What Is 16:9 Aspect Ratio? (Definition and Examples)

What is 16:9 Aspect Ratio? (Definition and Examples)
'Taxi Driver'Credit: Warner Bros.
Chances are, you're watching everything in the standard 16:9 aspect ratio. 

In the early 2000s, a new aspect ratio format became standard all over the world. The 16:9 aspect ratio had been a long time coming, with scientists and manufacturers changing TV screens, computer monitors, and even the phone industry changing because of it. But what does 16:9 mean? And how did the aspect ratio become the standard everywhere? 

Today, we're going to define the 16:9 aspect ratio, talk about its history and use, and show how filmmakers utilize it today. Sound good? Let's get started. 

What is 16:9 Aspect Ratio? (Definition and Examples)
Aspect ratio sizes Credit: Wikipedia

What Is 16:9 Aspect Ratio? (Definition and Examples)

Since 2009, monitors and TVs all over the world have adapted the 16:9 aspect ratio. But in order to understand how all this came about, we need to define aspect ratio and go from there. 

What Is Aspect Ratio?

The aspect ratio definition describes the width and height of a screen. It's usually written as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. It can also be written with an “x” between the numbers, like 16x9. 

16:9 Aspect Ratio Definition 

16:9 is a widescreen aspect ratio with a width of 16 units and a height of 9. It is the international standard image format for UHD, HDTV, Full HD, and SD digital television. It also is the de facto aspect ratio for televisions, smartphones, video games, and computer monitors.

Aspect Ratio History 

Aspect ratios have changed over time, depending on what people use to view media. As screens got bigger, the aspect ratio adjusted. As they got smaller, it continued to happen.

Over 100 years ago, the very first films were projected in 4:3. The standard film strip was run through a projector, and the light behind it threw the image onto a wall. The 4:3, or 1.33:1, was the literal measurement of the strip.

Aspect ratios Credit: Muvi

Why Did We Switch to 16:9 Aspect Ratio? 

Dr. Kerns H. Powers, who was a member of the SMPTE Working Group on High-Definition Electronic Production, proposed the switch to the 16:9 (1.77:1) aspect ratio in 1984. But it took many more years for that to come to fruition. As HD TVs were developed, they began to adopt the 16:9 format. Then in 1993, the European Union decided that the newly emerging format should be the standard as new TVs and monitors were developed. The rest of the world followed suit. 

This format was seen as much more cinematic, mimicking the widescreen experience people have in movie theaters. It was also very flexible to use with other formats. If you had a 4:3 aspect ratio, or a 1.85:1, black bars could easily be put onto the screen to accommodate. 

The funny thing is, most Hollywood and world movies do not shoot in 16:9. They shoot in other aspect ratios and just add black bars to the screen on TVs. 

16x9 aspect ratio defined
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'Credit: Warner Bros.

Modern TV and Film Aspect Ratios

TV boxes were 4:3 until widescreen televisions debuted in the 2000s. Many older programs had to convert their 4:3 shows to 16:9.

But people who watched movies on TV rejoiced. The theatrical experience had finally come home. And as TVs grew in size, aspect ratios began to reflect the change. 

Aspect Ratios for Streaming Services 

So here's the deal—lately, some streaming services have been cutting off almost 25% of movies by reformatting them to fit 16:9 televisions. While this practice is supposed to stop, with letterboxes being added to share the proper format, you should still be aware. 

The TV broadcasting companies are now all using 16:9 aspect ratio for their high definition video. 

If you're creating content for Netflix, Amazon, or HBO, you should know their aspect ratios. That way you'll know how your work is presented on the screen.

Netflix shows almost everything in 16:9. So if you're trying to watch a movie that's natively in 2.39:1, you're going to get the black bars. The same goes for HBO Max and Amazon. 

16x9 aspect ratio defined
Aspect ratios for a 16x9 HGTV Credit: RTINGS

Summing Up the 16:9 Aspect Ratio (Definition and Examples)

Now that you fully understand the 16:9 aspect ratio, you finally know why your high-definition television looks the way it does. This international standard format of HDTV has become so commonplace we forget it is there. But it is just another landmark in video production development that shows the changing times in film and television. 

With this knowledge in place, think about how you're going to format your aspect ratios when shooting things for streaming or making your own projects. Knowing your aspect ratio can come in really handy. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.      

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1 Comment

I have the feeling that the 1.85 ratio looks better than 2.35 on the new standard 16:9 TVs. The 2.35 looks like forced to be more cinematic, kind of fake. It’s like fine black bars look like a movie, but bigger ones are cutting off to much image. Any of you have this feeling? May be we watch too much TV and less going to the movies.

September 26, 2022 at 1:53PM

Javier Diez