Aspect ratio wars: 16:9 vs 4:3 vs …

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In the last century 4:3 was the most widely used aspect ratio for screens but in this century we saw a shift towards widescreen formats, 16:9 being the new de facto standard. But why? Is it better?

A little History

The 4:3 ratio (1,33:1) was established by William Dickson and Thomas Edison back in 1892.

The 1,33 ratio is said to match the natural human visual field but the only places that I’ve found that say so state that the human visual field is 155º horizontally by 120º vertically. The information that I could find and that I was able to verify (by experimenting on my family members) points to the human visual field being around 200º horizontally by 135º vertically excluding head and eye movements, which works out to be 1,48:1.

Due to the introduction of audio the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences modified the 1,33 ratio to 1,37 to make room for it without modifying the dimensions of the film/reel (35mm). 1,37 is called the academy ratio and it was so close to 1,33 that the term 4:3 was used for both. All ratios above 1,37 are considered widescreen.

Hollywood, in order to prevent the perceived threat to the cinema industry coming from the popularization of television created many widescreen formats aiming to lure more people to the cinemas and dropped the 4:3.

Kerns H. Powers, sought to address (patch up the mess) the compatibility issues between 4:3 and the widescreen formats that hollywood produced in order to be able to define the HDTV standard. 16:9 (1,77:1) emerged as the winner as it allowed for letterboxing (applying black bars) 4:3 and 2,35:1 (common widescreen format at the time) so that they would have roughly the same viewable area when displayed in a 16:9 screen.

Immersive cinematic experiences

In an immersive experience the user will have the screen occupying a greater portion of it’s visual field. I believe that 16:9 may produce a less immersive experience than 4:3 as it has a shape that is more incompatible with the one we humans natively use. The reasoning behind this is that vertically you’ll see a lot more of your living room walls instead of the movie (more on this in a bit).

Widescreen can be a good compromise for file sizes, I reckon, as usually you have more details and action to see on the sides while the top and bottom has things of low entertainment value like ceilings, floors, sky…

Humanwise, what is the best aspect ratio?

As with everything the “best” will depend on a lot of factors and more often than not it will be a compromise.

You’d see plenty of wall to every side even if the format was 1,48 as you only watch a screen with a small portion of your visual field, however, if the format was 1,48, the wall should be easier to ignore as more of it would be further away from the center of your visual field (which is where you can see better). Curiously most photographic paper sizes have a ratio between and including 1,5:1 and 1:1.

But things are never this simple, inside our field of view there’s a part that allows us to have depth perception (ought to be important for the 3d stuff), that area is 120º wide and 135º tall which inarguably is good enough for a paper size but not good enough for a movie. The only size that I can imagine that is close to this and that could (with a lot of emphasis) still be somewhat suitable for movies is 1:1.

Moving closer to the center of your visual field there’s an area that can discriminate colors and that is about 60º wide and 55º tall which works out to 1,09:1 which is close to the 1:1 I’ve mentioned immediately above.

At the center of your visual field you have an area of 10-15º that is highly detailed, we could think that this leads us back to the 1:1 ratio but not really as most of the times that you’re watching a movie the screen is taking up way more than 15º.

Surveys indicate that most people prefer widescreen now, I don’t know if they actually prefer it because they feel better seeing movies that way or because they’re growing accustomed to it (they couldn’t get unaccustomed even if they tried, 4:3 screens are rare now and most video is 16:9) or think it’s best due to being “modern”.

I’ve decided to look for a poll of aspect ratios in sites of photography enthusiasts because they use lots of different sizes and have certainly picked some favorite formats over time, not only that but what’s a movie, in it’s most elementary form, other than a series of photographs? It just seemed suitable. I’d like to have better data regarding aspect ratio preferences and I searched a lot for it, that’s when I had this idea, it isn’t exactly what I want but there’s nothing I can do about it for the time being.

I found one with 150+ votes from 2013 that seems pretty legit, also, we cannot forget that people chose the ratios based on a myriad of factors so I also checked the comments to get a rough idea of what those were.

The calculated ratios, 3:2 (1,5:1) and 1:1 were at 1st place (by a very large margin) and 4th place, respectively. Comments considered these formats as the most aesthetically appealing but didn’t considered 1:1 to be very versatile and state that many cameras don’t auto-crop to 1:1 which may explain why it ranked so low.

4:3 came in 2nd place seemingly due to its versatility.

16:9 came in 3rd place but maybe it’s because it was stated that not a lot of cameras cropped to 16:9.

Update – August 17, 2015

I’ve found this study about aspect ratios when I was searching for stuff completely unrelated to this article, it attempts to clarify on the old and somewhat common belief of the golden ratio being aesthetically superior than other ratios. For me the tests using the invitation cards of different ratios were definitely the most interesting part of the read.

At a point it theorizes that aspect ratio preference is context dependent which has lead me to expect a very scattered distribution, but, when I saw some of the data, I was glad to see some familiar ratios standing out from the crowd.

The 1:1 ratio that I talked about seems to be preferred for more frivolous contexts, ratios from there and up to 1,5 fared pretty well in that department. Ratios from 1,26 (somewhat close to 4:3) up to 1,62 (golden ratio) fared better for serious circumstances, 1,38 (very close to the academy ratio) being the preferred one for these situations and overall (average of all results).

The most important point of this study in relation to my article isn’t so much that the results are close to what I’ve theorized using the human visual field information but rather that it clearly lends support to the main point of the article that is that all popular widescreen ratios thus far really don’t seem to be consistent with human preferences.

Other sites that I didn’t mentioned but were valuable to produce this article:

Study on the limits of human vision made by NASA was used to better understand how human vision works.

Article on the history of the evolution of aspect ratios on cinema was used to make the “A little History” part of this article.


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