Movie aspect ratios can be confusing. I’ve been playing around with home theater since the TV screen was square (almost), and digital video was a pipedream. I still have to stop and think about it sometimes.
In short, the shape of your TV screen is determined by its native resolution and doesn’t change. But movies and TV shows have different aspect ratios based on how they were filmed.
This affects whether you see black bars on the edges of your TV screen. Read on to understand all the essential issues.
- Modern TVs have a fixed widescreen aspect ratio (usually 16:9), defined by the native resolution.
- Movies/shows have aspect ratios like 1.33:1, 1.78:1, 1.85:1, or 2.39:1 based on how they were filmed.
- When a movie’s ratio differs from the TV’s, black bars appear to fit the image onto the screen.
- It’s best to watch movies in their original aspect ratio to avoid distorting or cropping the image.
The Aspect Ratio of Your TV
The two most common aspect ratios for television screens are 4:3 and 16:9. These are fixed ratios set by the physical structure of your TV screen.
Today’s most common aspect ratio for televisions is 16:9 – or 16 units wide and 9 units high.
If you divide 16 by 9, you get 1.7777. This number is rounded to 1.78 and is often used to express the standard widescreen aspect ratio – 1.78:1.
So, no matter how big your screen is – 40, 55 or 70 inches – the width and height ratio will be the same.
Look at the article on TV aspect ratios if you don’t understand this point.
The Aspect Ratio of a Movie
Now you know that there are two primary aspect ratios for a television. This leads to another interesting issue – how do the aspect ratios of movies affect what you see on your screen?
And, if you like to read your equipment’s manual (unlikely) – or want to flick through the setup menus, changing every setting as you go (more likely) – you will know that you can alter the aspect ratio you see on the screen.
You will also learn some changes you can make to get a better picture – or worse!
Common Aspect Ratios for Movies
When a movie or television program is made, it has a fixed aspect ratio.
This will depend on the type of camera used to shoot the show or, maybe, where it is intended to be shown.
So, shows recorded for TV will likely have a different native aspect ratio than high-budget movies.
However, once the movie is edited, it can be released in several different aspect ratios, and the image can be altered to suit its release format.
If you look at the back of your Blu-ray or DVD box, it will tell you the aspect ratio of the movie or show on the disc – along with further information like the Blu-ray region code.
Although many different aspect ratios have been used over the years, there are four primary formats that you will come across regularly.
Also known as 4:3 (pronounced ‘four by three’), this is the traditional aspect ratio of standard-definition TVs and images.
This is becoming less common as modern TV screens switch to widescreen formats. However, many older TV programs will only be available in this ratio.
Therefore, we can play this 4:3 TV show on our old 4:3 television, which will fit perfectly.
As you can see below, on a 4:3 TV, the image is a perfect match and fills the screen entirely.
But, on the 16:9 widescreen TV, there are bars on either side, which is because the image isn’t wide enough for the TV.
This is called pillar boxing or vertical letterboxing.
Most TVs will have a ‘justify’ (or similar) option to stretch the image to the edges, but this can stretch the image and make it appear strange.
Another alternative is to zoom in and remove the bars, which will mean losing some action at the top and bottom.
The picture may also lack sharpness when you zoom in or justify the image.
As explained earlier, 1.78:1 is the aspect ratio for all widescreen TVs.
It is also known as 16:9 or 16 x 9 and is pronounced ‘sixteen by nine.’
This aspect ratio is also commonly called widescreen. However, some of the other standard aspect ratios can also use this term – so using the ratio is more accurate.
Because this is the standard aspect ratio for high-definition television screens, 16:9 is often the best aspect ratio for displaying video on a TV.
If a movie is released with a 16:9 aspect ratio, it will match the screen’s aspect ratio, which means the film will be displayed on the entire screen area.
As you can see below, the 1.78:1 image on the 16:9 TV fits perfectly. Doesn’t that look great?
Notice that with a widescreen image, you get to see more detail on the left and right edges of the picture compared to the 4:3 version shown in the previous section.
But, if you display this video on a 4:3 TV, the widescreen image will have bars at the top and bottom. Therefore, the image will appear much smaller as it is made to fit the smaller width.
This is called letterboxing. You can zoom in on the TV to get rid of the bars, but this will mean losing some of the action at the edges – and make the picture lose sharpness.
A common widescreen aspect ratio for many movies is 1.85:1.
It is a popular standard in the US for widescreen movies, slightly wider than the standard 16:9 widescreen image.
However, a movie with this aspect ratio will fit quite well on a standard 16:9 high-definition TV screen as it is almost the same shape.
A 1.85:1 movie on a 16:9 screen has some letterboxing, but as this shape is a pretty good fit, the bars at the top and bottom will be pretty small.
In fact, with overscan on, you won’t see them at all. If you turn overscan off, you will get small bars at the top and bottom – but you also get more of the image left and right.
Below, on the 4:3 television, the result is very similar to the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
However, the black bars at the top and bottom will be slightly more prominent – and therefore, the actual image will be smaller.
You can zoom in to remove the bars – but you will lose some of the action, too!
Also known as Panavision or CinemaScope, 2.39:1 is a popular aspect ratio for major movie releases.
Historically, this aspect ratio was 2.35:1, but it switched to 2.39:1 in the 1970s. It is also commonly rounded up to 2.40:1.
Therefore, you may see any of these three versions recorded on the DVD box – although they are all essentially the same thing.
Notice that you can see even more detail on the left and right of the image compared to the widescreen version.
The 4:3 television will have huge black bars at the top and bottom, and the movie will be that tiny, colorful bit somewhere in the middle!
Again, as with the previous aspect ratios, zooming in can reduce the bars, but it will also make the image less defined and cause a loss of the picture on either side.
On the 16:9 TV below, this is probably the one that annoys people the most.
You spend all this money on a vast 80-inch widescreen technological phenomenon, and then when you play a movie, part of the screen is covered with black bars at the top and bottom.
Maybe you should have tried to find a 1.85:1 version of the movie!
If you want to keep the aspect ratio as the director intended, you have little choice but to watch it with the letterboxing.
Alternatively, you can zoom in on the image to remove the bars, but you will lose some of the action left and right. And, after all, having this extra width is the whole point of shooting the movie in 2.39:1.
Another option is to get a screen that has the same 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
Unfortunately, although a few have been released in the past, you won’t find many ultrawide flat-screen TVs.
There are a few smaller ultrawide 21:9 monitors that you could use – which is almost the same aspect ratio.
If you really want to go down this road for home theater, the best option is probably to buy a home theater projector and get a screen that supports this wider aspect ratio.
You can buy home theater projector screens with a fixed aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or 2.39:1.
Potential plasma and OLED TV problems, such as screen burn-in, could be created using black bars for letterboxing. In the early stages of using a new plasma TV (the first 100 hours or so), it is often advised to change the color of the bars from black to a lighter color, such as grey.
This can usually be done in the setup menu of the TV or the DVD/Blu-ray player. OLED TVs can also be prone to image retention, but you don’t need to worry about this with an LCD or LED TV.
Understanding aspect ratios can initially seem complicated, but it gets easier with time. The key is realizing that your TV has a fixed ratio while movies can vary. When they differ, annoying black bars appear.
To avoid this, check a movie’s aspect ratio before purchasing and try to find the best fit for your TV. Watching films in their original ratio optimizes picture quality. However, you can zoom or stretch the image to remove bars.
In the end, it comes down to personal choice. Experiment to see what looks best with your equipment. The more you learn about aspect ratios, the better you can optimize your viewing experience.
If you want to learn more about movie formats, check out the guide to Blu-ray audio formats.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some short and sweet answers to common questions about movie aspect ratios.
What Is the Aspect Ratio for Movies?
Most movies are recorded and released with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio – you may also see 2.35:1 and 2.4:1, which are similar. Some movies are reduced to 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 in some mediums as they completely fill a widescreen TV screen.
What Is the Correct Aspect Ratio for Movies?
The majority of movies have a 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 aspect ratio. However, these movies can be reduced to 1.78:1 when shown on streaming services or put on discs. It is best to view a film in the aspect ratio it was released; otherwise, the image will be distorted or cropped.
What Is the Aspect Ratio of 1080p?
The standard native resolution of 1080p is 1920 x 1080 pixels. 1920 ÷ 1080 = 1.78. Therefore, the aspect ratio of 1080p is 1.78:1 or 16 x 9.
What Is the Aspect Ratio of 4K?
The standard native resolution of 4K is 3840 x 2160 pixels. 3840 ÷ 2160 = 1.78. Therefore, the aspect ratio of 4K is 1.78:1 or 16 x 9.
What Is the Aspect Ratio of Widescreen?
The standard aspect ratio of widescreen is 16:9 – that is, 16 units wide and 9 units high. 1080p is a common widescreen format with this aspect ratio – 1920 x 1080.
About The Author
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.