Monday, June 25, 2007

Widescreen Still Cameras

For Christmas, I bought my wife a Panasonic DMC-LX2K digital still camera. This camera has many interesting features—including a Leica lens—but one pushed me towards the purchase: it's native widescreen sensor. Unlike most cameras with a 16:9 setting, this camera does not throw away pixels when you shoot with it. Also, the camera records Quicktime movies at greater than DVD resolution (848x480). In good light you would not believe the quality of video you get out of this "still" camera.

In bad light, on the other hand, you would not believe how quickly the quality drops to atrocious. I tell everyone that this is the world's greatest pocket camera except for the lousy—low light—pictures.

But this entry is not about any given camera, but about the benefits of a wider aspect ratio in digital photography and video. If we watch our media content on 16:9 HDTV screens, and the 16:10 aspect ratio is becoming commonplace for computer monitors, why does 4:3 have a near monopoly on still photography? And will this change?

This topic was brought to mind as I was using Front Row on my MacBook to present a series of recent snapshots on my 720P HDTV. All the landscape shots fit perfectly on the screen, showing the content at its best and retaining the original composition of the images.

Photos with different aspect ratios, especially the extreme 9:16 rotation came up with some very odd, and pixelated cropping.

Or this picture of my mother at the beach in the more common 3:4 portrait image:

But even standard 4:3 images can come up missing important details like me peering over the top of this menu:

It is an implementation detail of iPhoto/Front Row that full screen images are cropped to fit (this is for straight viewing of the library, and not slideshows where you have more control). Apple could just has well have pillar boxed the images, and they probably should have even if this removed detail. This does not negate the fact that the best aspect ratio for photos which will be displayed on an HDTV is 16:9, and 16:9 is a good compromise for full screen display on the 16:10 aspect ratio of newer Apple monitors. It's certainly better than 4:3. And 16:9 is better for the same reason it and wider formats are used in movies, it's easier to tell stories with pictures if you have room to work with; not having your subjects jammed together in unnatural intimacy. People occupy space.

Why is 4:3 still the standard for digital stills if it is no longer the standard for digital video? I had thought the reason was the dominance of 4:3 friendly printing media in that you can't go to Staples and get widescreen photo paper, but the most common photo size is 6:4 which has an aspect ratio of 1.5 halfway between 16:9's 1.8 and 4:3's 1.33. Anyway, most digital photos are only seen onscreen and screens are getting wider; all of Apple's monitors and laptops use 16:10 displays. The iPhone doesn't follow this trend with a 3:2 aspect ratio; probably a compromise between esthetics and comfortably fitting in the hand.

I suppose manufacturers feel the buying public isn't ready for the change. They've shot 4:3 since the days of glass negative plates and probably don't feel the need to change. Also, I would think (but don't know) that the optics have to be more sophisticated to project such an oblong image without chromic and other distortions. But the public will change. They will tire of the whole shoddy experience of looking at their hi-tech photos on their hi-tech TV and grab onto solutions.

Consumers should buy 16:9 equipment when available and compose and crop their shots in future proof 16:9. Imagine 20 years from now how quaint all those 4:3 pictures you took last month will look. Anybody will tell at a glance they were from a bygone era—of tail fins, rotary phones, and poodle skirts.