The Language Of Pictures
23 Nov 2022

Postulate: one of the keys to mastering a new subject area is simply learning the lexicon. Nearly every field out there has a way of dropping its own terms as a way to signal to itself and others that this is a distinct field of expertise. The world of pictures is no different. Enter the world  of graphic designers, photographers and cinematographers and you quickly become aware that you – mere mortal – don’t understand all the special words. “That’s a 16X9 at 30 fps in NTSC, and I’m worried about the bit depth and the codec.

That’s your cue to either nerd up and explore that world – or slink away in defeat, chastised and intimidated by all the specialist terms.

It’s not limited to the world of pictures. From finance, to law, to medicine – ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are often indicated by their use of the right words. Some groups actively use it to exclude or confound others: it’s a way of flaunting expertise and intimidating the uninitiated into going along with whatever the ‘experts’ propose.

But sometimes it is unintentional. You simply geek out too much and the common language becomes like a dialect.

As an outsider and a non-picture person, I recently found myself on the outside of a dialect I needed to get to grips with. So, in this little article, I’m sharing what I picked up about the dialect used by the picture people. A shortcut I wish I had. If you know all this, you might be an insider. Or just smarter than I was. Still, you may not know all this. In which case, you’re welcome.

My challenge here is to convey the absolute basics (in time we’ll cover more) without using any illustrations, charts or graphs.

RASTER AND VECTOR

A vector image is based on math, for instance the relationship between height and width is always the same no matter how small you make the image or how large it is. A raster image is made up of little dots called pixels. It loses quality when you scale it up too much – you can start seeing the dots – and they call that being pixelated.

PIXEL

A pixel is a tiny little square dot that makes up bigger images.  All raster images and videos are made up of these dots. Seen together, they make up a picture. There are two kinds, square pixels which are, um, square. And non-square pixels, which are not. Square pixels make up HD videos, or everything you see on YouTube.

RESOLUTION

When you hear 1080p (something you hear a lot) or 720p, they are talking about resolution. Resolution is the size of a video, measured by the number of pixels. 1080p is shorthand for a video or picture that is 1080 pixels high and 1920 pixels wide. 720p is shorthand for a picture that is 720 pixels high and 1280 pixels wide. The bigger this number, the higher the quality of the image. The more pixels are stuffed into that frame, the more clear the image becomes. High resolution.

ASPECT RATIO

Resolution is the number of pixels stuffed into a frame, aspect ratio is the dimensions of the frame. The ratio between the width and the height. You often hear of 16X9 or 4X3. 16 wide and 9 high is what you find on most video players. 4X3 is a square kind of frame. Just to confuse me personally, they sometimes mention other numbers. But these are ratios, not absolute numbers. So when they throw around an aspect ratio like 640×360 – that is the exact same thing as 16X9 (because you can do that mathy thing and divide it).

THOSE BLACK BARS ON THE TOP AND BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN OR ON THE SIDES OF THE SCREEN THINGIES

That, I’d have you know, as a purveyor of these terms, is known as letterbox and stretching. You sometimes see that with older movies, or artsy ones. It happens when the frame of your screen is 16X9 but the video playing on it is 4X3. These black stripes preserves the video when it is top and bottom (letterbox) or distorts it when it  is on the side.

FRAME RATE

Remember as a kid when you used to draw little stick men on the pages of your textbook, and then flip the pages, and the little guy would run and kick and decapitate the monster? That’s exactly what this is. Animation is a bunch of stills flipped through, and so is video. Still frames make up the moving image. The frame rate is the number of pictures you flip through per second. A few are very common. 24fps (frames per second) is the gold standard for most movies. 30fps is common for videos on the web. It commonly ranges between 8 and 60 frames per second – but bigger is not necessarily better. 24 frames, the gold standard, is the standard because it looks like the most natural flow to the human eye.

IS NTSC YOUR PAL?

Not so much for the web, but very relevant for TV. These are two formats. The whole world uses PAL, except for America and Japan, that uses NTSC because they just have to be different. You’d think just use NTSC when filming since a lot of your audience sits there, but this might affect the quality of your visual.

That covers the ground floor basics. Now at least, you’ll know what someone means when they say they are shooting 1080p in 16X9 at 24fps. Just those three babies together used to intimidate me.