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Choosing a Projector for Photography, Part I

Now, we can't really discuss resolution without thinking about aspect ratios. An SXGA+ projector is 4:3 in format, same as a traditional old television. If many of your photographs tend to be square or relatively close to 4:3, you might imagine that an SXGA+ projector would be the best match from a format perspective. Conversely, a 1080p projector is 16:9, which is the HDTV widescreen format. That would seem to be good for wide-format landscape photography, but not so good for portraits and other images that don't have a wide aspect ratio. So which is better for photography, a projector that is native 4:3 or one that is 16:9?

The answer is this: in most cases, the 16:9 format 1080p projector will be the better choice no matter what type of photography you are presenting. The only exception would be if you have a very large venue that demands 3000 ANSI lumens or more of brightness. At this moment in time, there are several SXGA+ projectors which deliver 3000 lumens or more, which is quite a bit more than most of the 1080p products on the market. So if you have the need to sacrifice some resolution in exchange for added brightness, an SXGA+ model might be the best bet. But the ideal solution from a resolution perspective will in all cases be the 1080p projector.

Why is that? Clearly, photographs are made in a variety of aspect ratios. Most smaller point-and-shoot digital cameras, regardless of resolution, have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Not only is this old television standard, but most digital projectors are made in this aspect ratio as well, including those in SVGA, XGA, and SXGA+ resolutions.

4:3 Aspect Ratio of Most Point/Shoot Digital Cameras

If you are a professional photographer shooting medium or large format film cameras, the full frame images will typically be 5:4, or in some instances they could be square.

On the other hand, if you are shooting a digital SLR, that type of camera will normally produce an image with an aspect ratio of 3:2, which as you can see is somewhat wider than the 4:3 image above. This aspect ratio can also be denoted as 15:10, which is not quite as wide as the HDTV 16:9 standard. However, these images can be displayed quite nicely on 16:9 projectors.

3:2 Aspect Ratio of Most DSLR Cameras

Now, how does an SXGA+ projector fall short in displaying these formats? First, let's assume your picture is in 4:3. An SXGA+ projector will show it full frame in 1400x1050 resolution. Meanwhile, a 1080p projector will show it in 1440x1080 resolution, which is an increase of about 6% in the total number of pixels used to create the image. This is not much of a difference. But the important thing to recognize is that, despite its 16:9 format, the 1080p model has a slight resolution advantage over SXGA+ with any image format that is 4:3, 5:4, or anything close to square.

However, let's assume your picture is from a DSLR, and it is in landscape 3:2 format. An SXGA+ projector will show that image in a pixel matrix of 1400x933, which is about 1.3 million pixels. Meanwhile, a 1080p projector will show it in 1620x1080, or 1.75 million pixels. That is an improvement in pixel density of about 35%. That is enough to give your images incrementally more detail than they would have on the SXGA+ projector. The increased pixel density also reduces the potential for visible pixelation in the image, allowing you to achieve a smoother picture.

The bottom line is that, unless you really need exceptional light output, I personally feel that SXGA+ is the less desirable of the two formats as far as photography is concerned, because no matter which aspect ratio your photographs are in, they will always be shown in less resolution on an SXGA+ projector than they will on a 1080p projector. And due to the competitive dynamics of the consumer home theater market, not only are 1080p projectors higher in resolution, but they can be lower in price as well.

Aesthetics of Image Presentation

Having stated my preference for widescreen projectors, there is an aesthetic consideration that must factor into your decision, and your preferences may be different than mine. Assuming you have a mix of 4:3, square, and 3:2 photographs in your collection, you need to ask, "Do I want the 4:3 and square images to look bigger on the screen than the 3:2 images, or do I want the widescreen 3:2 images to look bigger than the 4:3's? Your choice of a 4:3 vs. a 16:9 projector will determine which type of image looks the largest on the screen.

If you choose a 4:3 projector such as an SXGA+, all 4:3 and square images will appear larger than your wider landscape images. The landscape photos will be displayed in the same width, but they will have black bars top and bottom, and the total image size of your widescreen photos will be smaller than your 4:3 images.

Conversely, if you go with a 16:9 projector, your widescreen landscape format photos will appear larger (wider). Meanwhile, your 4:3 and square images will be displayed in the same height, and they will appear in the center of the screen with black pillars on the sides.

There is no right or wrong to this, it is just an aesthetic preference that you may have. If you want your square and 4:3 images to be the largest images on the screen, and if you are willing to sacrifice some resolution of your 3:2 images to achieve that effect, then a 4:3 projector will be a better solution for your particular needs.

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Contents: Introduction Important Attributes Aspect Ratio Budget and Conclusion