Sony uses a 16:9 (1.778) aspect ratio for still photos taken from its camcorders. As a guideline, panoramic photos commonly are 3:1, which is wider, while medium format are well-known to be half that at 3:2 (1.5) aspect ratio.

I've never come across 16:9 photographs in professional print or fine art. Why is this size so unusual?

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    If 16:9 has become the standard for motion picture, it's strange that it didn't also for professional static photographers
    – user610620
    Jan 6 at 10:23
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    I think any answer to this is going to be opinion-based, but from my own personal perspective, I do find it irritating my printed canvas supplier has every size from postage stamp to A0 & larger, in every format…except 16:9. 2:1 is too narrow, 5:4, 4:3 or 3:2 is sometimes 'just wrong' for me. [Sure, I can pay for a custom size, but that quadruples my prices] I often publish to 'web' at 16:9, because it fits fullscreen better - know your target audience.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 6 at 12:52
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    @user610620, photos inherit (more or less) the format of paintings. Motion picture is much, much younger than painting so this may explain the reason why 16:9 is less used in photography. Jan 6 at 13:16
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    I think it's a fair question. I've wondered in the past myself where these "standard" aspect ratios came from. Medium format isn't necessarily 3:2 though... 6x6, 6x7 are very common medium format sizes (along with 645 of course). 6x8, 6x9, 6x12 and 6x17 are also formats found amongst medium format cameras. 3:2 is more a "standard" with smaller format photography.
    – osullic
    Jan 6 at 17:49
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    @xenoid Picasso's Guernica is neither a fresco nor is it 16:9
    – osullic
    Jan 6 at 17:53

Adding on to @Orbit's answer regarding area of an inscribed rectangle in a circle, the following graph shows the area of 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios.

Area versus aspect ratio

Area versus aspect ratio:
square: 100% (maximum area inscribed by a rectangle in a circle)
4:3: 96.0%
3:2: 92.3%
16:9: 85.5%

Nothing earth-shattering, but, you get about 10% better area utilization of the image circle using 4:3 versus 16:9.

The equation for the above graph:
Area = 4 * k * r^2 * (sin(atan(1/k)))^2
r = radius
k = aspect ratio (x/y)

If you set the radius = sqrt(0.5) = 0.707, you'll get the normalized graph where the area = 1 for a square aspect ratio.

  • 1
    @user610620 An aspect ratio of 2 has an area of 0.80. Aspect ratio of 1 has an area of 1.00, thus, the aspect ratio of 2 has less area than the aspect ratio of 1. Note that the image circle radius is fixed. I added the equation in the answer so you can see how this works.
    – qrk
    Jan 7 at 2:23
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    So the more area an art photograph has, the more aesthetic and valuable it is to consumers?
    – user610620
    Jan 7 at 6:58
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    Why use an inscribed circle as a benchmark, when we use widescreen monitors? a 1.5 (3:2) ratio image with landscape orientation fills the space on a widescreen monitor more fully than a 1:1 image does, making it maximally efficient, and we don't view the world through one sphere, but two (two eyes, horizontal to each other)
    – user610620
    Jan 7 at 13:02
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    @user610620 It's not a "benchmark", it's a practical compromise: our task is to make the best use of the light through a circular lens, while producing an image that is aesthetically satisfying. We could ignore the shape of the lens completely, and capture a rectangle with a ratio of 100:1, but the downsides of throwing away that much of the captured light are rarely worth it. Since a 3:2 ratio is quite pleasing (particularly in portrait orientation), and makes better use of the circular input, it has largely remained the standard compromise.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 7 at 19:26
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    Just a quick math note, sin²(arctan(1/k) can be expressed without the trig functions as (k²+1)/k² = 1 + 1/k² Jan 8 at 4:09

I expect that this is mostly due to technical limitations. DatAperture wrote it very nicely on Reddit:

Lenses project circular images. To get the most resolution out of a lens, you should use a circular sensor. But those would be really wasteful to produce en masse (imagine how much you'd waste cutting circles out of a sensor wafer), so we have to use 4-sided polygons. Theoretically, a square would be the best way to use a maximum amount of that circle's light. But a square is weird; you'd have to crop like every image. So, 4:3 and 3:2 are the solution: not quite a square, but not widescreen 16:9 either. Maximum amount of surface area from the lens's image circle without being a square. You can always crop to 16:9 later, but if you crop a 4:3 out of a 16:9 size sensor, you've just lost a huge amount of usable pixels.

Besides this, many people don't like the format much and have trouble making a nice crop with it, but that can also be because they are not used to it. There is a thread on DPReview about this subject.

  • 2
    Not only technical limitations. Plenty of action photos would waste a lot of space in a 16:9 format (plus you would have to edit all the distracting things in the background). Not speaking of portrait... Also still a lot of photography ends up in print, and 16:9 doesn't work well with usual print formats.
    – xenoid
    Jan 6 at 15:37
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    @xenoid: Very true, but on the other hand, it could work very well for landscapes. There is probably a reason why TV developed towards 16:9. And this problem also applies to video, it seems to work there. I think the print format is not so relevant, that should follow the most common sensors being sold. If most were 16:9, it would probably be the most popular print format.
    – Orbit
    Jan 6 at 15:45
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    Cinema sensors are generally the same aspect ratio as stills cameras, so "wasting space" isn't a good argument. Shooting anamorphic squeezes info into that 4:3 sensor better, but not everyone shoots anamorphic. 'Regular' TV shoots straight into 4:3 sensors but crops to a bit bigger than 16:9. The monitors then have a 16:9 inset rectangle for the broadcast area [plus some other safety lines not important to this discussion] Film/TV is my 'day job', photography is a hobby, but I'm so used to seeing things in 16:9 that perhaps that influences my photography.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 6 at 19:22
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    tbh I love what you can do in 16:9 that 4:3 can't capture. Sometimes it feels 'baggy'.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 6 at 19:26
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    As a related question, we could consider, "Why don't videographers turn the camera on its side when they want to shoot in a portrait aspect?" But none of us would likely ask that, because it sounds completely daft. ...Thing is, if you ever hand a photographer a video camera, there's a good chance they may actually do that at some point, because it tends to be second-nature for them. (I've seen it happen!) Despite using the same equipment, capturing video and taking still photos are vastly different activities.
    – FeRD
    Jan 6 at 21:28

The 35mm camera evolved into an image size that is 24mm x 36mm. This format was chosen by the German camera maker E. Leitz. One of his engineers, Oskar Barnack designed a 35mm still camera in 1913. At that time, Thomas Edison was making movies using a 35mm wide film stock. This film has perforations along both edges to accommodate mechanical transport in the Cine (motion picture) camera and projector. By 1913 this film was plentiful. The Cine camera image was 18mm height 24mm wide. Leitz doubled the height to 36mm for the Lieca camera making the format 24mm height by 36mm length.

Consider that this film size is too tiny to be useful unless an enlargement is made. Now most films went to a professional photofinisher for developing and printing. It became standard practice to enlarge 35mm negatives using long rolls of 3 ½ wide paper. The result was a print size of 3 ½ X 5 1/4 inch. By the middle of the last century, 4 inch wide paper became popular thus the industry standard became a 4 x 6 inch print.

By the way, professional photographers, of this period, were mainly selling 8x10 inch portrait size prints. This size stems from the Dutch paper makers during the Industrial Revolution. Seems they automated paper making using machines that produced a web of paper the width of an operator’s outstretched arms. At that time the Dutch began to produce drawing paper 8x10 inch in tablets. This size was the most efficient cut-down of the web with reduced paper waste. The 8x10 sketch paper became most popular in England.

Meanwhile the TV industry evolved into “wide-screen” formats. The 16:9 TV format is here to stay, I think. I will bet that still cameras of future will begin using this format and it will become the "industry standard".

  • 2
    "I will bet that still cameras of future will begin using this format" - although I'd question whether 16:9 photos are as "useful" for most purposes. Yes, they are great for viewing landscape on a TV - but that's about it IMO. And 9:16 portrait doesn't look so good at all IMO.
    – MrWhite
    Jan 6 at 21:23
  • We have the option to post edit i.e., cropping to any desired ratio. Jan 7 at 0:29
  • Finally, the Dutch produced Blender, and the rest is history. ;-D
    – Mentalist
    Jan 7 at 4:05
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    I think that switching to 16:9 for still photography would mean all lenses will become 3 to 4 times heavier and 3 to 4 times more expensive. They can easily afford that for cinema, but it doesn't work very well for still photography.
    – Orbit
    Jan 8 at 12:05
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    @AlanMarcus: You can crop to any ratio from any ratio though. For any given pixel count, the best images will come from a sensor that matches the target aspect ratio. Any other ratio is losing information. If photographers were routinely using 16:9, it would be best to have cameras optimized for that.
    – MichaelS
    Jan 9 at 9:28

Aspect ratio can be anything if you're making your own cameras and coating your own plates. But if you use equipment manufactured by others, you're limited to whatever is actually made and sold. While you can crop to whatever aspect ratio you like, the full image will always be whatever is captured. Papers, frames, and other supplies are also available in standard sizes.

While there are cameras and papers that do not fit the most commonly used sizes, they hold a minority share until enough people switch. As you've noted, there's currently little market demand for manufacturers to change. So they don't.

Even if another format were to become more popular than 3:2 and 4:3, there is still pre-existing equipment that can continue to be used. There also are pre-existing images that would continue to dominate until enough new images are created.

As for why 3:2 and 4:3 are the most popular (still photo) aspect ratios...

Initially, manufacturers produced equipment and supplies that were incompatible with each other, but they eventually figured out that's a ludicrous way to compete. As time progressed, they naturally moved toward standard sizes. This has happened repeatedly with different technologies (paper, film, screens, sensors, etc).

So large format had more variety in aspect ratios. Medium format fewer. Miniature pretty much just a couple. Of course, there are always holdouts, but they hold a minority market share. (eg, square formats, panoramic formats, stereographic images, etc)

What appears to have happened (according to Wikipedia) is someone cut down a standard Kodak 70mm film stock to make the 135 format for motion pictures. Motion picture film was run vertically with a 4:3 aspect ratio (± audio track, anamorphic, etc.). Then for still cameras, someone else put two 4:3 frames together and ran the film horizontally to create the 3:2 aspect ratio. This format became popular and resisted numerous attempts at change.

By the time digital came around, 4:3 was used in consumer cameras to (probably) match the size of monitors in common use at the time. For "pro" cameras, 3:2 was (probably) used because it's what photographers expect after a century of use. There is also lots of existing equipment (paper, lenses, shutters, etc) that could be reused in the transition. (Early DSLRs were modified still cameras.)

Since there doesn't appear to be market demand for change in still photography, manufacturers have no need to change the native aspect ratio of (non-phone) cameras. However, if the demand for dedicated still photography dwindles, still photography could transition to wider native formats as more people use camcorders and phones to capture stills.

  • This seems to indicate that photographers can publish whichever aspect ratio they want, but honestly think that the professional photography market would reject many custom aspect ratios if they did that. I'm sure media houses have a protocol for submissions received that force photographers to conform to some standard aspect ratio or image size already entrenched in the print/tabloid industry.
    – user610620
    Jan 6 at 19:17
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    Photographers are generally limited to the equipment and supplies they can purchase. For fine-art, if it's important enough, photographers can purchase custom papers, mats, frames, etc. But most will just go with a standard size. For the print industry, editors would want the full image so they can resize or crop to fit the layout. In that case, the photographer is limited to whatever the sensor provides, which is at the whim of the manufacturer.
    – xiota
    Jan 6 at 20:11
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    @user610620 Does rolled paper change this? You usually have one fixed dimension, but can keep printing on the roll for essentially as long as you want. Jan 7 at 20:46
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    @user610620: I don't understand your comment about printers being forced to crop or trim images to conformity. Word lets me specify custom print sizes and Windows lets me add custom sizes directly to the printer driver's list of sizes so other software can print non-standard sizes, like Paint.NET. If I have the oddball paper, I can print to it as long as it fits in the printer's input. Standard legal is 8.5" x 14", while 16:9 would be 8.5" x 15.11". Hardly enough difference to break my feed tray. Conversely, standard letter is 8.5" x 11", which can be trimmed to 6.19" x 11" and fit in my tray.
    – MichaelS
    Jan 9 at 13:22
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    @MichaelS you could crop that 8.5" x 14" to 7.9" x 14" and not have to modify your paper tray at all. Jan 12 at 22:23

One thing that I want to point out is the APS film format (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Photo_System) did use a native 16:9 aspect ratio. From what I understand about the system the other two aspect ratios "C" (classic) and "P" (panoramic) work by cropping and storing some information in the magnetic portion of the film so that it can be cropped correctly when printed.

The native format "H" (High Definition) has a 16:9 aspect ratio.

  • what time period was APS film
    – user610620
    Jan 10 at 23:07

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