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Aspect What? 16:9 and what it means

16:9 is a term that we are all familiar with - whether we are a filmmaker or not, however, what does that actually mean?

Note: this may seem like a bit of a maths lesson but bear with it as much as you can and we will break it down very simply.

Let’s flashback to high school maths and ratios. These are some key ratios (the first being the most common since about the late 1990’s):

  • 16:9

  • 4:3

  • 1:1

All these are talking about is how wide a ‘frame’ (see ‘frame’ in the glossary for an explanation of what we mean here) is in comparison to the height of the frame.

So looking at the image above we can see that the width of the frame is longer than the height of it. This is calculated in numbers - for example, there are 16 units wide and 9 units high. This then gives you the ratio of width: height or 16:9. It tells us the overall shape.

Now this may not make complete sense yet, but that’s ok, it may start to take shape looking at the next term: ‘4:3’.

If we take the same theory that 4= the width and 3= the height and apply that to a new shape it would look like below:

We can see here this is more like a square than a longer rectangle like 16:9.

Now showing those two, TVs used to be in 4:3 and then in the early 1990’s 16:9 ratio screens slowly got introduced - first in the cinema to give a wider view.

So when someone talks about 16:9 now you know they are simply talking about the shape of the frame!

So what is 1:1 then?

You may be quite familiar with this:

Instagram originally only posted square posts, it now allows ‘wider’ or more like 16:9 frame sizes.

So if we did the same amount of units ok the width and same amount on the height we would see a shape like this:

A square being equal on both sides would then give us a ratio of 1:1.

Let's look at 16:9, 4:3 and 1:1 altogether to get an idea of how the shape of the rectangles change:

So congratulations 16:9, 4:3 and 1:1 are all what we call ‘aspect ratios’ in film and photography! A simple concept once broken down and now you will know exactly what someone is referring when those numbers are used.

Advanced learning: what would 9:16 look like and who would use it? If we were to turn 16:9 on its side it would look like this:

It looks much like the shape of your phone and Instagram reels really. So when filming with your phone in ‘portrait’ position instead of ‘landscape’ you will be filming a film in 9:16.

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