Image Sizes and Ratios

I’m working with a client on her second book. It’s full of submitted personal stories and contains 55 author-submitted images, some of which were created with camera phones and/or older cameras. I’ve edited the images according to the specs of the book (like making them black and white) and also to make sure they look the best they can to illustrate each story.

Not every image is the same. Some are portrait orientation; others are landscape. Some needed edits that affected the angle/ratio of the images. Since my client found this confusing, I’ll illustrate.

Crop

Some of the images contained distracting items in the edges of the frame. Whenever possible, I cropped these items out to keep the focus on the subject of the image. After all, no one wants to see a pile of laundry on the couch in the background. 😉 Don’t worry, that’s only an example. Other images were slightly crooked and need to be straightened, which requires minor cropping from all four sides of the image.

Because the images have been cropped to the best look for that image, they are no longer all an exact (straight out of camera, SOOC) 2:3 ratio. Furthermore, one of the images submitted was from ~20 years ago and is naturally more square in shape. Making them all the same would do a disservice to each image and each story the image tells.

Area

Since not all images have the same ratio, each one will consume a different geometrical area on the page. An image that is 2×3 (2″ wide by 3″ high) should look the same to our eyes as one that is 3×2. The area of these images is 6 square inches.

An image that has been cropped square will look too large or too small.

  • 2×2 is a smaller area (4 square inches) than 2×3
  • 3×3 is a larger area (9 square inches) than 2×3

While we can cheat our eyes and make square images 2.5″x2.5″, what would we do about images that aren’t a perfect 2×3 or square ratio? We could fight with it and struggle with unimportant math. But (in a book with 55 images, this time-consuming work would be expensive for the client, so,) we are far better off to just realize that asymmetry is far more interesting than balance.

Instead of making all images the exact same area, we could make the more important images larger. We could incorporate colleges that strive for a hint of a more natural look in the document instead of one that looks too man-made.

Portrait-oriented Image
Portrait-oriented Image
Landscape-oriented Image
Landscape-oriented Image
Square Image (3x3)
Square Image (3x3)
Square Image (2x2)
Square Image (2x2)

See how much bigger the 3×3 square image looks (and how much smaller the 2×2 image seems)? That’s because it does consume more (or less) total area, even if it uses the same “real estate” on the screen/page as the other images. Technically, it is larger in area, but it’s the same width/height as the other two images.

This is compounded when we combine portrait, landscape, and square images on the same page. We tend to look for everything to be the same, but that isn’t realistic.

Best Practice

It is no longer necessary to think about images in “standard sizes” like 8×10, 11×14, or 24×36. Technology advances in digital photography and image printing have allowed us to make images in the best size for that image. We can have images that are 15.5×23 or 18×18. Anything is possible.

Longest Length

Instead of thinking of a certain size, we instead consider the longest edge of the image. Whether that’s 10, 14, 36, or 15.5 inches, we look at the longest edge to determine the size.

Placement

The other factor for the image size and shape is placement. With wall prints, we ask clients where the image will hang. The wall or mantle size will determine the largest possible length for the longest edge.

My Recommendation

My client’s book is 5.5×8.5″ with .5″ margins. My guess is that 2.5″ or 3″ images will look the best on the page, but I suggest we test sizes:

  1. Look at one of the square images on a page; determine the size in which it looks best.
  2. Look at one of the pages with multiple larger images; determine the size in which they look best
  3. (if necessary) Meet in the middle

Now, we have a measurement for the longest edge (height on a portrait-oriented image, width on a landscape-oriented image) of all the images in the book. Since we know it works in both extremes, we can feel confident applying this size to all 55 images.

Regardless of the design choice, pick a standard and stick with it. It’s part of the style guide for your document and will keep the book looking consistent and professional.