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YouTube aspect ratio and video thumbnails

April 6, 2020

I’ve been making a couple of YouTube videos lately, and one thing I started wondering about was aspect ratios.

In the first place I always recorded and published 16:9 videos as it seems to be quite the standard, but at some point I felt like having a little wider aspect ratio to get somewhat of a cinematographic look.

First try: black borders

Fair enough. I start by just cropping my 16:9 shots but still export in 16:9 so I have black borders on top and bottom. That’s fine if viewed on a 16:9 screen, but if viewed on a wider screen, it’s actually worst because we’ll have black borders on the sides to be able to display the black borders on the top and bottom.

That’s completely stupid so I quickly gave up on that idea.

Exporting in a different ratio

I then tried exporting in a different ratio, for instance, 2:1 (also known as 18:9) which is essentially the aspect ratio of most modern phones, as well as being a good compromise between 16:9 and 21:9 (the “proper” cinema aspect ratio, but that might be a tad too wide for my needs).

This is great, except when you start to consider the video thumbnail, which is what this article is about.

Thumbnails on YouTube

This is where things start to get funky. On the video page, before actually pressing play on the video, the thumbnail is gonna be displayed. Here, since the video player is gonna use the aspect ratio of your video, the thumbnail is gonna need to fit in it. This means if you published 2:1 and your thumbnail is 2:1, everything’s fine.

The issue is everywhere else on YouTube, it actually displays all thumbnails as 16:9. This means if you have a 2:1 thumbnail, you’ll have black borders on the top and bottom everywhere it’s gonna be displayed.

This kind of sucks.

To prevent this, you can upload a 16:9 thumbnail (e.g. making an alternative sequence of your video in 16:9 just for the thumbnail, either by zooming in or by revealing the content you cropped if any).

But now, on your actual video page, the 16:9 thumbnail is gonna be cropped to be displayed in the 2:1 player! If you revealed cropped content to make the thumbnail, that’s fine, you’re pretty much just back to the original look. But if you cropped even more on the sides to get back to 16:9, then your video is gonna be zoomed on the player page to fit 2:1 again!

Also, an extra issue in my case was that on my thumbnail I had some kind of montage with multiple videos, meaning that with the above solutions, either some parts of my montage would be floating in the middle instead of being anchored in a corner, or in the other case it would be mostly cropped on the video page. I guess you just shouldn’t have this kind of montage for the thumbnail if you’re gonna use an aspect ratio different from 16:9… But wait, that’s not even considering sharing on Facebook!

Aspect ratio on Facebook YouTube attachments

The funny thing is while YouTube displays your thumbnail in 16:9 other than on the video page, where it fits your video aspect ratio, Facebook instead displays them in 17.3/9 (yep). That’s some kind of weird middle ground between 16:9 and 2:1 (18:9).

This means again that if you go for a 2:1 thumbnail, even on Facebook you’ll still have black borders, but if you do a 16:9 which seems to be mostly optimal for YouTube, it’s still gonna be cropped.

And this means that if you have some kind of montage going on in the cover especially when it’s dependent on the corners of the frame, you’re always gonna be fucked.

Conclusion

If you want to make sure the content in the thumbnail is visible everywhere, I would recommend uploading 16:9 thumbnails, but designing it while keeping in mind that it’s gonna be fitted to the aspect ratio of your video on the video page, and that Facebook will crop it to a weird 17.3:9 aspect ratio as well.

So if you’re publishing 2:1 video, you’ll want to make it a 16:9 thumbnail where you add content above and below what would otherwise have been your framing, and make sure that this space doesn’t contain anything important.

However this is still not optimal, as it’ll make a nonnegligible part of your thumbnail deprived of meaningful content, which is an issue as the thumbnail is one of the main vectors to drive traffic to your video.

Another consideration would be to ignore that the aspect ratio of the thumbnail of your 2:1 video would also be 2:1 on the video page itself, since someone already on the video page likely doesn’t care about the picture at that point, leaving you more room to optimize for the rest of YouTube and Facebook attachments. Maybe your subject and text will be cropped on the video page, but it might be the price to pay for them to be displayed bigger earlier in the conversion funnel.