there's nothing preventing a different rectangle with a different aspect ration from being drawn in that same circle, and in fact, the closer to square it gets, the more of the image circle is used.

Quite true -- however, given the size of the image circle, the most likely options for a square format would be either 24x24mm (larger than APS-C) or 36x36mm (larger than the current "full frame"). If you wanted a rectangular image you'd still have to crop, so camera manufacturers apparently decided that if you have to crop anyway, and square format is less popular overall, why not crop a square out a rectangle instead of the other way around?

Gordon Lewis said "If you wanted a rectangular image you'd still have to crop, so camera manufacturers apparently decided that if you have to crop anyway, and square format is less popular overall, why not crop a square out a rectangle instead of the other way around?"

With the electronic viewfinders of mirrorless, why not go square and take advantage of changing the aspect ration in the view finder? Some cameras already do that. You could save a square raw file with the crop, as chosen in the EVF, saved as part of the file. You could have the option to go back to the full square image or change the crop in your editor if you decide your chosen aspect ratio does not work for you.

Why are we letting the companies choose for us? We should be telling them what we want within their ability to give to us.

Re ' Other formats for ' 35mm' digital cameras,--- if you wanted to use existing lenses you would have to stick to a rectangle with approximately the same diagonal as the 24x36 mm frame for which the lenses were designed (43.2mm ) So the largest square that could probably be used would be about 30x30mm diagonal 42,4mm. You would get 900 sq/mm area vs 864 in the 24x36
The diagonal of 36x36 is a bit over 50mm so many existing lenses would not cover it (although some like T/S would.
Since lenses project circles, and the largest rectangle that fits in a circle is a square, we are always going to be cropping a rectangle out of a square (rather than vice versa)

"Agfa marketed the essentially similar "Agfa Rapid" cassettes decades later as their competition to the Kodak dual-spool Instamatic cassette system."

The frame size was 24x24, using standard 35mm film, in their unique cassettes.

Here's a start: https://www.google.com/search?newwindow=1&safe=off&authuser=0&q=agfa+rapid+demonstration&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwip25i-qendAhWLt1kKHfViByQQ1QIIpAEoBw&biw=1358&bih=600

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