A Guide to Essential Video File Types and Codecs

A Guide to Essential Video File Types and Codecs

Need to upload a video on social? Not sure about the video file to use? Check out this guide covering essential video file types and video codecs.

Video content is king. Any small business owner or influencer will tell you video content will always garner more engagement than images, and there are plenty of stats to support this. Video content on both Facebook and Instagram will get a higher percentage of clicks and views across the board. According to the video marketing strategist group Biteable, social video on Facebook gets 1200 percent more shares than text and image content combined. Videos on Facebook generally get an average of 135 percent more organic reach than images. That said, the enormous benefit of cranking out quality video content will come with some challenges, namely the technical specs.

Video content gets more interaction than image and text posts combined. Image via hunthomas.

Everyone has uploaded a high-quality video or image only to find the content chewed up beyond recognition. This may leave the uploader wondering what they could’ve done wrong. The answer is simple: Check the specs. The technical side of video work can be daunting for amateurs, enthusiasts, and professionals alike. These technical barriers may feel especially frustrating if you’re running a small business and doing it all on your own. However, in order to get the most out of social and online video content, it’s important to understand the technical side of video, and with a little time and patience, anyone can learn the basics.

Before digging into the advantages of certain specs, it’s important to understand the difference between a container and a codec. Here’s a brief primer.

The Basics

The container is essentially the “file format” most people are familiar with, such as .mov, .avi, and .mp4. These file types function as a sort of “box” that “contains” the video, audio, and metadata (that’s the extra info attached to each file, like file names, tags, codec info, etc.), allowing it to function as a single file.

File TypesThe file types contain the video, audio, and metadata. Illustration by Enrique Echavarria.

The codec (or coder-decoder) is the software that compresses and decompresses the video and audio data housed in a container. This reduces file sizes, making footage much easier to work with. Simply put, without compression, one hour of HD footage could easily fill a hard drive. Each codec will compress footage differently, so the best choice will depend entirely on what the content creator wants to preserve.

Compress and Decompress DataThe codec is housed in the container. Illustration by Enrique Echavarria.

Noted that technically there’s a difference between codecs and their coding formats. For instance, H.264 is actually the name of the coding format, with many compatible codecs. However, it’s easy to get lost with technological vocabulary, so simply refer to coding formats as codecs. Don’t stress too much over these distinctions for now. It’ll make more sense once you’ve had some hands-on practice.

There are also video file formats, which are simply the set of standards for one or more file type. For example, QuickTime File Format (QTTF) is the file format for the container with the .mov file extension. Or, in simpler terms, it’s the set of rules that allow .mov video files to work. So, if you see “QuickTime” in your settings, it just means you’ll end up with a .mov when you export, render, or record your footage.

The File Types (a.k.a. the Containers)

Here’s a rundown on some of the most common video file types. Or, more specifically, the containers.

.mov (QuickTime)

Apple’s .mov file type is one of the most universal. Image via VectorV.

Apple developed this file type. It supports most codecs, making it very versatile. It’s a great option when working in a professional setting, but it’ll work best on a Mac and may not play nice with your PC setup.

.mp4 (MPEG-4)

This file format is one of the most useful, since it’s very widely supported and is compatible with the H.264 coding format/codec. It’s great for producing high-quality video with relatively small file sizes, and is the best choice for uploading video to most social media platforms.

.avi (AVI)

This file type is still widely used, but it’s also pretty old. This container simply will not work with many modern codecs, so it’s best to avoid it. If you have an .avi you’d like to use, it may be best to “transcode” or convert that footage into a format that’s easier to work with.

.wmv (WMV)

This file format is also very limiting. It’s an older Microsoft format. It’s also limited to certain codecs, so avoid using this file type for professional work. Just like the .avi, if you find you’d like to use this, it may be best to transcode the footage before working with it.

.mkv (Matroska) and .oog (Oog)

These are open source formats, meaning anyone with technical savvy can “look under the hood” and see how they work. That makes these file types pretty versatile in certain settings, but they aren’t widely supported.

AVCHD

So, here’s a file type that’s a bit of an outlier. Initially developed for HD camcorders, AVCHD is less of a container and more of a file structure. Unlike a typical container, you can see all the pieces (thumbnails, video files, and audio tracks) in your finder or explorer window. This file type stores important metadata at the top and links to a web of files.

When you’re ready to edit, this allows you to simply import one AVCHD file into your project to access multiple clips. Think of it like a tree. The AVCHD file is the trunk and the folders are the branches. Everything is out in the open, but if you delete the AVCHD file, then you’ve essentially cut down the tree. All of the branches are still there, but now you have a big, broken mess to sort through. This file type is useful for organization, particularly for videographers who are both shooting and editing.

The Codecs and Their Coding Formats

The codec can change what your file is best for. Image via phoelixDE.

Some codecs will be great for editing, while others are better for sharing. Here are a few of the most common codecs you may find useful.

ProRes 422 and 444

If you’re working primarily with .mov files, the Apple ProRes codecs are a great choice. ProRes will notably decrease the file size of your footage, while still retaining much of the qualityHowever, file sizes may still be a touch too large for online sharing, and colors may not render precisely depending on your export settings.

Animation (a.k.a. QuickTime RLE)

This is another great codec to use when working with .mov footage. Although animation compressed file sizes are notably larger than ProRes, the quality of your footage will be notably higher. If you’re editing with .mov footage, animation is a great codec to use when rendering motion graphics, since it’ll keep your quality high and your colors precise.

H.264/AVC

This codec is currently one of the best options for sharing quality video online. There’s a more advanced successor to this codec, H.265/HEVC, but H.264/AVC is still widely supported and is the standard bearer for online video.

H.265/HEVC

This is the superior successor to H.264/AVC. It’s much more efficient and great for live streaming video, particularly when dealing with 4K resolution material. Although theoretically better than its predecessor, this codec may need more advanced hardware to work properly on your computer. Once it becomes more widely supported, it’ll likely be the new standard for online streaming.

What to Remember When Creating Content

Reframe the way you think of content creation. Image via Tero Vesalainen.

There are three important things to know when creating video content.

How it’s recorded,How it’s edited or altered,And how it’s shared.

The equipment you have and the goal of the content you create will determine how best to approach file types and compression. Think of the equipment (camera, computer, and editing tools) as the “sandbox” and the finished content (a Facebook vid for example) as the “sandcastle.” There can be a lot of sand (the footage), but if it’s not the correct texture and/or density (file type or codec), the castle just won’t turn out as imagined.

When recording, it’s important to understand the camera you’re recording with and know the editing equipment you’ll be working with. Certain cameras will record footage in certain types of compression and file types. Check your camera settings and be sure your camera is recording the type of footage best suited for editing. If you have someone else helping you, be sure to ask what specs they’ll need to turn over the best work.

When you’re done editing your video creation, the next step is exporting. How you export (or render) your finished video will depend on where you want to share it. If your video is high-quality, you’ll have the wiggle room to export to just about any file type and codec you may need, with very little loss in video quality.

What Are the Best Specs for Social Media?

There are a few tricks to uploading optimized content for social media. Image via panuwat phimpha.

What are the best settings for sharing video on social media? An .mp4 encoded with H.264 is the short answer. This spec is widely supported and will give you great quality for a lot of compression. For more in-depth answers, just refer to the platform you wish to share on. The social media landscape is always changing, so the standards will certainly change along with it. However, there are some best practices when creating and uploading video to share online.

.mp4 is best for sharing since it’s widely supported and relatively high-quality.H.264 is great for uploading video to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It’s high-quality, widely supported, and gives you a nice compact file size to work with.If you have the hardware, H.265 is great for live streaming ultra high-quality video.YouTube will allow you to upload a number of different file types. If you’re going for quality, it’s best to stick to .mov encoded with ProRes, or .mp4 encoded with H.264.

There you have it, a comprehensive crash course on file types and codecs. It may seem a bit intimidating at the outset, but with a little time and practice, you’ll be creating and sharing quality video content with the best of them.

Cover illustration by Enrique Echavarria.

Learn more about file types with these articles:

Best Image Formats for the Web — High-Quality, Small File SizePNG vs JPG vs PDF: Which File Format Should You Use?Video Tutorial: How to Bring a Photoshop File into Premiere ProEverything You Need to Know About File Types for DesignThe Importance of File Sizes, Dimensions, and Rules for Designers

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