Taking a broad view of the many different video formats and learning how to use them most effectively is a great use of time for any aspiring videographer. It goes a long way in helping you prepare for those times when you put a lot of work into a finished video project but then stumble into a video-format issue or video-streaming playback error. By spending a few moments learning the basics and general principles behind video formats and conversion settings, you'll have an easier time thinking your way through such obstacles — and the quality of your videos will improve as a result.
When is it necessary to convert video files?
Almost every modern use of videos requires the videos to be in the right format with the correct settings according to their end purpose and to ensure optimal playback. That's especially true for networked video-streaming applications. Optimizing video formats is a balancing act between ensuring the highest quality settings possible though without being so high that it renders the video unplayable. This guide will help you get a bird's-eye view of video conversion and formats in general so that you can make better, easier choices when confronted with the need to troubleshoot video-conversion issues.
By learning how to optimize your video settings, you can ensure that your finished videos are as beautiful as your original vision while still being easy for others to use and enjoy. In this era of video streaming on-demand, it's important to ensure that your content runs smoothly on a wide variety of social-media sites and video-upload platforms. This goes a long way in giving you a polished and professional reputation when your audience sees that your video content consistently plays smoothly and without glitches.
Besides needing to optimize video formats differently according to each site you wish to upload your videos on, there are many other reasons that mastering video conversion will pay off for you. Consider how a reliable and smooth video-streaming experience will be perceived by your audience:
- Viewers with slower devices can still enjoy your videos
- Your content won't bog down the devices of your viewers with needlessly excessive file sizes
- Further file compression by video-streaming sites will have minimal effect on the quality of your videos
- Your video content will be adaptable to a wide variety of screen sizes, graphics-processing capabilities, and other display characteristics
- The audience will be encouraged to check more of your videos and will remember your brand
- People will be more likely to explore the products and services associated with your brand, if applicable
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How video quality is affected by video conversion
Video files undergo a loss in quality almost every time they are converted, especially with lossy formats which rely on compression to lower file size. The only exception to this is when saving files to a lossless format — note, however, that some "lossless" formats still use a slight amount of compression, which does reduce the quality, however negligibly. Generally speaking, video always undergoes a loss in fidelity during conversion unless it is converted to a fully lossless format and is not reduced in size (neither file size nor horizontal/vertical proportions).
As a rule of thumb, the fewer conversions your video file undergoes, the better. Starting from the very beginning, set the quality on your video recording device to the highest settings you can, and lower them only if storage space is an issue. From then on, it's best to preserve the quality of your video (and audio) files for as long as possible throughout the production and post-production process and only convert it one single time at the very end.
When converting your final video, you'll want to save an entirely new file in the new format and keep your original, high-fidelity file backed up rather than "saving over" it. This will allow you to go back to the drawing board without limitation and tweak the settings as you learn more without losing the best-quality version.
The best and most popular video file formats
The following is a quick overview of some of the most common file formats. This will give you a foundation from which to more effectively research the various formats, codecs, bitrates, and various settings as needed along your video-production journey.
Being one of the first digital video formats, MP4 is widely supported. It has a wide range of format settings that can be adjusted to set the file size and quality at the right balance. Because MP4 has been around for several decades, the compression algorithm of MP4 has gotten quite advanced. The result is better (perceived) quality at lower file sizes, though this is largely subjective. All in all, MP4 is a great balance between file size and video quality, and as a result, video streaming sites almost universally accept the MP4 format.
The MOV file from Apple is higher in quality than MP4 and comparable to WMV. It thus requires more storage space. It is still a lossy, compressed format, though significantly less so than most other lossy formats. The main drawback is its proprietary format.
WMV is Microsoft's answer to MOV. WMV has become a little more compatible with internet multimedia and various devices in general than it used to be. Nonetheless, it is a proprietary format just like MOV, and is thus more tightly controlled. WMV also does not enable as much file customization as other formats.
Also from Microsoft, AVI is even higher quality than WMV and MOV formats, utilizing less compression. It requires a little more storage space as a result, with 1 minute of video taking approximately 2–3 GB of storage space — but the settings can be somewhat changed to adjust the exact amount.
Benefits and drawbacks of various video file formats
Several of the most important considerations when selecting a video file format are:
- File size
- Video quality
Let's compare the above-mentioned video formats according to these important considerations.
Being one of the original video formats, MP4 has extremely broad support on a variety of sites, programs, and devices. The quality and file size are moderate, but it should be noted that the compression algorithm for MP4 has the benefit of several decades behind it, and the perceived quality is a bit better than a file with an equivalent level of compression. MP4 also has a much higher amount of customization options at your disposal.
Both WMV and MOV files are very comparable. They both are higher-quality lossy formats and necessarily have higher file sizes as a result. Also, they have been much less universally useful due to their inherently more exclusive proprietary nature, and the way their respective companies force users to use only their software and hardware is often frustrating. Along the same lines, they are both less customizable than MP4.
Microsoft's AVI file is even higher-fidelity than its WMV file, as well as higher in file size. AVI is one of the higher-quality formats when it comes to commonly used lossy formats, and it also offers greater under-the-hood controls for file settings.
Lossless formats (both the 100% lossless or only slightly compressed variety) are much less useable for online video-streaming purposes. However, nothing but film itself is superior for sheer quality. Consider lossless digital formats when your project involves the likes of:
- Ultra HD
- Fine art
- Priceless family memories
- Surveillance footage
- Legal evidence
- Maintaining your options
For uses such as these, know that your lossless video files are limited to cutting-edge equipment, and you'll need to convert them to lossless formats if you want them to be used more universally. Again, remember to save a new file rather than overwrite the original when converting to an inferior format.
Reasons to convert to the following formats
The more that videos are expected to play on different devices and websites, format mismatch becomes an increasing issue the more you use your video for multiple different applications. Luckily, the solution is easier than ever with the right video-editing software that makes video conversion as easy as possible. Beyond this, it's also necessary to alter the video-format settings according to the website parameters and processing power of the devices your audience will likely use to experience your content. The right settings on one device could stall or even crash someone else's device, and its nuanced conversion settings which allow the same video to run efficiently on a variety of devices.
Convert to Instagram format
To optimize videos for Instagram, save them according to the following specifications:
- Format: MP4
- Codec: H.264 (Audio codec: AAC)
- Bitrate: 3500 kbps
- Frame rate: 30 fps
- 1080 x 1920 pixels
Convert 4k video to 1080p
Ultra HD video (aka "4k") files are too large to be uploaded and played on almost any PC or mobile video-streaming device. The solution is to simply reduce the video dimensions to Full HD video (1080p), which is 1920 pixels (horizontal) by 1080 pixels (vertical).
Convert a standard video to 4k
Devices with "video scaling" software, such as a 4k TV or UHD Blu-ray player, can upscale smaller video to emulate 4k quality. The result is only an approximation and is not true 4k quality by any means — but it is slightly better than if the same video was simply enlarged, which is typically not considered to be any kind of boost of video quality.
Convert a 360 video to VR
If you've recorded a 360 image or video using either a series of cameras or a dedicated 360 camera, some video-editing software can convert it into a VR simulation. The software analyzes the images for overlaps and consistencies, then stitches the images together into a cohesive whole.
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Convert video to slow motion
Though any video can be slowed down to create a slow-motion effect, the smoothest slow motion requires a bit of planning. If you know some video you are recording will be slowed down during post-production and editing, set the frame rate higher. You'll need to accommodate a higher file size, but the effect will be much smoother than when done on 30 or 24 fps footage, which will appear more "choppy" in comparison.
What to look for when choosing a video converter
Since you'll need to quickly and easily switch between a variety of formats, don't waste any time or effort trying to make it work with video-editing software that arbitrarily limits video format adjustments and settings. By giving users access to almost every open-source and proprietary video codec alike, Pinnacle Studio enables video artists make short work of these and other technical matters so that their creativity can enjoy full reign. As Pinnacle Studio's video pros and software engineers can explain, it is much more than a full-suite video editing platform — it also provides intuitive and cutting-edge video-recording tools for smoothly integrated video capture and screen recording, as well as tools to convert VHS to digital files or even straight to DVD.
Video conversion made simpler
Fine-tuning video-conversion settings can seem confusing and difficult at first, but only when you don't know where to begin. Use this guide as a foundation to know what to research further in order to accomplish your specific video-creation goals. It's easier than ever to get more than you're looking for when you research video settings according to your needs, with guides explaining nuanced details such as variable bitrate settings. Other times, you'll learn the basic foundations that get you on the right track, but you'll need to spend some time tweaking the video format settings until it appears exactly as intended for a specific application.
It's enough to learn without also needing to expend excess time learning your video-editing software. With Pinnacle Studio, you can focus more fully on simply creating the videos you envisioned. As with any art, the quality increases immeasurably when the artist knows that their tools integrate seamlessly with their project flow. Pinnacle Studio is one such tool, simplifying video-conversion tasks to optimize your finished works for the broadest possible range of end uses.