Prep Like A Pro

What is Aspect Ratio?

Ryan Sias

What is Aspect Ratio, and why is it so Important?

You might have been in the frustrating situation where you have artwork prepared, and would like to create different sizes of prints, only to find out that you have fewer options than you thought! This is because the width and height dimensions of your artwork will dictate which specific sizes you can scale to without distorting your image. 

Below is an extreme example of what happens when you scale your image to a different aspect ratio. Our original artwork is sized at 5 x 5, and for this example let's say you’d like to scale your artwork into an 11 x 17 poster size.

A square image featuring a Printworks logo
Our logo appears as intended in our original square aspect ratio.

A stretched looking image of a Printworks logo
Scaling to a taller aspect ratio clearly stretches our image.

No, the second example isn’t on it’s way into a black hole, the aspect ratio of the 11 x 17 poster is much different than the original size, so in order to create the artwork at 11 x 17, the aspect ratio must be broken and forced to the new size, creating the stretched out image.

In the next example we resized to a business card size and we can see the opposite problem. Since we scaled the image to a much shorter aspect ratio, our logo appears to be squeezed downward.

A crushed looking Printworks logo
Scaling to a shorter aspect ratio has an opposite affect, making our image appear crunched down.

So how does aspect ratio work, and how can we avoid distorted images on our printing?

How Aspect Ratio Works

Aspect ratio is the ratio of width to height in the dimensions of your design. In the case above the aspect ratio of 5 x 5 is 1:1, which is square, meaning for every 1 inch on the width, there is 1 inch on the height. Our 11 x 17 poster however, has an aspect ratio of 1:1.54. This means for every inch on the width, there are 1.54 inches on the height. This means that since our original design is square, resizing to a taller aspect ratio significantly distorts our design. In our business card example, our aspect ratio is even further off at 1:1.75 so our image is distorted in the opposite direction.

Plan Your Aspect Ratio Accordingly

In order to avoid such problems with your printing, the best case scenario would be to first consider aspect ratio before starting your design. Do you plan on framing your artwork? If so, it is best to first consider the size of frame you would like, to make certain your artwork will scale correctly.

Cropping to Adjust Aspect Ratio

If your artwork doesn’t happen to scale perfectly, you might not be completely out of luck if you are okay with cropping (removing) some of the margins on the edges.

For this example, let’s look at a couple of options of popular sizes of different aspect ratios that we can crop an image to. As taken from a digital device, our photo doesn’t exactly size to what we’d like our prints to be, so here we can see a couple of options we have.

Image of a dock at Echo Lake, with several boats. Black boxes indicate possible frame sizes for a printed photo.
Our original photo isn't sized correctly for a frame, but we can see a couple of options for common frame sizes.

We can carefully crop our image to the size we would like our final print size to be, keeping in mind that we will be removing the image outside of our respective boxes.

We have the option of the larger 7 x 5 size, seen here:

Image of a dock at Echo Lake, with several boats, cropped for a 7 x 5 frame
Our image here is cropped for a 7 x 5 frame.

Or the smaller 6 x 4 size:

Image of a dock at Echo Lake, with several boats, cropped for a 6 x 4 frame
Here we see our image cropped in a bit further for a 6 x 4 frame.

Both sizes look great, and are not stretched or distorted! 

Leave Some Room in Your Design!

While cropping an image to adjust aspect ratio often works better with photos than artwork, it is still possible when working with an illustration. One way to make it more likely to be an option with your illustrated artwork is to not place important text or objects very close to the edges of your artwork. This will give your artwork a cleaner, more professional look, and also give you more options to create different sizes of prints from the same artwork by cropping small areas at the margins of your design. Check out our guide on Printing a Full Bleed Image to learn more!

Now you have an understanding of aspect ratio for printing and have some fresh new tricks up your sleeve. Use these wisely, and you can avoid having your images look like they’ve seen the business end of a hydraulic press, or returned from interstellar space travel!