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What is aspect ratio?

Icons representing the usual aspect ratios of 16:10, 16:9, 4:3 and 21:9.
nexusby / Shutterstock.com

You may have come across the term “aspect ratio”

; while shopping for a new computer monitor or looking up a movie on IMDb. The term is widely used in the video and photography world. At its core, aspect ratio is a simple mathematical concept.

Aspect ratio in video and photography

Aspect ratio is the ratio of the width and the height of a four-sided shape such as a TV screen or a photograph. Like any mathematical ratio, the aspect ratio of a rectangle does not refer to its physical dimensions, but rather to how the width and length of an object relate to each other.

A perfect square would have an aspect ratio of 1:1 because a square’s width must be equal to its length. Aspect ratios can be expressed as integers (such as 3:2) or decimals (such as 1.5:1).

Using the aspect ratio, you can calculate the height of an object using its width (and vice versa). Probably the most quoted aspect ratio is 16:9, which is often interpreted as “sixteen by nine”, with the first number referring to width (16) and the second to height (9).

In film production, aspect ratio refers to the shape of the frame. Two of the most common aspect ratios you’ll see in the cinema are 1.85:1 (widescreen) and 2.39:1. That’s why you see black bars at the top and bottom of the frame on most movies.

Television has settled for 16:9 for most broadcasts, although screens come in a variety of aspect ratios. Ultrawide monitors preferred by many gamers may have a 2.37:1 aspect ratio (usually marketed as “21:9”), with so-called “32:9” ultrawide monitors now available at a few manufacturers.

Using an aspect ratio calculator

If you want to fit a specific piece of content on a particular device, say a wallpaper on a smartphone, an aspect ratio calculator like this one from Andrew Hedges can help.

With this tool, you can calculate the height or width based on an aspect ratio, or even work the other way around to calculate the aspect ratio of a rectangle based on physical dimensions.

Aspect Ratio Calculator

For example, to calculate height based on width and aspect ratio, enter your aspect ratio in the W1 and H1 boxes, then add the physical width to the W2 box. The calculator displays the relative height in the H2 field.

Aspect ratio calculated

You can calculate the aspect ratio of any rectangle by simply entering its physical dimensions in the W1 and H1 boxes. The ratio is shown above the “Example” image below.

Keep the aspect ratio at all costs

When it comes to content such as images and videos, changing the aspect ratio when resizing will cause an image to look stretched or compressed. For best results, always keep the aspect ratio you’re working with to avoid unsightly distortions.

Disney made this mistake famous when it decided to release classic episodes of The Simpsons on Disney+ to meet modern 16:9 screens. Luckily you can still watch The Simpsons in the original 4:3 aspect ratio with a tweak.

RELATED: Watch Classic “Simpsons” in 4:3 Original Format on Disney+

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