About Anamorphic 16:9 Media

The term anamorphic refers to a distorted image that appears normal when viewed with an appropriate lens. When shooting film or video, an anamorphic lens can be used to squeeze a wide image onto a standard 4:3 aspect ratio frame. During projection or playback, the image must be “unsqueezed,” stretching the image back to its original aspect ratio.

Why Use 16:9 Anamorphic Video?

16:9 anamorphic video provides NTSC and PAL compatibility but removes the 4:3 aspect ratio limitation. Anamorphic 16:9 video is becoming less common as high definition (HD) video becomes affordable, offering native 16:9 aspect ratio and higher resolution. However, HD video will not completely replace SD video for many years, so you may still find yourself working with 16:9 anamorphic footage on occasion.

16:9 anamorphic video is used for three main reasons:

  • For widescreen productions using SD equipment

  • For film transfers to SD DVD to maintain the original film aspect ratio

  • To create SD footage whose aspect ratio is compatible with 16:9 HD footage or film

Displaying 16:9 Anamorphic Video

By default, 16:9 anamorphic video displayed on an SD monitor appears horizontally squeezed—meaning images look tall and thin. Many computer applications, monitors, and DVD players are capable of “unsqueezing” 16:9 anamorphic video so that the image appears as intended.

About Letterboxing

When 16:9 video is displayed on an SD 4:3 monitor, you’ll see bars at the top and bottom of the picture because a 16:9 image cannot entirely fill a 4:3 screen. This presentation mode is called letterboxing and is often used synonymously with the term widescreen. Widescreen video requires letterboxing only when displayed on a 4:3 display.

Figure. Viewer window showing 16:9 video letterboxed in a 4:3 display.

Letterboxing should be used only for displaying images—not recording them. For example, you could easily mask the top and bottom of a 4:3 camera during recording to create letterboxed 16:9 footage, but many video lines would be wasted this way, reducing video resolution. Similarly, after you capture 16:9 anamorphic video, you should keep it in anamorphic mode as long as possible and avoid letterboxing the footage unless you have to. Even during export and output, there are many devices that can properly display 16:9 anamorphic footage. For example, most DVD players can stretch your footage when connected to a 16:9 display or letterbox footage when connected to a 4:3 display.