Aspect Ratio for Images in Medium

Mobile phone screen dictates how to size my photos

Jesse R. Barker
Full Frame

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Your audience | photo by author

Medium is a great app for writers. It is simple. For photographers, not so much. Embedded photographs on Medium look grand when viewed on a laptop, desktop, or iPad. But on the mobile phone, the landscape images are much smaller and can appear unreadable or unprofessional.

Conversely, tall portrait images, when viewed on a mobile phone, may break the continuity of the narrative, detracting from the reader’s experience.

In both cases, you may lose the reader as he or she flicks your hard-worked piece off the edge of their screen.

Avoiding these unwanted results require attention to one key component, aspect ratio.

What is aspect ratio? It is the proportional relationship between the height and width of a photo. Typically displayed with two numbers and a colon between them.

Choice of aspect ratio is generally driven by the intended use of the image. Many online publications and Instagram favor the 1:1 ratio.

A 5:4 ratio is common in photography and art prints, as well as large and medium format cameras.

The 4:3 ratio was the standard orientation for TV prior to the digital age and is still the adopted ratio for Apple iPad tablets. It is also the aspect ratio of Four-Thirds cameras.

My full frame Nikon Z6II produces an image with an aspect ratio of 3:2. The same as 35mm film cameras and APS-C cameras.

The 16:9 ratio is the global reference format for television, film, mobile devices, DSLRs, major online streaming platforms, and, of course, social media platforms.

So, what does all of this have to do with Medium?

It is about your audience.

If you believe your readers are on an iPad or computer, then aspect ratio is less of a concern.

If you assume your readers are on a mobile phone, which most are, the equation changes. Only certain aspect ratios will maintain the integrity of the image intent on the tiny narrow mobile app screen.

Mobile App Screenshot | By author

The reason is simple. The horizontal component of any photo at any aspect ratio in Medium always remains the same. It is fixed to the width of the text, as seen in the Medium app. However, the height of a photograph decreases as a function of the ratio between width and height.

So, mathematically speaking, a 1:1 aspect ratio provides the most real estate for your image within the limitations of a vertical smart phone

Aspect Ratio 1:1 | Photo by author

A photo with a 5:4 aspect ratio will produce an image size that is 75% of a 1:1 aspect ratio. Still a decent size when viewed on a mobile phone.

Aspect Ratio 5:4 | Photo by author

That percentage declines as the vertical component of the image decrease in relationship to the horizontal component.

A 3:2 image will have a size that only 67% that of a 1:1 image.

Aspect Ratio 3:2 | Photo by author

A 16:9 image will have a size that is only 56% of the 1:1 image.

Aspect Ratio 16:9 | Photo by Author

As the images shrink, so does the visual impact. Especially for those of us who own older eyes.

The opposite happens when you go with a portrait image. As before, the width remains fixed. But in this case, the apparent height of the photo increases on mobile screens, as you go from an aspect ratio of 1:1 to 9:16. This increases the overall size of the image.

Aspect Ratio 9:19 | Photo by author

As the image gets taller, it takes real-estate away from text and can interrupt readers’ flow. This can break the continuity of the narrative, which risk losing the reader’s interest altogether.

On-line publications such as the New York Times square use a 1:1aspect ratio for imagery embedded in their articles. The second choice by on-line publications seems to be a 5:4 or 4:3 aspect ratio. Examples are CNN, Politico, etc.

Most of those publications push their photos past the text margin to the edge of the phone, picking up more real-estate for the image. Medium fixes the photos at the margin of the text.

My approach is to use the 1:1 aspect ratio, only deviating for special images that beg for a different aspect ratio. For me, it creates a clean, by the consistent look to my Medium articles.

I will use a 5:4 aspect ratio photo as the lead in the photograph. The reduction in vertical height allows the title, subtitle and first paragraph to be visible in the initial view. A Square or portrait image can push the lead-in paragraph past the bottom of the screen.

In the text’s body, I restrict the number of photos to only those that support my narrative. I don’t stack photos on top of each other (as it appears on the phone screen) unless a combination tells a better story.

A good example of my overall approach is this recent travel piece for Globetrotter. The consistency of the imagery size and placement, along with the 1:1 aspect ratio, gives the “professional” feel I am looking for.

Well-presented photos help hold the attention by complementing written text with a corresponding visual message. And a visually balanced article gives a better chance of stopping the swiping thumb from flicking hard work off the edge of the screen.

Thanks for reading.

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Jesse R. Barker
Full Frame

Retired these days but still working to improve myself. An avid photographer I am always learning to look at the world in new ways while telling a good story.