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Best Size and Aspect Ratio for Your Images on Instagram and Social Media (Plus Carousel Post Tips)

Introduction: What Image Size is Best for Social Media?

These days the most common format for photos and video on social media is square, but portrait is becoming more popular, thanks to the rise of Instagram. Traditionally, because the viewer was usually interacting with the media on their phone, formatting to take advantage of this small screen meant cropping your media square. People still post wide images at ratios like 16×9 but this is becoming less common – and for good reason since a 1×1 or square image looks way better!

Many people are posting the wrong size images on Instagram. They want likes and comments, but they haven’t considered the best ways to maximize viewer interactions

Personally I’m interested in making an impact and the best way to do that is to post portrait photos with 4×5 aspect ratio. This size simply fills more of the screen on a phone and gets more engagement.

The second choice is square (if my image warrants a wider frame) and I absolutely never post wide or landscape shots at 4×3 or 16×9 unless they are secondary images in a multi-image post utilizing the swipe-able carousel.

Read on for more tips and examples!

Defining Terms: What Do We Mean by Size and Aspect Ratio?

There are a few ways to describe or measure the format, size or aspect ratio of photos and video. 

Size

When we consider size we may think first about how big an image is, and secondly about the length and width of the image, which relates to aspect ratio and will be covered in the next paragraph. First off, you should be using the biggest, highest resolution media you have. Do not resize or shrink your files before uploading – the software will do that anyway! Upload images and videos at high-res and let Instagram do its optimization thing!

Aspect Ratio

“The aspect ratio of an image describes the proportional relationship between its width and its height. It is commonly expressed as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. (Wikipedia)”

And here we arrive at the purpose of this post. To describe aspect ratio and convince you to invest in the time and tools to format your images so they look their best online and in social media. 

In the following section I will use the convention of describing aspect ratio using the “x” character as in 1×1 (square) since this is a common way to express the ratios in image editing software. 

Let’s review some common aspect ratios:

  • 1×1 (square) – images on Instagram, Facebook etc
  • 4×5 (portrait) – taller, vertical (portrait) photos on social media (IG, FB)
  • 4×3 (wide, landscape) – used by compact / mirrorless cameras, older broadcast TV size
  • 16×9 (wide, landscape) – used by cameras recording video, standard for broadcast TV
  • 3:2 (wide, landscape) – DSLRs often use this for native aspect ratio

Which Size or Aspect Ratio is Best? 

It depends on the context, device and other variables, but for social media – which is viewed primarily on smartphones – I recommend 4×5 portrait or square. Portrait is best because it fills more of the screen and gets better engagement. This is as true for video as it is for images, so try cropping your video to 4×5 or square and see how it works. Wide formats like 16×9 or 4×3 or others are not recommended. Do you have a video formatted at 16×9? Post it on your website and YouTube! Have wide images? Use them for the featured images for your website headers, sliders or blog posts.

Trends in Phone Design and Media Formatting

Phones are getting taller and skinnier. Before I upgraded my phone, I had a Samsung Note 3, and it had an aspect ratio of 3×4. It was a rectangle but very square. My newest phone is the LG G6 which was the first phone released with a super tall aspect ratio – this phone took the previous ratio of the day which was 9×16 and stretched it out to 9×18.

In this animation of a smartphone displaying Instagram, we can see two images. The larger image is the portrait crop or what is known as 4×5 aspect ratio. The wider image is 4×3, a landscape standard on some phones and cameras.

You can put both these aspect ratios in the same post – by simply using letterboxing on the wide image. In this case the wide image fills the same space as the portrait via the use of large white borders on top and bottom edges. This is what is known as letterbox presentation (same as black letterbox for film presentation).

On Instagram and other apps it’s common to view images while holding the phone in the vertical or portrait orientation. In fact, Instagram doesn’t allow you to rotate the phone to landscape view at all. So the logical thing is to always maximize the vertical space and shoot or crop your images portrait wherever possible. Having said that I generally shoot both portrait and landscape of most scenes when I’m out and about and find something appealing to point my camera at.

Aspect Ratio Quiz

In the image below, there are 3 different aspect ratios. Can you identify them? Two are wide, while one is portrait. Take a look and think it over!

Did you figure it out? The aspect ratios in this image include:

  • 4×3 – wide/landscape photo of the Toronto skyline (the largest frame)
  • 4×5 – portrait box (centred in this image)
  • 16×9 – wide series horizontally displayed across centre of the frame

How many did you get? It’s not important that you guessed the actual numbers but that you recognize orientations as portrait, landscape/wide etc.

Handy Tools and Software for Resizing your Media

I work with Adobe CC software when editing my images and media, but I also use mobile software because it’s handy and it’s great for perfecting images before final upload to social media.

Here are 3 tools I use for most image editing for social media:

  • Snapseed
  • PicsArt
  • Panorama Crop
  • Photoshop

The first three are mobile apps. Snapseed is my go to software for final tweaks after Photoshop. Panorama Crop is amazing for slicing images up for carousel posts (swipe-able multi-image posts). PicsArt is great for collages, or adding text or other elements to images to create graphics. 

Overall, mobile tools are convenient for applying edits and formatting prior to uploading your media to social channels. Of course if you are merely using Facebook as a place to store your vacation photos you don’t need to reformat them. But if you want to create a few special posts, consider the advantages of formatting to square or portrait.

Carousel Posts using Portrait and Landscape Aspect Ratio at the Same Time

What is a Carousel?

Not everyone is clear about what these are but to put it in a straight-forward way, a carousel is a post with multiple images that you swipe to view the extra content. If you post at least 2 different shots you are going to end up with a carousel.

Example 1

The master of sharing images that are cropped both portrait and landscape and using carousels to do it is Mike Myers from Chicago. Here you can see how experts like Mike present their images.

First image is portrait crop, second and third are swipe-able details of the original landscape shot, and last image is a landscape shot with white letterboxing. Looks awesome!

Example 2

In the following IG post photographer Kurt Wang crops the fall scene to portrait which is 4×5 (traditionally this was referred to as “8×10”). This is done to maximize the visual effect of the image when viewed on a phone.

By employing a swipeable panorama of the wide scene and also using letterboxing, Kurt allows us to view both landscape original and portrait crop detail at the same time. Great solution and one we’d like to see more often.

How to use and not to use a carousel

Surprisingly they are rarely used. But use them to tell more of your story – literally these are idea for capturing an event or situation where you had 3-6 or more strong images that are deserving of a share.

To do

This is an example of a 10-panel post that featured Toronto artist Frida Vokshi. Created in Photoshop using a canvas that was created to accommodate 10 equal images.

Here a variety of images were laid-out with some overlap planned to create an interesting layout and juxtaposition. White space and borders was used. Backgrounds were added and one very wide image was used for two panels at the end.

This is how the post looks. Swipe or click through!

To not do

It’s pretty simple, keep quality high. Do not use them for what some people call a “photo dump.” If you have extra images they don’t belong here. Just because you can post up to 10 images does not mean you should do so.

Expand the background and create letterbox or pillarbox image

The screenshot below shows a tool for mobile in the process of expanding the background to allow for a new aspect ratio. After you expand all sides, or the top or bottom sides (may require multiple expansions), you simply crop to desired aspect ratio.

What colour to use for the expanded edge? The image above shows smart, white or black options. Some people expand the edges using some variation of “smart” or the duplication or blurring of the image but we think solid colours like white or black look cleaner.

Letterbox – the final image is usually a landscape shot with white or black borders at top or bottom.

Pillarbox – the final image is a portrait shot with white or black borders at left and right.

Summary

Here are some key takeaways for posting images and video on social. Keep in mind you want to make an impact and engage your audience. Post a few images at a time, and consider adding elements like swipe-able posts or video clips.

Do

  • Post most images at portrait crop (4×5 aspect ratio)
  • Crop landscape images 1×1/square (if wanting to retain some wide feel)
  • Upload 3-5 images into a carousel (use different crops, make your posts interesting and tell a story or share from behind the scenes!)

Don’t

  • Post wide images at ratios like 4×3 or 16×9  (unless you also post portrait crops and use the carousel)
  • Upload wide aspect video at 16×9 – or at least make an attempt to edit a version square or 4×5 before you do!

Thanks for reading and have fun with your edits

Thank you for reading! I hope that’s useful to you! I would love to see your work! Shoot me a dm to your page on Instagram!

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