Aspect Ratios Explained: Everything You Need to Know
Updated: June 15,2022
If you went into a room full of people facing screens - i.e., any room - and asked: “What is aspect ratio?” you probably wouldn’t be able to get a definitive answer, as this widely used is still a source of confusion. Today, we will dispel that and talk about everything there is to know about aspect ratios.
Aspect Ratio Definition
Aspect ratio is the relation between an image’s width and height. For example, say we have a monitor with a resolution of 1920x1080. In that formula, the width (X) is 1920 pixels, and height (Y) is 1080 pixels. Dividing these numbers by the smaller of the two will give us the aspect ratio.
In our case, how many times is 1080 (Y) contained within 1920 (X)? If we divide 1920 by 1080, we get 1.77. However, while that gives us the exact relation, these decimal numbers aren’t convenient for everyday use. Therefore, 1.77:1 is more commonly presented as 16:9.
The 16:9 format represents the screen size in inches. The screen is 16 inches wide and nine inches tall. If you divide those, you’ll get a 1.77:1 aspect ratio again.
Aspect Ratios vs. Resolution
The resolution represents the number of pixels on the screen, multiplying the width by the height. Also, the screen size and aspect ratio aren’t the same - screen size influences the aspect ratio, but doesn’t represent it - and neither are resolution and screen size.
Common Aspect Ratios
Many different aspect ratios came up in the history of filmmaking, but today we use only a couple of them actively. They are:
- 1.33:1 (4:3)
- 1.77: 1 (16:9)
- 0.56:1 (9:16)
1:1 Aspect Ratio
The most basic, square 1:1 aspect ratio isn’t used as much as the others, but it’s still common to see pictures or videos on social media platforms using that “square” format.
1.33:1 Aspect Ratio
The first standard size for the film strip used by filmmakers was 1:33:1. It’s why most television screens not produced in the last decade had that same aspect ratio, as did the first computer monitors.
However, more recently, when filmmakers moved on to the wide aspect ratio, screen manufacturing companies followed suit.
1.77:1 Aspect Ratio
It should come as no surprise that there are many different aspect ratios out there. After all, filmmakers rarely stick to a single format, and this applies to screen size, too. Movie aspect ratios vary from 2.66:1 to 1:33:1.
Today's standard 1.77:1 can be considered a middle ground between all the significant aspect ratios used in cinema, and it works. If you want to watch a movie on an HD display, 4K display, or 8K display, you’ll notice that they all use the same aspect ratio. Most of our computer monitors are made for this widescreen aspect ratio, as well.
0.56:1 Aspect Ratio
Unlike most other aspect ratios, traditional filmmakers didn’t introduce this one. This format is most popular on social media platforms. If you are unsure why, just look at your phone:
Social media is consumed primarily via mobile phones, and this 0.56:1 aspect format works well for their narrow screen. Although social media platforms also allow the use of other video formats (e.g., 1:1, 1.33:1, 1.77:1, 0.8:1 (4:5), and others), the 9:16 (i.e., 0.56:1) is the default.
1.85:1 Aspect Ratio
Another widescreen ratio is 1.85:1. It’s slightly wider than a regular 1.77:1 aspect ratio, and converting from one to the other gives you black bars at the top and bottom (letterboxing). Still, this only happens with manual solutions - most streaming platforms use software that adjusts the movie size to fit the viewer's screen, eliminating any letterboxing.
2.39:1 Aspect Ratio
The last prominent aspect ratio used in cinema, also known as anamorphic widescreen format, is 2.39:1. It’s named after the anamorphic lens moviemakers mostly use to capture scenic landscapes and the iconic movie scenes you see as the featured shots of the movie.
There are other aspect ratios, but they’re rarely used. They go up to 12:1, which was developed for Circle-Vison 360 by the Walt Disney Company in 1955.
Why Is Aspect Ratio Important?
The point of imagery is to deliver a message. If the viewer is watching a movie designed for one of the cinematic aspect ratios on an older monitor with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, most of the images would be cropped, and their message would be distorted at best.
But the aspect ratio isn’t important only for movies. Anything app we interact with on our PCs has to consider the aspect ratio of the monitors we are using, even more so if it’s cross-platformed. It’s the job of graphic designers and programmers to solve such problems.
Designing Your Home Theater – Which Aspect Ratio To Pick
When making your own home theater, the question of aspect ratio is rarely mentioned. Usually, people talk about sound surround systems or video resolution. While the aspect ratio isn’t something to overlook when picking video equipment, let’s start with the most important dilemma: Will you be using a projector or TV?
Video projectors come in three different aspect ratios: 1.33 (4:3), 1.6 (16:10), and 1.77 (16:9). If you plan to watch only movies, the safest bet is to get a projector with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio. It’s one most commonly used in films.
TVs don’t change a lot when it comes to the aspect ratio. The 1.77:1 format remains the easiest choice and is the preferred aspect ratio of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services.
After all, HD (1920x1080), 4K (3840x2160), and 8K (7680x4320) resolutions work with the 1.77:1 ratio in mind. If you get a 4K and 8K monitor, with High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology to make colors more vibrant and alive, that won’t affect your aspect ratio needs, so don’t worry.
If you’re aiming for a more cinematic experience, you may want to check out TVs that offer an ultrawide aspect ratio (2.33:1 or 21:9), but to fully enjoy that, the video you are trying to watch has to be in the same format.
Although it won’t affect the aspect ratio of a movie you’re watching, another essential part of a home cinema is the sound system. For full movie-night enjoyment, we need to pick an optimal solution, depending on our available space and budget.
If we lack space, a soundbar may be preferable to regular speakers, but we’ll sacrifice audio quality. On the other hand, if you can fit them, 5.1 surround sound systems are easier to obtain as a single set, while the 7.1 surround sound system offers better quality but costs more and usually has to be bought piecemeal.
The cinema aspect ratio isn’t just something used in theaters: We can get it for our home screens, too - the trick is to match the movie's aspect ratio with the device's aspect ratio. To make this possible, most visual media and screens now use the 1.77:1 (16:9) ratio - the perfect middle-ground that allows us to enjoy most content without distorting the original too much. After reading this article, we hope you can now consider the aspect ratios explained once and for all.
Frequently Asked Questions
Simply put, yes. The 16:9 or 1.77:1 aspect ratio is the most commonly used film aspect ratio outside movie theaters and is the standard for most streaming platforms.
The difference is that 4:3 (1.33:1) is older and has more vertical space or vertical video information when compared with 16:9 (1.77:1), while the latter is a “widescreen” ratio that’s been dominant for the past decade.
To get this resolution’s aspect ratio, you need to divide 1920 by 1080; you’ll get 1.77, more commonly denoted as 16:9. If you want to know how to calculate any aspect ratio, we covered that as part of our “Aspect Ratio Explained” article.
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