What is 4:3 Aspect Ratio? Definition & Examples

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Aspect ratio refers to the width and height of a screen or image. The 4:3 format dates back to celluloid film and early cinema screens and television sets. Far from being a relic of the past, the 4:3 aspect ratio is still a default format even though cinematography and filmmaking ratios have mostly changed to widescreen. But with some modern filmmakers returning to 4:3, the format is going through a renaissance. So let’s look at all aspects of this ratio!

Definition: What is 4:3 aspect ratio?

The aspect ratio tells you about the proportions of an image or a screen. By definition, it refers to the relationship between the width and the height, for example, of a camera, display, or projector. The 4:3 aspect ratio describes a width of four units and a height of three units. These can be inches, lines, or pixels, depending on the object with that aspect ratio.

When you divide the values, that is the width by the height, you get 1.33 (4 divided by 3 is 1.33). In practical terms, you get 1.33 times as much width as height. Imagine taking a picture with a 4:3 camera which you hold horizontally: you'll fit 1.33 times more into the frame from the left to the right edge of the frame than from the top to the bottom. The equivalent ratio is therefore 1.33:1.

The aspect ratio of 1.33:1 was that of early celluloid film cameras and projectors. Though mathematically the same, the 4:3 format commonly refers to computer and TV screens. When you record an image or motion picture and then display it on a screen with the same aspect ratio, you’ll be able to fill the entire screen without losing any information or having to crop the image.

We, therefore, refer to the 4:3 format also as fullscreen, though a 4:3 screen cannot display all aspect ratios filling the screen without zooming, cropping, or leaving black bars. Widescreen is what we perceive as the opposite since the width of that ratio is noticeably larger than its height. In fact, 1.78 times wider: the widescreen format’s aspect ratio is 16:9, resulting in 1.78:1 (16 divided by 9 is 1.78).

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Overview of 4:3 features

Comparing images in the 4:3 and 16:9 formats side by side, the former seems box-like and square, while the latter appears twice as wide as it is high. Neither is true, as the math above proves. Here are the essential 4:3 characteristics:

  • sparkle
    Pronounced ‘four-three,’ ‘four to three,’ or ‘four by three’
  • sparkle
    Also known as 1.33:1 (because 4:3 = 1.33:1)
  • sparkle
    Original and default aspect ratio of 35mm celluloid film
  • sparkle
    ‘Fullscreen’ format where 4:3 is the aspect ratio of camera and screen (no black bars)
  • sparkle
    A widescreen format can be resized and formatted to fit the 4:3 format (or display with black bars)

4:3 resolutions

When we talk about digital formats, we use the term resolution to describe both absolute and relative sizes. The higher the resolution, the more individual pixels will make up one horizontal line and one vertical column of the image, defining the width and the height in absolute terms and often in the thousands of pixels. But the aspect ratio is still there in the relationship between the width and the height.

Old computer monitors have a 4:3 resolution or screen size. The following is a brief overview of common 4:3 screen resolutions:

RESOLUTIONTOTAL PIXELSDESIGNATION
640 ✕ 480307,200VGA
800 ✕ 600480,00SVGA
1024 ✕ 768786,432XGA
1152 ✕ 864995,328XGA+
1280 ✕ 9601,228,800SXGA− (720P)
1600 ✕ 12001,920,000UXGA
1920 ✕ 14402,764,8002.76M3 (1080P)
2048 ✕ 15363,145,728QXGA
3840 ✕ 288911,059,2004K UHD
4096 ✕ 307212,582,912HXGA 4K (HDTV)

Some older models today still use the XGA fullscreen resolution of 1024 ✕ 768 pixels, but the most widespread resolution on laptops and screens is 1920 ✕ 1080 or Full HD, which is a widescreen format. In terms of TV sets and digital screens, 720P is also known as Standard Definition or simply SD (sometimes ‘HD ready’), while 1080P is referred to as Full HD. A resolution of around 4,000 pixels in width is known as 4k, high-definition, or HDTV.

You can use a ratio calculator to learn more about the resolution of various aspect ratios and to calculate absolute width and height in pixels for various formats.

History of the 4:3 format

The 4:3 format defined the dimensions of the first 35mm celluloid film and therefore early cinema, as well as the first TV sets. Though 1.33:1 prevailed because of the technology available, it was only a de facto standard, and various formats existed, such as 1.29:1, or as narrow as 1.19:1.

The "talkies" and movies with a soundtrack required a widening of the celluloid to make room for the audio on the film. The image width didn't change, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1932 defined the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 as "Academy Ratio" or "Academy Aperture" and thus created a standard. For the following two decades, the 4:3 format reigned in Hollywood.

As television evolved in the 1940s and 50s, the TV sets available used the same aspect ratio, though the description wasn't as technical as 1.33:1 or 1.37:1. The identical 4:3 format could show all existing movies in fullscreen format.

The movie industry reacted to home viewers by changing aspect ratios again. The widescreen revolution adopted wider ratios, hoping to attract viewers to cinemas with panoramic views, such as CinemaScope and VistaVision. Since TV sets didn’t change, it became necessary to fit these widescreen aspect ratios to home screens.

The pan-and-scan technique involved an editor panning over the shot and scanning the most important part of the frame, but the image was cropped left and right. Though viewers rarely minded the lost information, filmmakers objected to this ‘brutalization’ of their cinematography. The letterbox format became a remedy by putting matte or black bars above and below the widescreen image to fit it into a 4:3 aspect ratio.

The distribution of VHS tapes, later laserdisc, then DVD often allowed customers to choose between formats, especially from the 1990s onwards when widescreen televisions became available for home use. Today, 16:9 or a variation of the widescreen format is popular for TV and computer screens alike. Still, 4:3 resize versions continue to exist. Most commercial airlines are fitted with 4:3 entertainment systems and a pan-and-scan version is also known as an ‘airline’ release.

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Use of 4:3 aspect ratio today

LED and OLED technology in the 21st century resulted in TV sets of nearly any format and widescreen aspect ratios no longer pose a difficulty for home releases. Films on Blu-ray often feature the original aspect ratio and viewers can choose to watch a letterboxed version or resize and zoom into a close-up should their TV set not match the aspect ratio properly.

The 4:3 format today ‘feels’ antiquated to some viewers and they might associate it with TV shows such as sitcoms or game shows intended for broadcast to 4:3 home sets. Yet the modern IMAX format also uses a 4:3 aspect ratio. Technically, the format is 70/15, comprising 70mm film run horizontally instead of vertically through the projector. IMAX screens of 59 by 79 feet (18 by 24 meters) have a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Examples of 4:3 ratio in filmmaking

A growing number of Hollywood and independent filmmakers are also returning to the 4:3 format. The ‘archaic’ aspect ratio can be an artistic choice that lends a retro feel to the film, which is the case with Jonah Hill’s 2018 skate movie and coming-of-age story mid90s.

Director Wes Anderson is known for his distinct visual style for which the 4:3 format is a perfect match, as his 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel shows. Anderson varies aspect ratios across the film, but most often returns to 4:3.

Filmmakers Andrea Arnold and Kelly Reichardt seem right at home with the format and have used it for most of their work, including American Honey, Fish Tank, First Cow, and Meek’s Cutoff. Watching these hemmed in by black bars to the left and right adds to the feelings of claustrophobia, breathlessness and inevitability these films evoke.

Other notable examples of the Academy Ratio in modern film include The Mountain by Rick Alverson, in which the filmmaker works the format to block his actors, A Ghost Story by David Lowery, First Reformed by Paul Schrader, and The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius. Then there's The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers with its odd choice of 1.19:1 aspect ratio.

For the miniseries WandaVision by Jac Schaeffer, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Matt Shakman experimented with aspect ratios based on the narrative. The first episode was filmed in black-and-white in front of a studio audience to mimic 1950s sitcoms. The 4:3 aspect ratio shows Wanda’s world, while anything outside of it is shown in a widescreen aspect ratio (2.39:1).

Zack Snyder’s, Justice League, is another major title that brought back the 4:3 format in a conscious decision. HBO preserved the aspect ratio for the streaming release, though preceded it with a disclaimer about Snyder’s creative vision. The director argued for his choice:

“Superheroes tend to be, as figures, they tend to be less horizontal. Maybe Superman when he’s flying, but when he’s standing, he’s more of a vertical. Everything is composed and shot that way, and a lot of the restoration is sort of trying to put that back. Put these big squares back… it’s a completely different aesthetic. It’s just got a different quality and one that is unusual. No one’s doing that.”

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Why not shoot in widescreen?

Though some filmmakers such as Wes Anderson have developed certain visual traits, the choice of aspect ratio is certainly not the first decision that a director makes. The cinematography and format will evolve naturally as part of the visual language of the story they wish to tell.

Audiences love an immersive theater experience with surround sound and an on-screen presentation that seems to make them part of the action. Then again, most of us consume a lot of streaming video across a range of devices from smart TVs to laptops and mobile phones where we pay less attention to aspect ratios than to screen brightness and color definition. Film formats first changed with varying screen sizes, and as screens got bigger, then smaller again, aspect ratios adapted and will continue to do so.

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