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Updated , Mehdi Azzabi

What is the Aspect Ratio?
(4:3, 16:9, 21:9)

The aspect ratio refers to the proportions of the height and width of an image. It defines its overall shape, and it is usually shown as W:H (W is the width and H is the height). The most common aspect ratio today is 16:9, which means that if the width is divided into 16 equal parts, the height of the TV or picture should be 9 parts.

16:9 works great for TVs since that is the format modern TV shows are delivered on, but most movies are made using the cinema standard, which is 21:9. 21:9 is much wider, so parts of the screen need to be filled with black bars above and below the image in order to fit most TVs. These horizontal bars a called "letterboxes". Similar to movies, TV shows used to be made using a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is a lot more square than current TVs (this is why 16:9 is often called a widescreen aspect ratio). To fit modern TVs, vertical black bars or "pillarboxing" is used. We've listed the most common aspect ratios in this table, but every TV sold today uses 16:9.

In theaters, this is why the screen grows wider at the beginning of a movie. Ads shown before the movie follow the TV ratio of 16:9, while the movie itself is 21:9.

Aspect Ratio

Uses TVs
4:3 1.33:1 Standard Channels Old TVs
16:9 1.77:1 HD Channels The majority of HDTVs
21:9 2.35:1 Most movies Most theaters
14:10 1.4:1 IMAX Film Very few theaters
19:10 1.9:1 IMAX Digital Most IMAX theaters
The most common aspect ratios in the video industry.

What do the black bars look like on TVs with different aspect ratios?

Black bars on different aspect ratio

Black bars fill the extra space when the aspect ratio of the screen and content do not match.

Black bars appear when the aspect ratio of the content playing isn't matched with the aspect ratio of the TV.

Depending on the type of mismatch between the picture and the display's ratio, the black bars appear in different places. Content wider than the screen it is played on will have horizontal black bars, while content that is taller will use vertical bars.  The following picture shows the black bars for various televisions and aspect ratios (4:3, 16:9 and 21:9). All televisions have the same diagonal length.

As you can see, when you watch a 21:9 movie on a normal 16:9 widescreen TV, you will have some black bars at the top and bottom. This is represented by the top center TV in the illustration.

Cropping

Original 4:3 picture

 Original picture

Stretched to fit

Cropped to fit

If you do not like having black bars, you have two options available within the settings of your TV: cropping or stretching.

  • Cropping the picture is the equivalent of zooming, but will result in the sides of the picture being removed.
  • Stretching retains all the information but it distorts the image to fit your screen.

Different TVs have different settings for this, so here's a table with the different options found on different brands, as well as their specific name. Some of them have two types of zoom; either two levels of crop or one of them combines both zoom and stretch at the same time.

Brand Stretch Crop Crop #2
Sony Full Zoom Wide Zoom (Zoom+Stretch)
Samsung Fit to screen Zoom/Position N/A
LG 16:9 All Direction Zoom Vertical Zoom (Zoom+Vertical Stretch)
TCL Stretch Zoom Normal (Overscan feature)

IMAX Aspect ratio

IMAX scene in Interstellar

16:9 scene in Interstellar

IMAX movies and theaters are a complete ecosystem that encompasses everything from cameras, speakers, room shapes, screen finishes and even film types. More importantly though, part of IMAX's proprietary system is their own aspect ratio. IMAX has a few different ratios used now to accommodate for different types of rooms, but there are two major ones: 1.9:1 and 1.4:1.

  • 1.9:1 is meant for more standard digital projectors and is used in IMAX Digital theaters. It is a bit taller than the standard Cinema 2.35:1 (21:9) ratio.
  • 1.4:1 is the more iconic ratio. It is the incredibly tall and almost square in shape. This is what IMAX is most known for since the screens are usually much larger than normal cinema theaters and the height makes them a very immersive experience.

Most movies today that use IMAX still are filmed with a mixture of 21:9 ratio and 1.4:1 IMAX. As seen in the picture above, IMAX content fills up the entirety of the 16:9 screen. The image itself goes beyond the height of a 16:9 TV, but it is cropped in Blu-ray films to fit the screen. You don't get the whole experience, but you still get a more complete picture than if it was letterboxed to the standard cinema ratio.

What are 21:9 ratio TVs?

Comparaison between 21:9 CinemaWide and 16:9 television

A 58" 21:9 TV is equivalent to a 61" for 21:9 media, but only 47" for 16:9 media.
Nowadays, the 21:9 ratio is only found on PC monitors. It roughly equates to two 4:3 monitors side by side. Some PC monitors go even wider, causing even 21:9 movies to have vertical black bars. These are good for both productivity and immersive gaming.

21:9 TVs were made a few years ago and were aimed at cinephiles since they match the standard motion pictures aspect ratio and allow you to watch movies from edge to edge of your screen. They aren't available anymore, and they were rare even at the time of their release. Unless you only turn on your TV to watch movies, you're better off with a standard 16:9 TV. Watching normal TV shows on a cinema-wide screen causes it to show black bars on either side, which isn't great. This reduces the viewing area for 16:9 content considerably. A 58" 21:9 television corresponds to the same viewing area as a 47" TV for 16:9 content, as you can see in the illustration.

Conclusion

TV shows are made and distributed using a 16:9 aspect ratio, and every TV sold today uses the same. Movies are usually found with a 21:9 ratio, however, which causes them to have black bars above and below the pictures on standard TVs. Some PC monitors share that ratio, but it isn't very practical on a TV since normal content would have vertical bars.

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