What is 16:9 Aspect Ratio? Definition & Examples
The 16:9 format is a widescreen aspect ratio. Dating back to the 1980s, the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio is the international standard format of HDTV and the most common ratio for computer screens and TV sets today. What is the history of the widescreen format, and how is it used today?
Definition: What is 16:9 aspect ratio?
The aspect ratio of an image or a screen refers to its proportions, more specifically to the relationship between width and height. The 16:9 aspect ratio describes a width of 16 units and a height of 9 units. Depending on the device, you can measure a unit in pixels, inches, or millimeters, for example.
Technically, the 16:9 format is an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 or 1.78:1, because 16 divided by 9 is 1.777. Film and TV productions use that equivalent ratio to talk about the widescreen format, while we use 16:9 to talk about TV screens and computer monitors, and laptop screens.
After its development in the 1980s, the 16:9 aspect ratio became the most common for TV sets and computer screens. Today, it is the international standard format for UHD, HDTV, Full HD, and SD digital TV. The DVD standard only supports this widescreen format natively. In layperson’s terms, the widescreen format of 16:9 is typically referred to as the opposite of the "fullscreen" 4:3 aspect ratio, which it has replaced.
Overview of common aspect ratios
The aspect ratio of a film or TV show is fixed. The camera equipment in use and possibly the intended distribution will define the ratio. But editing and resizing can create a variety of releases with different aspect ratios, so the images fit the format, such as a widescreen television. Blu-ray or DVD boxes will feature the aspect ratio on the box, for example.
Aspect ratios have come and gone throughout the history of film, but today, you’re likely to encounter the following four formats.
4:3 is the technical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is a traditional format for TV and film. Content with this ratio will display perfectly (“fullscreen”) on a 4:3 screen but will cause vertical black bars to the left and right of the image, the so-called "pillarboxing" effect. Widescreen TVs typically allow you to stretch the image or zoom in.
Letterboxing is the inverse effect: a film with a 16:9 aspect ratio will display black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. In this case, zooming in will cut off image information to the left and right.
1.85:1 is a popular widescreen standard for US movies. As you can see from the numbers, the image is slightly wider than 16:9. Without resizing, this format on a 16:9 screen results in minimal letterboxing and small black bars at the top and bottom. The default here is to "overscan" and lose a bit of information to the sides to remove the black bars.
Panavision / CinemaScope: This aspect ratio for movie releases evolved from 2.35:1 to 2.39:1 and is even rounded up to 2.40:1. Both 16:9 and 4:3 displays will have to zoom in to remove the black bars in this ultrawide format. The 21:9 aspect ratio of some monitors is close enough for comfortable viewing.
- International standard format for HDTV, UHD, Full HD, SD digital TV, and analog widescreen TV (PALplus / NTSC widescreen)
- Rectangular widescreen display for most widescreen monitors and TV sets
- High-Definition HD Video
- “Sixteen by Nine” or “Sixteen to nine”
- High-quality display for a variety of aspect ratios
- Simplified ratio for the more technical 1.77/1.78:1
- Standard aspect ratio for TV, cinema, online streaming, gaming, social media video, and other platforms
The screen size of computer monitors or TV sets gives you an idea of the aspect ratio through its physical dimensions, but it’s not an indication of the screen resolution, because even a large screen can have a low resolution. For a 16:9 resolution, the width is divisible by 16 and the height is divisible by 9.
The screen resolution tells you the number of individual pixels in one horizontal line and the number of these lines, making up the width and height. The total amount of pixels results from multiplying one value by the other. The aspect ratio is the relationship between width and height, as the resolution numbers will be multiples of 16 and 9 for the widescreen format. We’ll give you an overview of common resolutions:
|640 ✕ 360||307,200||nHD|
|854 ✕ 480||409,920||FWVGA|
|960 ✕ 540||518,400||qHD|
|1280 ✕ 720||921,600||SD / HD ready (720p)|
|1366 ✕ 768||1,049,088||WXGA|
|1600 ✕ 900||1,440,000||HD+|
|1920 ✕ 1080||2,073,600||FHD / Full HD (1080p)|
|2560 ✕ 1440||3,686,400||WQHD|
|3200 ✕ 1800||5,760,000||QHD+|
|3840 ✕ 2160||8,294,400||4K UHD|
|5120 ✕ 2880||14,745,600||5K|
|7680 ✕ 4320||33,177,600||8K UHD|
|15360 ✕ 8640||132,710,400||16K UHD|
The most common widescreen aspect ratio is Full HD with a 1920 ✕ 1080 resolution. Wide XGA or WXGA for short is in second place as many inexpensive computer screens and LCDs still use this resolution.
An aspect ratio calculator can show you a progression of screen resolutions for a given aspect ratio such as the widescreen format. You can also calculate the width and height and the absolute number of pixels.
History of the 16:9 format
The 16:9 aspect ratio originates from the development of technology, and not from the world of cinema and motion pictures. Intended as a compromise, the format can accommodate prior ratios and was a viable option for high-definition widescreen displays.
The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is an association of engineers, technologists, and executives in the media and entertainment industry. Dr Kerns H. Powers of the SMPTE proposed the 16:9 aspect ratio in 1984. He experimented with shapes that fit the ratios that were popular at the time. Mathematically, 16:9 (or 1.77:1) is the geometric mean between the extremes of 1.33:1 and 2.35:1. Ratios such as 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 fit well within the 16:9 aspect ratio.
HDTV broadcasting was quick to adopt the 16:9 aspect ratio as a common format. Recording in both 1.33:1 and 2.39:1 (or 2.40:1) keeps the main action with an inner frame of 1.77:1. This technique, known as shoot and protect, ensures that no vital information is lost when the center of the frame is cut out. Similarly, a widescreen theatrical release could have matte placed at the top and bottom, which was removed for scanning the film for a home release.
In the 1990s, the 16:9 Action Plan of the European Union facilitated the adoption of the ratio in television. After the year 2000, the computer industry began the switch from 4:3 to 16:9 over a period of more than a decade. The aspect ratio became the most common for computer monitors, laptops, and LCDs. Widescreen and high-definition resolutions helped the PC market expand as devices became entertainment centers as well. With TVs and monitors sharing the same ratio, the production of hardware and content could be streamlined further. HD Blu-ray and HD video game consoles further accelerated the spread of 16:9.
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Use of the 16:9 aspect ratio today
In film production, the 16:9 format allows for high-resolution images without compromising picture quality. The aspect ratio defines the visuals of cinema and content that we consume on home entertainment devices today. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Video and HBO show most of their content in 16:9 format.
Many viewers want the content to fill their screen entirely and prefer that experience over a letterbox or pillarbox version, but cinephiles often want the black bars for wider-scope movies. Netflix also uses the 2:1 aspect ratio for many of its new productions.
Motion pictures continue to use the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which works well with 16:9 devices. The anamorphic widescreen format of 2.39:1 can give movies a certain dramatic feel and works well for scenic shots. Some filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Christopher Nolan, want to use the widest aspect ratio available and use the 2.76:1 ratio of 70mm or the IMAX format.
Others go in the opposite direction and want the boxed-in feel of the 4:3 format or the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio. Before the widespread adoption of 16:9, TV shows produced their content framed for 1.77:1. Today, networks and channels produce TV shows in a native 16:9 format.
The 16:9 format fits modern smartphones well. The frame of devices such as the early iPhone models allowed for a physical button and a speaker below and above the 16:9 screen. But manufacturers shrank the bezels and adopted pinhole cameras and minimal frames around the screens, which therefore grew in height— or width, in landscape mode.
While some early smartphones even had 16:10 displays, today aspect ratios of 18:9, 19:9, 20:9 or even 21:9 are common. 21:9 is identical to the 2.33:1 aspect ratio of digital film.
Smartphone camera apps have options for various aspect ratios and thanks to high-quality cameras, you can shoot 16:9 video in a 4K resolution or even higher. The 16:9 format is the most versatile for mobile video across a variety of platforms, such as YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram, though each of these can have different ratios for their multitude of formats.
Modern digital technology allows you as a filmmaker to frame your motion picture in nearly any aspect ratio of your choice.