Composition Tips for 16:9

Shooting for widescreen doesn’t mean just shooting wider. It’s how to creatively get your entire subject in frame and what will be lost if viewed on a 4:3 aspect ratio TV.

The width of the movie film between the sprocket holes initially determined the aspect ratio (horizontal to vertical) of a motion picture image. In 1892, Thomas Edison defined this with 35mm film which had a useable area between the sprocket holes of 24.89mm x 18.67mm. Later, when the motion picture industry developed a way to put an optical soundtrack on the film (rather than trying to synch video and audio externally), this was reduced to 22mm x 16mm (4.11:3).

History of Frame Size

When television came along, it adopted the aspect ratio of 4:3, so that it could easily show previously-recorded motion pictures. (There are no widescreen versions of Gone With The Wind or Casablanca, because they were actually shot in 4.11×3.) This is why standard-definition TVs and older computer monitors use this aspect ratio. After the advent of TV, motion picture directors began experimenting with wider aspect ratios to get people interested in returning to the theaters. Directors used these new formats well. John Ford’s unforgettable use of widescreen introduced the world to the Badlands with sweeping landscapes.

Typically, these films came to television in a truncated 4:3 format. Sometimes they used a technique known as “pan and scan,” where only a section of the entire image would pan back and forth across the widescreen images to keep the center of interest on the television screen. Later, as TV screens got larger, letterboxing came into style, maintaining the widescreen formatting of the original by placing black bars at the top and bottom of the TV screen and showing the image full width.

Enter 16:9. The 16:9 ratio became the standard for HDTV around the world. New TV screens fit the image, and older 4:3 screens can show the format in letterbox. The future of video is in 16:9; the sooner you adopt shooting it, the more longevity your videos will have. Rules of composition for 4:3 are well known, and you’ve likely been following them for years. In 16:9, some rules stay the same, but there may be things you haven’t thought of.

We’re going to take a look at some tips for composing in widescreen.

Use Visual Lines to Draw the Viewer’s Attention

“Lines” doesn’t refer necessarily to physical lines, like telephone wires or railroad tracks, but rather to a series of elements that viewers will subconsciously draw a line through to bring their eyes to the payout. Try to use your leading lines to tell a story or add visual information to the scene. Imagine a dejected figure sitting on the side of the road on the left, a vehicle pulled over to the side of the road in the center and the main character on the right looking into the distance, each progressively larger than the one before. This might tell us that our characters have run out of gas or broken down on a lonely stretch of highway. While you can do this in 4:3, the 16:9 aspect ratio gives you a more linear space.

The Rule of Thirds Still Applies

The grid that you’ll use to divide your screen into thirds has changed in dimension, but it’s still there. Cinematographers have been using it to great effect in widescreen for years.

Realize That Your Video May Be Converted

Just because you’re shooting in 16:9 doesn’t mean necessarily that your viewers will be viewing it that way. It’s not uncommon for television networks to crop a 16:9 show into a 4:3 format. With this in mind, many cinematographers today are shooting 16:9, but keeping in mind that their footage will likely be cut to 4:3 and only later seen on a DVD release in the original format. This means that no critical information can be put on the very edges of the screen.

Use the Whole Frame

The great width of 16:9 gives you more room to tell your story and to have multiple stories going on in the same frame without crowding one another. In 4:3, often multiple elements were stacked one behind the other in an over-the-shoulder fashion. 16:9 allows you to spread them out more. You can, for example, have a closeup and a wide shot in the same frame. Put a character to one side, and use what’s nearly a full 4:3 screen behind to have some other action going on that advances the story. In a 4:3, you might have to cut between two shots that you can fit in the same frame in 16:9.

Think in Panoramas

You now have the ability to show vast sweeping landscapes, so do it. Cityscapes, fields and roads are waiting for you to record them.

Pay Attention to Foreground

Just because the action is going on 60 feet from the camera doesn’t mean you can’t add visual elements in the foreground. Someone getting in or out of a car can help set the scene for a busy New York street. Or you can use birds eating in a park, children playing, anything to liven up your shot. You don’t want the foreground image to overpower your point of interest, but you can use the foreground to keep a rather static shot, such as two people talking on a bench, more animated.

Watch Movies Critically

Every time you watch a movie shot in widescreen format, pay attention to what the director of photography is doing. How is he using his screen real estate? What is he showing and how? The ability to view critically will be one of your greatest teachers.

16:9 is a whole different ballgame from the old 4:3 format. You have more screen to use and in different directions. Use it wisely.

Contributing columnist Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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