Top tips to get aspect ratio right

Aspect ratio is both liberating and restricting for video. It sets the mood for your video and opens up creative possibilities. But it also limits how viewers can watch it. Here’s your guide to getting aspect ratio right.


What is aspect ratio?

First, what does aspect ratio (AR) actually mean? Aspect ratio is an image’s height versus its width. A square would have an aspect ratio of 1:1. A rectangle made of two squares side by side would be 2:1. But place one square on top of the other and the aspect ratio becomes 1:2.

In practice, aspect ratios are rarely exact multiples of 1, so we end up with figures like 1.33:1 or 2.35:1. Images that are vertically aligned are said to be in “portrait” mode. Those that are horizontal are called “landscape” mode images. 


How to calculate aspect ratio

If a picture is 1920 mm wide and 1080 mm tall, we can work out its aspect ratio by dividing the larger number by the smaller. So 1920 ÷ 1080 = 1.7777, which can be rounded up to 1.78. That gives an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Saying the aspect ratio is 1920:1080 would be technically correct, but it’s not very useful. By convention, we often try to make one of the numbers 1. It makes it much easier to imagine the proportions, and work out how the image will appear on screens. However, that’s not always the case. You’ll often see phones advertised as having ARs of 3:2 or 16:9, which are simple to visualize if they happen to be whole numbers.


Choosing your aspect ratio

There are a host of factors to consider when choosing an aspect ratio:

Creative: Aspect ratios can invoke certain feelings, just like background music and color. For wide, sweeping landscapes, a wide ratio can be stunning, especially on a big screen. If you’re focusing more on people’s facial expressions, a narrower aspect can work better. There’s less distraction to the sides of the face.

Platform: Where will the video be shown? If it’s for TV, a standard 1.78:1 AR is generally used. You can still go for a “letterbox” effect if you want it wider, or a “pillarbox” effect for a squarer image. Horizontal video intended for cell phones is generally in 1:1.78 AR. It’s a popular mode on TikTok, for example. 

Audience: What does your audience expect? Is there a standard for the genre? Of course, that can mean you can comply or rebel, but it’s a consideration you need to make.

Flexibility: You might want to use the same edited film on a range of devices, in landscape and portrait. You’ll need to try to keep the important imagery central, and aim for a less pronounced aspect ratio. You can crop the sides or top and bottom to accommodate it on various screens.


Which aspect ratio is used in most modern images and screens?

Early black and white films tended to be in 1.33:1 format. That influenced the first TVs, which had 1.33:1 screens, right up to the 1990s when widescreen emerged. The transition to widescreen TV meant older shows needed pillarbox borders, or the image could be stretched to fill the screen. 

In cinema in the 1950s, two competing ARs were common. CinemaScope had a very wide 2.35:1 AR. That proved superb for Westerns, where the landscape was often key to the story. Alternatively, there was 1.85:1. That was perfect for drama and comedy, where close-ups and set pieces were more important than the scale of the setting. Both remain common today.

High definition (HD) TV arrived in the early 2000s, and had a resolution of 1,280×720 pixels (1.78:1). Modern regular TVs have a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, which is also 1.78:1. A 4K TV has more pixels (3840×2160). If you do the math, that’s 1.78:1. Can you spot the pattern? It’s likely that as resolutions get finer, the AR will remain at 1.78:1. That way, everyone sees the same image, with no letterboxing, pillarboxing or stretching.

Phone screens vary quite a bit, but the biggest sellers from the likes of Apple and Samsung tend to be at around 1.77:1. Taller screens are great for scrolling websites and social media. But watching videos can result in pillarboxing or stretching when viewed in portrait orientation.

What aspect ratio is TikTok?

TikTok videos are meant to be viewed in portrait, so the AR is 9:16. You can opt to have it in landscape too, which will make it 16:9.

What aspect ratio is Instagram?

Instagram recommends that photos are uploaded with “at least 1,080 pixels with an aspect ratio of between 1.91:1 and 4:5”. So you’ve got a bit of flexibility, which you’d expect of this creative platform.

What aspect ratio is YouTube?

Standard YouTube videos are just like TVs – 16:9 or 1.78:1. You can upload at whatever resolution you like, however, but do think about how it will appear on viewers’ screens. If you’re making YouTube shorts, a rival to TikTok intended for phone viewing, you should use 9:16.

What aspect ratio is 1920x1080?

1920 by 1080 pixels is a very common resolution across TVs, computer monitors, and phones. Its aspect ratio is 1.78:1, which has been the standard since widescreen TVs arrived in the 1990s. That’s before flat screen TVs.


How to change aspect ratio in Premiere Pro

If you’re editing your video in Adobe Premiere Pro, you can change the aspect ratio in a few quick steps. In your “Sequence” drop-down you’ll find “Sequence Settings”. In the box that pops up, you’ll see “Frame Size” with horizontal and vertical dimension boxes. Now, enter your figures (in pixels) and the panel will change to fit the new size.

Does the change cause letterboxing or pillarboxing? Go to the “Editing” drop-down and use the “Scale” slider to magnify the frame, thus filling the available space. You can also move the image left, right, up, or down to keep the relevant parts in the frame. Don’t forget, you’ll crop some of the image whenever you change the aspect ratio.


The long and tall of it

Aspect ratio is a crucial element of your film, with creative and technological implications. Thinking about it at an early stage of your scripting and planning is extremely important. It will influence your choice of lenses, camera, lighting, stage setup, camera movement, and actors’ positioning. Get it right, and your whole film will be perfectly proportioned.

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