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Film Aspect Ratio 101

Certainly any film extraordinaire will tell you what the perfect aspect ratio is when it comes to watching a movie at the local multiplex or if engaging in a home theatrical showing. When it comes to film aspect ratios, film lovers are going to tell you what’s most common in theaters today and what to expect from widescreen or on television. While there are several common aspect ratios that are popular among the industry and which have evolved over years past as technology has changed within the industry, if you’re the typical business owner or individual that’s just trying to decide what’s best for your own film, you might not be clear on the most appropriate film aspect ratio for your own project needs.

You’re not alone! With so many different sizes and various incarnations of image shapes that have evolved over the years, there’s no wonder confusion ensues. It’s hard telling what aspect ratio is most popular at a given moment, let alone what is most suitable. Perhaps you don’t even know what the aspect ratio is? 

Film aspect ratios are an essential concept for cinematographers, film extraordinaries, and for business professionals to understand, but why? What makes understanding the aspect ratio so critical? For one, understanding the various formats and viewing sizes is vital to promoting your work under the right circumstances and in the proper format or size. If you’re new to film aspect ratios, it’s okay! We’re explaining it all, right here!

What is Aspect Ratio?

The aspect ratio represents the relationship between the width and height of an image, similar to if you were to measure the perimeter or seek the square units such as inches or feet. However, instead of forming a mathematical computation such as width times height, the aspect ratio is shown as two numbers that can be separated by a colon such that you have width colon height. Thus, the aspect ratio is written 16:9 or 2:1 or 9:16. Where the first number is the width and the second number is the height in units not necessarily inches but usually.

The measurements are often in terms of inches such that a screen with an aspect ratio of 16:9 can be 16 inches wide by 9 inches tall but it may also be 32 inches wide by 18 inches tall or it could be 64 inches wide by 36 inches tall – can you see the pattern?  Most movies are produced in this 16:9 aspect ratio today but early films, and television, used an aspect ratio of 4:3 which would then equate to a larger screen size of 32:24 or 32 inches wide by 24 inches tall or essentially 6 inches taller than today’s 32 inch television would most commonly be. This is why older televisions were closer to a square whereas today’s televisions are more rectangular in appearance.

Sometimes, although rarely, an aspect ratio will be defined in a single number that includes a decimal point. For instance, 1.78. Don’t let this throw you for a loop. It’s merely the 16:9 aspect ratio that has been divided as 16/9 which results in 1.78 and could then be represented as a ratio of 1.78:1 and as confusing as it may sound, it would still ultimately be equal to 16:9.

Common Film Aspect Ratios

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The most common aspect ratio for film and media is 16:9, as this has become the standard in today’s industry. However, a variety of other aspect ratios were popular in years prior. For instance, the 4:3 aspect ratio was very popular for televisions and would remain the most common aspect ratio for broadcasting until high definition programming became available.

The following aspect ratios have been used in years past:

  • 1:1 a perfect square shape. This aspect ratio is still used frequently in social media. 
  • 3:2 an aspect ratio that is frequently used for camera sensors and in phones that shoot still images and capture video.
  • 4:3 the aspect ratio for broadcast television prior to the introduction of high definition television.
  • 16:9 the aspect ratio that most displays utilize including cinema and computer technology although there are exceptions.
  • 2.35:1 the aspect ratio that is used for extra-wide screens otherwise known as CinemaScope.

Why Do Business Owners Need to Understand Film Aspect Ratio?

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You’re probably wondering, why is aspect ratio so important for me to understand? Can’t my cinematographer or the professional production crew that I hire to create videos for my brand just figure all of this out for me? The answer is, YES, but you still need to educate yourself on aspect ratios for film and video. 

While your cinematography crew or production team will certainly know what aspect ratio to film your video in, it’s important for you as a business professional to understand film aspect ratios because they impact a variety of your day to day marketing and advertising needs. In fact, aspect ratios are important to understand because different phones have different display sizes and therefore different aspect ratios and different laptops or computer screens have different display sizes and therefore, again, different aspect ratios.

Further, aspect ratios are important because different social media platforms allow different aspect ratios to be used for advertising and video sharing purposes. If you know the aspect ratio that you’ll be sharing your content in, you can create the content with that aspect ratio in mind. 

Aspect Ratio Changes with Where Content is Placed

You might not realize that your aspect ratio changes based on where you put your content but it does! So what if you want to produce a video that is going to be shown mostly on Instagram. You’ve produced the video, everything looks great on your computer. Now you upload it to Instagram but the best part is cut off. No matter what you do, you’ve pulled it down and re uploaded it several times, but the best parts remain out of view. Why?

Aspect ratio! If your message was filmed in an aspect ratio that is much larger, such as the 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio which provides a widescreen sort of view, and you then try to add it to Instagram where the aspect ratio is immediately adjusted down to 1.91:1 you’re losing a large portion of your image which means the things that happen toward the outer edges of the frame will be completely cut off.  What if the most important elements of your video are contained in the area that is cut-off? 

As you can see, aspect ratios are incredibly important not just for filmmakers to understand but also for business owners, too. In fact, film aspect ratios can help you to better understand the precision that is required when it comes not only to planning and preparing your video and other marketing initiatives, but also when it comes to planning the individual shots that take place, too. Because film aspect ratio isn’t just a number, it’s a key element of your footage that impacts how, and where it can be displayed as well as how successful the display is.