Aspect ratios play a significant role in the way we perceive visual content. Whether you’re looking at a television screen, a computer monitor, or even a smartphone, developers probably spent countless hours determining the perfect aspect ratio for each display. Two of the most common aspect ratios are 4:3 and 16:9 (you might know them better as fullscreen and widescreen). Understanding their differences will give you a newfound appreciation of the art of the display. Let’s compare and contrast 4:3 vs 16:9 below.
4:3 vs 16:9: Side By Side Comparison
|Slightly wider than it is tall
|Much wider than it is tall
|Also Known As
|1440p x 1080p
|1920p x 1080p
|Total Screen Space
What’s the Difference Between 4:3 and 16:9?
Simply put, “aspect ratio” refers to the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image or screen. The first number in the ratio represents the width. The second number represents the height. In the case of 4:3, the width is four units for every three units of height. For 16:9, the width is sixteen units for every nine units of height. Looking beyond their numerical differences, these ratios have distinct characteristics that affect the shape, size, and type of images we see. In turn, this influences how we perceive and enjoy various forms of media. Let’s dive deeper.
Observing digital display shapes, you’ll see one of the main differences between 4:3 and 16:9. And, in turn, the different viewing experiences they offer. A 4:3 aspect ratio has a more square-shaped screen. Older televisions and computer monitors commonly used this aspect ratio. Conversely, a 16:9 aspect ratio has a wider and more rectangular screen. You’d recognize it as the current standard for modern high-definition televisions. It provides a wider field of view because the width of the screen is longer than the height.
Aspect ratios also play a crucial role in the composition and framing of a photograph. In 4:3 photography, the image has a more square shape, similar to traditional film photographs. 35mm film inherently has a 4:3 aspect ratio. Photographers must crop photos shot on 35mm to achieve 16:9. Comparatively, 16:9 photography provides a wider and more panoramic view. Photographers use 16:9 to capture broader scenes within the frame (which sacrifices height). You can understand why it’s the go-to aspect ratio for landscape photography.
4:3 vs 16:9: 5 Must-Know Facts
- 4:3 aspect ratio, also known as standard or fullscreen, was the traditional aspect ratio for older televisions and computer screens. 4:3’s screen is more square-shaped, with a shorter width compared to the height.
- 16:9 aspect ratio, commonly referred to as widescreen, is the standard for modern high-definition televisions, computer monitors, and most digital content. The screen is wider and more rectangular, with a longer width compared to the height.
- When viewing 4:3 content on a 16:9 screen, black bars may appear on the sides. This is called pillarboxing. Conversely, when viewing 16:9 content on a 4:3 screen, black bars may appear at the top and bottom. This is called letterboxing.
- Nearly every Hollywood studio film shot on 35mm film had a 4:3 aspect ratio between 1932 and 1952. However, a widescreen revolution came in 1953. In a matter of months, Hollywood switched to wider aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2:39:1.
- The popularization of television saw an industry-wide return to the 4:3 aspect ratio. For decades, all television presented in 4:3. That is, until the HD revolution of the late 2000s and early ’10s brought 16:9 to TV.
The History of 4:3 and 16:9
The 4:3 aspect ratio has a long and storied history in the world of visual media. It traces back to the early days of television and film, where it was the prevailing standard for several decades. Back in the early 20th century, celluloid film was the shooting standard. Throughout Hollywood, 35mm film was the most common shooting style. The 4:3 aspect ratio emerged naturally out of this standard, as the size of a single frame on a film reel measured 1.375:1.
The 4:3 aspect ratio gained even greater popularity throughout the mid-20th century with the emergence of television. All early television sets matched the standard 4:3 aspect ratio of the film industry, and why wouldn’t they? Other aspect ratios were so rare that it simply wouldn’t have made sense for television displays to be anything other than 4:3. While film gradually turned away from 4:3 throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond, television held onto 4:3 into the 21st century.
In the 2000s, both technological advancements and changing consumer preferences prompted a shift in television standards. With the rise of high-definition television (HDTV) and a collective desire for a more immersive viewing experience, a new standard aspect ratio — 16:9 — emerged on television. There was just one hurdle: cost. Because these new widescreen televisions were so expensive, aspect ratios of 4:3 vs 16:9 co-existed in living rooms across the world.
How 16:9 Compares
The 16:9 aspect ratio started to gain traction in the film industry in the 1950s. It was (and still is) viewed as a more cinematic format. The wider screen allowed for a broader field of view — and, later, better compatibility with the HDTV standard for televisions and computer monitors. In 1953, the film industry underwent a significant change with the introduction of CinemaScope. This 2.35:1 aspect ratio offered a significantly wider field of view compared to the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio.
The popularization of 2.35:1 brought lots of experimentation with other aspect ratios, including 16:9. This new aspect ratio gave filmmakers a broader canvas to capture sweeping landscapes, epic battle scenes, and grandiose sets. Over time, productions developed various other iterations of 16:9. The list includes Techniscope, VistaVision, and Super Panavision. Each offered a different aspect ratio but followed the same principle of wider screens equaling a more epic moviegoing experience.
It’s interesting to note that television’s rise and its reliance on the 4:3 aspect ratio more or less line up with 16:9’s emergence in the film industry. In basic terms, the 1950s essentially saw the fullscreen aspect ratio transitioning from film to television. Of course, we know that widescreen now reigns supreme both at home and at the movie theater. You might still see 4:3 from time to time, either used artistically or in older television shows or films that have preserved their original aspect ratio.
4:3 vs 16:9: When to Use Each
|When to Use 4:3
|When to Use 16:9
|Playing nostalgic video games
|Playing modern video games
|Watching 20th century movies or television shows
|Watching contemporary movies or television shows
|Taking photos for Instagram
|Making videos for YouTube
4:3 vs 16:9: Which One Is Better?
Choosing a superior aspect ratio between 4:3 vs 16:9 depends on both specific context and intended use. For this reason, both aspect ratios have unique advantages and are best suited for different purposes. The 4:3 aspect ratio can be ideal for preserving the original composition of older footage and when aiming for a retro aesthetic. The 16:9 aspect ratio can showcase panoramic scenes, capture more details, and provide a broader field of view. Rather than thinking of one aspect ratio as superior to the other, it’s better to consider their unique suitability for various purposes.
|Slightly wider than it is tall, 1.33:1, Fullscreen, Older CRTs, 1440p x 1080p
|Portrait photography, Playing nostalgic video games, Watching 20th century movies or television shows, Taking photos for Instagram
|Much wider than it is tall, 1.78:1, Widescreen, Newer flatscreens, 1920p x 1080p
|Landscape photography, Playing modern video games, Watching contemporary movies or television shows, Making videos for YouTube
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com.