35mm film and standard print sizes…What a bunch of crop!

Elbows or no elbows? Depends on the crop!
Elbows or no elbows? Depends on the crop!

The fingers or the top of the head? One of them has to go and it is up to you to decide which one. This is the lose-lose scenario many of us have had to face or will have to face in our lives. This decision is painful, hard to watch, and, in the end, you won’t feel good about having chosen either one. No, I’m not describing a horrific scene orchestrated by some sadistic madman. I’m speaking of the often-poignant process of having your portraits printed!

Unfortunately, based on society’s standards, this question will come up again and again as long as physical prints are being made (and I strongly recommend against perpetuating the idea of physical prints being archaic and almost dead. Instead, click here to save yourself some future heartache). Simply put, the problem is simple math. Popular, standard film size does not translate 100% into popular, standard paper size. That is the short explanation, but there is a little more to it than that.

On the photography side, we must step back from the digital era for a moment and look at good, old fashioned film. Now, I won’t condescend too much, as I know even those born in the digital age should have some idea as to what camera film is. Anyway, in the early 1900s, Thomas Edison patented the use of 35mm film for use in his motion picture machine, the Kinetoscope. According to the Camerapedia web page, he had taken the existing film size of 70 mm and split it in half to create this now-familiar size. 35mm film (a 35mm wide film strip where image size was set at 24mm by 36mm) would later be adopted as a popular standard in still photography as well, thereby making it the staple size in the consumer film industry. To delve deeper into the history of 35mm film, you may visit the Wikipedia page here or, once again, the Camerapedia page here.

On the paper side, the history is much more complex. I’ll be honest, following my research, I still do not have a complete grasp on an easy explanation as to how our standard paper sizes have come to be. However, suffice to say, I do have a nebulous idea. Reasons I have found include everything from historical paper standards predating still photography, measurements from standard glass plates used in window making, and the Greeks’ Golden Number.

So, regardless of how these standards came to be, they more or less grew organically and independently of each other and have simply chosen to tolerate each other, rather than compromise, for more than 100 years now. Bottom line: The problem exists today and there is little, which can be done, outside of special order prints and framing, to correct it.

I will note both older and newer, large format view cameras take 8×10, 5×7, and 4×5 film sheets, indicating some attempt, early on, at applying common sense to standard paper and film sizes. Ansel Adams used an 8×10 view camera and I own and have used a 4×5 view camera, which would make this whole dilemma somewhat moot. However, film negatives nearly the size of a sheet of notebook paper, while great for resolution purposes, is not practical in the mainstream, 35mm world, so let’s leave those out for now.

So, bearing in mind the century-old love/hate relationship between film and paper sizes, we can get back to the original question: Why do I have to choose which body part to leave out when I enlarge my 35mm portrait to 8×10? Well, like I said before, it boils down to simple math. The above mentioned film measurements of 24mm by 36mm, when the common denominator is applied, gives a ratio of 3:2. That means, as the image is enlarged, any rectangle that will neatly fit the entire image upon it must also be in the ratio of 3:2.

Now, let’s look at four common print sizes for those lovely portraits: 8×10, 5×7, 11×14, and 16×20. Finding the common denominator and doing the math, gives us ratios of 5:4, 7:5, 14:11, and 5:4 respectively.

Are we beginning to see the problem?

As a matter of fact, of the common frame sizes you will find at your local Walmart, the only one which fits the 3:2 ratio is 4×6. Otherwise, special orders and frames will have to be sought. Common (yet uncommon) print sizes for 35mm film would be 8×12, 10×15, 16×24 and 24×36. Keep in mind, Abanathy Photography, LLC can special order prints in sizes, however, that would also mean limited frame options and/or costly custom frames are also in your future. So, while we hate to crop our images for prints, we also don’t want to unduly (or unwittingly) put people out if we don’t have to.

So, there is the simplest explanation for those annoying cropping realities. However, now you say: “But Patrick, we have digital ‘film’ now. Doesn’t that negate the need for rigorous physical measurements, mathematical translations, and hard-edged rules?”

Well, one would think so. You would think, as the digital transition came into being, we might be smart enough to finally reconcile the differences and bring modern cameras into sync with common print and frame sizes. After all, if film is no longer film, wouldn’t we, as intelligent human beings out to better our lives and society in general, be practical enough to seize the opportunity and make the new “film” more crop friendly?

Answer: NOPE!

Digital camera sensors are based on…you guessed it…35mm film. In fact, the higher end cameras, like the one’s Abanathy Photography uses are full-frame which means each image captured is allotted the exact same space on the digital sensor as it would be on a frame of…everybody say it together now…35mm film.

Considering the costs of shifting long-held industry standards to make it more user-friendly on either end, I can understand the resistance, but it begs a question: How does one deal with this issue?

Well, it is quite simple. For fellow photographers and enthusiasts who do not want to special order and custom frame every print, but still want to keep every part of their image intact, the easiest solution is to back away from your subject just a little bit, when taking the picture, to allow some extra marginal space in the image. This space can later be sacrificed to perfectly frame the desired print!

For a few more tips, check this site out (Cropping and Printing: The 8×10 Problem). It gives a few more advanced tips for dealing with this issue.

So, there you have it! We have all had to deal with this problem. Some may have blamed the lab, some may have blamed the photographer, however, truth be told, the reason your loved one’s portraits have a bit less than expected included in that 8×10 print has roots more than a century old before most of us were even born!

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