What is Video Aspect Ratio?

What is video aspect ratio? Aspect ratios are a simple concept with a complex history. In essence, aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image. This can be expressed in two numbers, like 4:3 or 16:9, or as a decimal, such as 1.85 or 2.35. These decimals can also be written as ratios, such as 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. Below, we’ve broken down some of the most popular video aspect ratios, and why they’ve been adopted on a massive scale.  

Current Standards

4:3 Standard

The 4:3 standard has been in use since the invention of the motion picture camera. Back in 1892, Thomas Edison developed the 4:3 ratio with a photographer named William Dickson. When Kodak began mass-producing flexible film in the early 1890s, Thomas Edison wanted to put this new film to use with a device called the Kinetoscope, a precursor to the film projector. After much trial and error, Edison and Dickson finally arrived at a working prototype. Using 35mm film, they settled on an image that was four perforations tall, resulting in a ratio of 4:3. No one knows exactly why they settled on this ratio, but it stuck. By 1909, the Motion Picture Patent Company had declared 4:3 the standard for all films made and shown in the U.S.

16.9 Standard

With the decline of box office revenues in the 1950s, Hollywood created new widescreen aspect ratios, like 2.35:1 “anamorphic”, to compete with television. In response, television manufacturers created a middle ground between 4:3 and anamorphic, settling on 16:9 (the geometric mean between the two). Since the early 2000s, broadcasters have been phasing out the 4:3 standard entirely. 16:9 is now the international standard format of HDTV and is the preferred format for online video streaming services, including YouTube.

Uploading Videos to YouTube

Today, most digital cameras will give you the option to shoot in 16:9. However, if you don’t have the option, or simply prefer shooting in another aspect ratio, then there are some things to keep in mind when uploading your project to YouTube. If you upload a file that is not in 16:9, YouTube will automatically add pillar boxes (black bars on each side of the video) or letter boxes (black bars at the top and bottom) so that your video displays properly without cropping or stretching.

If you add letterboxing to a video before uploading it, the YouTube player will add pillar boxes too, resulting in a black frame surrounding the entire video, an undesirable effect known as “window-boxing”. It is also important to consider video resolution when uploading to YouTube. For best results, encode your video at any of the following resolutions: 

  • 2160p: 3840x2160
  • 1440p: 2560x1440
  • 1080p: 1920x1080
  • 720p: 1280x720
  • 480p: 854x480
  • 360p: 640x360
  • 240p: 426x240

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