Background: I do not wish to debate their merits or lack thereof, but of late I have been experimenting with a couple of "digital art frames" - these are 37" diagonal, 1920x1080 HD, in a nice frame, optimized for maximum viewing angle and low power consumption.

The Question: the frame can be hung in landscape (1920x1080 aka 16:9) or portrait (1080x1920 aka 9:16) orientation. I find that I do not have a lot of content in those aspect ratios. So: are there any 'standard' techniques for coping with this situation? There are a few techniques that come to mind, although each has its own unique disadvantage:

  1. Use Photoshop or some other tool to distort the image to fit. The issues are obvious.

  2. Crop the content to fit. Sometimes this is impossible without losing a critical part of the composition.

  3. 'Ken Burns Effect' - a looping animation that pans / zooms over the image. This is not always an option (neither of the frames I'm using support it) plus this kind of animation may simply be inappropriate under the circumstances.

  4. Large blank areas above / below (or left / right) of the content. Sometimes this works - sometimes it looks awful.

  5. Adding patterns / content to the blank areas - for some reason, the example that comes immediately to my mind is a book cover:

This could perhaps be automated to some extent?

6+. I'm sure there are many other things one could do.

To Summarize: I would like to know how other people deal with this issue. Are there any standards or guideline or principles that lay out what is acceptable / what is not acceptable?


Thank you, everyone who weighed in! At the very least, it is nice to know that yes, this is something of an issue, at least for some people. And you have helped me develop some vocabulary to use when discussing the issue (i.e., "letterboxing"). And: very perceptive to note how this could be a problem that requires a solution for a set of related images.

In case anyone is curious, I spent some time yesterday messing around with Photoshop's 'content aware' Fill and Scale functions - which can sometimes work a bit too well - scary stuff. I think it's something of an ethics question as to whether or not such generated pixels are 'better' or 'worse' than, say, applying a transformation to stretch the original image by 10% - but it occurs to me that these pixels could perhaps be used for textured padding when letterboxing an image.

Next stop: I'm curious if anyone has attempted to automate this kind of thing.

Again, thank you all!

  • 1
    My apologies. I initially tried to add a Comment, ran out of characters, misread something that (I thought) implied I should edit my initial question ... I think I've got a better handle on it now, thanks. Aug 30 '16 at 23:57

An option I don't see mentioned above is the same approach that videographers generally take as they will target a particular aspect ratio, but ensure the content works in other aspect ratios.

Obviously this only works if you can go back to the source (and it works with the content). I will usually compose my pictures with a good quantity of extra space around the edge, so that they can be cropped to several different aspect ratios so that any 'padding' is from the original scene.


I don't know of any standards. I agree that it's frustrating. The ubiquity of cheap 16:9 panels design for television makes it understandable that these digital frames aren't available in more photography-friendly aspect ratios.

I think one reason that there's no standard is that it really depends on your content and what you're presenting. If the images are primarily art, the scrolling effect is probably detrimental — but if they're documentary, then it may be ideal (there's a reason it's called the Ken Burns effect, after all).

Cropping to the frame's ratio is likewise very content- and subject-dependent. Even where it can work without losing parts of the subject, a different framing can make a big difference (see What should I consider for cropping aspect ratios? for some examples).

And, when padding (or "letterboxing") images, the question of black, white, another solid color, or a pattern — well, same story here. It depends on the image. Overall, this is generally the least destructive, so it's my preference for a default — but if you're trying to fit a 2:3 portrait image into a 16:9 frame that doesn't easily rotate, that can be awkward.

Even the stretching option might work in some cases (although... as you say, usually not).

Sorry I don't have a better answer, but I don't think there is one. The best practice, I think, is to consider and do the best thing for each individual image, or, if all presented together, for consistency as the best for the set of images.


Another option is to combine several (related) images, maybe with a large main image and two or three smaller ones filling the space. A 37" screen seems large enough to support that.

You could make a mosaic, or a triptychon, or any other arrangement.


I find that I do not have a lot of content in those aspect ratios.

Maybe you do and you don't know it.

Back when I used to do chemical photography, I had an enlarging easel that held paper in four sizes: 8x10, 5x7, 3.5x5 and 2.5x3.5. There wasn't a whole lot of aspect ratio diversity there, with one at 1.25:1 and three at or near 1.4:1. The standard technique was that you decided how much paper you wanted to burn on the print and then found a crop that worked in that size. Having been been handed a medium with fixed aspect ratio, you're in pretty much the same boat.

Pick a dozen or so images out of your library, load them into your favorite processing software, set the crop tool to 16:9 and have at it. This is an exercise where you need to treat the crop area like your viewfinder looking for composition in a world that's constrained to what you've already shot. Somewhere in most images are a couple of stories you can tell at whatever aspect ratio you want without depending on the elements of composition in the original. Look for the unusual, and don't forget that you can take a vertical crop out of a horizontal image. Your target medium is a 37-inch, low-resolution surface that gives you a lot of options you wouldn't have with a 37-inch print.


The natural choice is to let the user decide. One of the standout features of using an electronic display compared to print is that you can change not only what images to display, but how to display them.

You can see a fine example on any HDTV set. Because there's still plenty of 4:3 video being broadcast every day, most HD monitors and other hardware let you choose how to deal with that format. TiVo provides these options:

  • zoom (crop the top and bottom)
  • full (stretch to fill the screen)
  • panel (black bars on the sides)

One button is all it'd take to cycle between a small set of different options.

A slightly more complex interface could let the user zoom in and out, like you can on any digital camera. That would again let them choose between cropping and having black bars, where the cropped mode would just be zoomed in a little farther. But it'd also let the user choose to see 2, 4, 9, or more images tiled on the screen. This could be accomplished with a pair of buttons or a thumb wheel.

A digital frame is meant to mostly display images without user input, and you don't want controls to be noticeable from the front, but they could easily be hidden in the edge or back of the frame. Assuming you're using something like a Raspberry Pi to control the screen, it should be easy to manage the display mode and to integrate some simple controls.


Thank you, everyone - and I do mean that literally, as everyone who responded had something worthwhile to offer.

I was especially drawn to the notion of laying things out as a triptych or mosaic - basically, treating the screen real-estate as a space to lay down whatever 'story' I have in mind. Most of the fun I've been having with the digital frame has been in assembling sequences of images that 'go together' somehow (they change every 30-60 minutes or so, so a sequence can take days to finish)(so I prefer not to think of it as a 'slide show'). That in mind, arranging 2 or more images on the screen feels like a very natural next step.

This may or may not work for you. Whether it does or not, when it comes to cropping or scaling or filling a fixed-size frame, I think @mattdm expressed it best: "do the best thing for each individual image, or, if all presented together, for consistency as the best for the set of images."

(For what it is worth, I have avoided mentioning any manufacturers. Also, I have not yet played with a 4K frame, although there are a few models available (and one or two of them even don't cost a fortune). While I'm certain that quadruple the resolution will be nice, what I'm personally looking forward to is the enhanced colorspace promised by Rec.2020 (approx 12 bits per (r,g,b) triplet versus the Rec.709 (8 bits per triplet) that we've been using for decades). Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no-one offers a digital art frame with Rec.2020 colorspace. In fact, I think it is only within the last year or so that a few television manufacturers have introduced units that exceed Rec.709 - although note that they don't meet Rec.2020; instead they hit a halfway point that equates to about 10 bits per triplet. So it might be a year or two or three before affordable 4K / Rec.2020 art frames appear on the market. When that happens, I suspect that even photographers who are critical of digital frames will warm to the higher resolution and larger colorspace they provide).

  • This still isn't an answer... It's basically your thoughts on the other answers provided as far as I can tell. I don't know where this type of content would really fit if at all on this site. Some of it is comment worthy on other answers, some of it could go in an edit to your existing question, and some of it... I'm not sure on!
    – dpollitt
    Aug 31 '16 at 3:05

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