What is the aspect ratio?
Aspect ratio, in terms of video, pictures or graphics, is basically a proportional relationship between picture width and height. It means that, for a hypothetical width of 16 inches (or cm/pixels), our picture would need to have 9 inches in height. This makes aspect ratio 16:9. However, the actual size of the picture does not really matter. What is important are the proportions between width and height.
Depending on aspect ratio, we visually see it as a wider or taller frame. For example, aspect ratio 1:1 means a square picture (the same width and height), which nowadays is especially popular on social media (Instagram).
Aspect ratio sets
Traditional, horizontal aspect ratio originated from cinema and television. Current mobile internet access, the social media revolution and improvements in smartphone camera technology have introduced new ways in content production, as well as its consumption. Mobile access to the internet via smartphones has made it easier to watch and produce visual content based on the way we hold smartphones - vertically.
Horizontal aspect ratio
Do you remember the time of tape camcorders and heavy television sets? SD resolution with poor-quality images was what we could get. From SD resolution, which was used in televisions, also originated the 4:3 aspect ratio. This is how most of our old school television sets were constructed.
HD and Full HD resolution was a big revolution in picture quality offered by television. Except for much higher resolution, HD and Full HD also offered wider frames and this is how the very popular 16:9 aspect ratio originated. It is applied to most of the digital camcorders, cameras and modern television sets we use today. Because this is the main video format in most cameras, 16:9 ratio is also often used in social media, YouTube etc.
Other horizontal possibilities worth mentioning are the widescreen aspect ratios used to achieve a cinematic look. The proportion of 2.35:1 is one of the more popular choices for widescreen, but there are many other choices.
What is important, is that horizontal videos are still the most popular option. Even in social media, they are utilized very often and, in my opinion, they make our content look more prestigious and professional.
Vertical aspect ratio
It is not a secret that nowadays most content (including video) is consumed by people using their smartphones, usually outside of a home. We prefer browsing rather than consuming entire content, especially using social media. A natural way of browsing a feed or FB wall is to hold a phone vertically. This is also how people tend to record videos using smartphones.
Despite the obvious possibility to rotate smartphones to watch video horizontally in full width and height, most consumers do not do that, especially using social media. Even when something grabs our attention, we tend to quickly jump back into browsing. This trend was caught by brands and marketers. Today more and more promotional content on social media is produced to match smartphone users.
Obvious vertical aspect ratio (originated in how we hold phones) is 9:16. It is the most popular solution in producing content, and only actually possible in the context of creating stories on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. However, for videographers who are using camcorders and cameras, this is a problematic approach (as professional video equipment records videos horizontally).
I am not a big fan of this aspect ratio myself. In the same way, 9:16 aspect ratio is not a good solution for people still consuming social media content on bigger devices like computers or tablets. Because of that, other vertical aspect ratio formats are worth considering.
Options which are better for the eyes and less drastic are 2:3 (Facebook only) and 4:5 aspect ratios as the frame is wider and, during the process of transforming horizontal video from professional cameras into vertical, we lose less information.
Square aspect ratio
My favourite option for social media video is 1:1 aspect ratio. Why is the square aspect ratio so cool? Because it is the best compromise between smartphone users and traditional horizontal graphic formats.
As a videographer, I often struggle between producing suitable content for smartphone users, whilst at the same time using all the advantages of recording by professional camcorders or cameras.
Recording in 16:9 aspect ratio and converting it later into a vertical version means losing huge parts of a frame (and information). Square aspect ratio is also closer to the way in which we get used to watching videos - horizontally.
Ways to use a square aspect ratio
There are a few ways to use square video format. The first one is simply video which fills the entire square frame, creating Instagram style content. It is also advisable if we are able to cut off part of a frame.
But in some cases, we would like to keep a wide view to enhance emotions, size or because we simply want to keep all the people or objects in a frame. There is another way we can use pre-recorded 16:9 content without losing information and still share it as 1:1 video. The trick is to fit in the entire video width and add space on the top and on the bottom to keep the square format. Now we can fill the additional space by adding information (e.g. website, call to action or logo). It is a commonly used approach on Facebook by many influencers and popular pages.
Finding the best video aspect ratio depends on many factors including the platform, target group and camera we use. If you wish to know how to choose the video format for your social media channels, follow my profile on LinkedIn for more useful tips. You can also check out my article about video content production for social media.