A Cinematographer’s Guide to Shooting Vertical Video: Part 1
Why Vertical Video?
Videos are now a main staple across social media platforms, and with it the use of non-traditional aspect ratios has increased. This is mainly due to the fact that social media content is consumed on mobile devices, who have an inherently ‘portrait’ or vertical aspect ratio.
As content is being consumed in this way, engaging and grabbing the attention of the viewer is key; and taking up more of the screen’s real estate removes unwanted distractions and places your content more prominently on the screen.
So, as far as social videos go, the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio is out of the window! In this series of blogs, I will discuss the various cinematographic elements to consider when creating amazing looking vertical videos.
First off, we need to consider the aspect ratios being used across social media for vertical videos – sadly they all aren’t just 9:16.
First up we have 9:16, this is just standard 16:9 video flipped vertically. Instagram Stories, IGTV and Facebook Stories use this aspect ratio to fill the entire screen to really immerse the viewer.
Next up, we have the classic square 1:1 ratio. This is used extensively across user’s Instagram gallery, these posts appear on their profile and across their follower’s news feeds. It’s also a popular format on Facebook too, as it takes up more screen real estate than your standard 16:9 video.
Further to these formats are the 4:5 and 2:3 aspect ratios. Both of these aspect ratios represent a compromise in vertical cropping when compared to the 1:1 square, which can be useful for two reasons. Firstly, the video will take up more real estate on the user’s news feed, therefore making the video more ‘immersive’ than the 1:1 square. Secondly, if you are filming for a native vertical video format, you will be cropping less of the video to achieve these aspect ratios, therefore making framing easier. 4:5 aspect ratio is more wide spread across Instagram where as the 2:3 aspect ratio is only used on Facebook.
Now we have considered the various aspect ratios, we need to now consider how to achieve them! As most cameras shoot 16:9, let’s work with that as our basis.
First up, let’s look at shooting horizontally with the camera in the standard 16:9 ratio. As you can see from the diagram below, as soon as we start cropping for a vertical aspect ratio, the amount of the frame we are left with is quite slender. A standard 1:1 crop isn’t too bad: it’s very similar to the old 4:3 TV aspect ratio. But as soon as you get to a 4:5, 2:3 or 9:16 aspect ratio, your are losing over 50% of the original frame.
Cropping the image so heavily can result in several drawbacks. Firstly, to ensure the key elements are in the cropped portion of your frame, you will end up having to use wider lenses than usual, and quite probably you still won’t be able to achieve a ‘wide shot’ with any normal lens. Secondly, as you are using wider lenses, it makes lighting your shot/talent much more difficult as you would have to place the lights further away. Otherwise they will be ‘in shot’ in your 16:9 frame!
Now, let’s consider shooting vertically with the camera on its side, producing a 9:16 aspect ratio. Achieving 9:16, 2:3, 4:5 and 1:1 aspect ratio is rather straight forward, and even at the tightest of crops (1:1) still retains over 50% of the frame. Yet, if we wanted to extract 16:9 crop from the image we would be left with a very thin portion of the original frame, leading to some of the drawbacks I mentioned above.
Therefore, when shooting on a 16:9 camera, it is important to work out where your content is going to be used, and what aspect ratios are required, to make the decision whether to frame for native 16:9 or vertical 9:16.
Apart from framing for 16:9 or 9:16 respectively, sometimes it is difficult to judge the crop required to achieve different aspect ratios. This said, most modern cameras and monitors offer something called ‘custom’ or ‘user’ on-screen boxes or markers, providing markers to act as a guide for framing. Using these markers makes it fairly easy to visualise your required aspect ratios on screen for safe framing.
Sony FS7 User Box Settings for Vertical Video
To access the User Box Settings go Menu, VF, Marker…
Height Setting For All – 269
1:1 – 269
4:5 – 215.2 (216)
2:3 – 179.33 (180)
9:16 – 151.31 (152)
Height Setting For All – 269
2:3 – 403.5 (404)
4:5 – 336.25 (337)
1:1 – 269
16:9 – 151.31 (152)
Non 16:9 Sensor Cameras
There is however a third way, but this requires shooting on a camera with a non 16:9 sensor! For example, the 4:3 aspect ratio on the Arri Alexa Mini, the 6:5 aspect ratio on the Red Gemini or either the 4:3 or 6:5 aspect ratio on the Sony Venice. With these aspect ratios, you are almost shooting square; therefore it is easier to extract the various frame sizes without heavy cropping as we saw before with the 16:9 sensor.
Again, with these cinema grade cameras it is rather easy to create your own on-screen aspect ratio markers with their respective programs and apps.
The next element to shooting vertical video is image resolution. Resolution is different to aspect ratio, although the two are linked.
Let’s first consider the resolution required for the various social media platforms.
9:16 – Instagram Stories, IGTV & Facebook Stories – 1080*1920
4:5 – Instagram Gallery/Profile – 1080*1350
2:3 – Facebook Feed/Profile – 1080*1620
1:1 – Instagram Gallery & Facebook Feed – 1080*1080
If we shoot 16:9 in full HD (1920*1080) it’s possible to achieve the desired resolution for 1:1 square crop (1080*1080), but the other aspect ratios will fall short… as seen below!
If we shoot 9:16 with the camera in the vertical plane in full HD, it is easy to achieve the desired resolutions. However, if we wanted a 16:9 extraction, for a standard HD video, we would be looking at a resolution of 1080*607.5 which falls short of HD!
If we can shoot UHD (3840*2160), even when shooting 16:9, it is possible to achieve a 9:16 extraction resolution of 1215*2160; therefore above the desired resolution of 1080*1920.
This is also true for shooting 9:16 with a 16:9 extraction, providing a resolution of 2160*1215.
Therefore, shooting in UHD (or 4K) can help achieve these vertical crops even when shooting horizontally, and vice versa. However, it is completely conceivable to shoot full HD in the vertical plane and achieve the required resolution of all the vertical aspect ratios.
As you can see, when shooting vertical video there are a few more considerations to take into account than normal. Having a clear understanding of how the footage is going to be used is critical to making the right choices of . Join me in my next part where I will discuss rigging the camera for vertical video and discuss framing rules and conventions for 9:16 and vertical video!