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Understanding Video Formats and Codecs: A Beginner's Guide

By Chris Wells
Jan 2, 2024
7 minute read

Wrapping your head around concepts like video formats and codecs can feel genuinely scary with big collections of anomalous letters and numbers like MP4, MOV, and H.264 being thrown around; it's enough to make anyone’s head explode, even us more experienced editors!

While initially intimidating, understanding these vital technical concepts for creating and sharing high-quality videos can save you many headaches later. Whether you want to become a successful videographer, YouTuber, or simply edit videos for fun, learning video formats and codecs is necessary to get the most out of your hard work.

This beginner's guide breaks down these big, scary, complex topics into simple terms, giving you a solid baseline to build upon. Once you understand the basics, even new developments will make much more sense when swimming in the nebulous world of digital formats, so let's dive in!

Introduction to Video Formats and Why They Matter

Before we get bogged down in technical jargon, let's cover the basic role that video formats and codecs play in video making. 

In simple terms, video formats refer to the "containers" that hold video data. A container is exactly as it sounds. It’s like a specific place for all of the data to be held in. Popular formats include MP4, MOV, and AVI files. 

Codecs, on the other hand, refer to how the video stream itself is compressed and encoded. It’s essentially how the stuff/data is laid out in that box ‘container.’ Common codecs are H.264 and H.265.

Understanding the formats and codecs used in your video pipeline is crucial because:

  • Different formats have distinct compatibility issues across devices and platforms
  • Certain codecs offer higher compression rates and efficiencies than others
  • Choosing the correct format and codec settings can safeguard quality as well as enable wider sharing
Getting these foundations right from the start will ensure your video gets to where it needs to go and will work as intended.

Decoding Containers and Codecs

What Are Video Codecs and Why Do They Matter?

Codecs are responsible for compressing and encoding this data so the files don't get gigantic in size (and oh boy they can get chonky).

Encoding and Decoding

Think of encoding as translating the raw video into a special formatted secret code that can be stored, sent online, and then decoded later by video players. It's a bit like if your friend spoke Spanish, and you only understood English. Encoding would be translating your English speech into Spanish that your friend understands.

On the other end, decoding happens when that Spanish speech gets translated back into English you understand. This encoding and decoding of video is what codecs handle behind the scenes.

Compression

Compression is all about shrinking the file size by finding duplicate or unnecessary data and throwing it out. If you filmed a 10-minute static shot of a blue sky, you wouldn't need to store 10 minutes of identical blue pixel data; the codec can just say "blue sky for the next 10 minutes" to massively cut down the file size.

Using encoding and compression is crucial because RAW high-resolution video files are massive! Uncompressed, 1 minute of HD video could be 5GB or more in size! Not to mention 4k and above. The best codecs shrink files massively while also retaining quality.

Common Codecs

  • H.264: The most universally supported HD codec
  • H.265: Newer codec focused on 4K/HDR at higher efficiency (aka smaller file size)
  • MPEG-4: Versatile codec supporting online streams

What Are Video Containers and Why Do They Matter?

Now that the video is efficiently encoded and compressed by the codec, it needs to be wrapped up neatly in a file for storage and sharing. Here is where video containers come in.

You can think of containers like different formats for wrapping a package. Just like you might use a cardboard box, padded envelope or gift wrap to package an item, video containers wrap up the encoded video streams in different ways depending on their use.

You're probably familiar with image file formats, like JPG and PNG files. Similarly, video files also use special formats. Some of the most common packaging formats are MP4, MOV and AVI containers. Software video players know how to open up these different container types to access the tasty video data goodness inside.

Common containers

  • MOV: An Apple format that's compatible across Mac/iOS platforms
  • AVI: A once universal PC format that's now less widely used 
  • MP4: A widely supported container focused on online streams 

Summary

  • Codecs encode and compress raw video so it’s not too big
  • Containers package up the compressed streams so it’s usable
  • Software players unpack the containers to play your video

Now you have the basics to understand these foundations of digital video better!

Popular Video Formats Explained

Let's explore the most common video formats beginning editors will usually encounter and their key applications.

The Commonly Used Formats and Their Best Uses

Here are the containers and corresponding codecs you'll most commonly work with:

  • MP4 (H.264 codec) - Sharing online and across devices 
  • MOV (H.264) - Apple ecosystem compatibility
  • AVI (Various codecs) - A once-universal PC format

Beyond these formats, others are used in specific industries or applications:  

  • MXF (JPEG2000) - Classic Broadcast media workflows
  • AVCHD (.mts) - Consumer camcorder files (if not any of the above.)

As a beginner, MP4 and MOV formats likely cover most of your early video distribution needs.

MP4: The Versatile Choice

If you had to pick one format for sharing videos online and across devices, MP4 is the most versatile choice. Here’s why:

  • Has wide device hardware/OS support 
  • Works smoothly online and within apps
  • Offers reasonably high compression efficiency
  • Pairs well with H.264 or H.265 codec for HD videos

For new video editors, MP4 is the safe bet. It handles the widest range of use cases and platforms with minimal fuss.

MOV and AVI: Legacy and Versatility  

The MOV and AVI formats have been around for decades and still have relevant uses today:

MOV: 

  • Native support across Apple devices/software
  • A robust format that can handle complex projects
  • Often used as an intermediate format  

AVI:  

  • Once the de facto PC video format 
  • Supports a wide array of codecs
  • Age shows in compatibility issues

Understanding their legacy support and versatility gives you more format options, especially if working with older footage.

Emerging Formats like AVCHD and MXF

As you advance in the video-making world, you may encounter more niche-use formats like:

  • AVCHD: Created for new camcorders with high-definition capabilities. Complicated for beginners.
  • MXF: Professional broadcasting format optimised for robust media workflows. Overkill for new editors.

Stick with MP4 and MOV for now. But take note of these emerging formats’ existences and applications.

Common Codecs and Their Applications

Beyond containers, the other crucial concept is understanding video codecs for compression/encoding. Let’s decode this!

H.264 – The Go-To Video Codec 

If you take one codec with you on your video editing journey, make it H.264. Here’s why it makes the cut:

  • It offers a great balance between quality and compression
  • Supported by virtually every device and platform 
  • Proven longevity as an HD video standard

While newer codecs exist, H.264's device support makes it a beginner's safest choice.

H.265 – Higher Efficiency Video Coding

H.265 (or HEVC) is the successor to H.264, aimed at 4K and HDR content. Benefits include:

  • Cutting-edge compression performance 
  • Optimized for emerging 4K/HDR ecosystems
  • Not yet universally supported across devices and platforms

It’s geared for future 4K usage, but H.264 still rules widespread HD playback.

MPEG-4 – The Versatile Codec 

MPEG-4 is another codec with a range of applications you’ll encounter:

  • Various profiles for online streams and HD video
  • Widely supported across websites and devices 
  • Less modern compression vs. H.264/H.265

It still powers many online streaming platforms but H.264 is eating its HD lunch!

Standards and Compatibility in Video Formats

Creating and sharing video comes with some format compatibility considerations:

Understanding Video Standards (NTSC, Rec. 709) 

Containers and codecs also intersect with broadcast specifications like:

  • NTSC: Early North American 30fps video standard
  • Rec. 709: Modern HD colour spaces and framing

Getting into these super specific details is less important starting out, especially when making things for yourself. It’s always helpful to learn about what broadcasting conventions exist when working with specific platforms!

Ensuring Compatibility Across Platforms

Beyond standards, thinking about compatibility across target platforms is crucial:

  • Web browsers support MP4, WebM and fallback formats  
  • iOS playback relies on MOV containers and H.264 codec
  • Game consoles often have their own target formats 

Always test your videos across what devices you intend for them to be watched on prevents playback issues from potentially ruining your viewing experience!

Managing Data Loss and Choosing Intermediate Formats

As you manipulate footage and apply effects in the editing process, there’s often temporary video degradation you aim to recover in the final output: 

The Impact of Compression on Video Quality

High compression saves space but can result in:

  • Blocky or blurred picture (low bitrate)
  • Loss of subtle colours/details (4:2:0 chroma subsampling)

Experimenting and finding the right balance when exporting your footage, as well as keeping the highest quality ‘master footage’ safe, minimises any permanent damage. NEVER DELETE OR COMPRESS YOUR ORIGINAL FOOTAGE.

Selecting Intermediate Formats for Editing

Edit-friendly formats retain maximum data for flexibility:  

  • ProRes (MOV): Light compression retaining high-quality
  • DNxHR (MOV/MXF): Viable for complex, multi-layered edits

Use these to remove any quality loss for your final FINAL export to distribution formats. 

Exporting Videos for Different Uses 

Sharing your edited videos widely involves exporting to target platforms' recommended formats:

  • YouTube Upload -> MP4 
  • Vimeo Upload -> MP4
  • iOS Devices -> MOV
  • Blu-Ray Disc -> MP4, MPEG-2
  • Broadcasting -> MXF 

Match your export format to the playback environment.

Balancing Quality and Practicality in Different Formats

Optimise encodes for quality without overdoing impractical file sizes:

  • Streaming -> HD bitrates 
  • Online Sharing -> Smaller mobile profiles 
  • Archiving Master Files -> Highest-quality source settings

Find the best quality/filesize balance for your needs!

Troubleshooting Common Format Issues

Despite everyone’s best efforts, we will usually encounter some format compatibility hurdles at some point.

Here are some fast troubleshooting solutions:

  • Playback fails -> Try converting to a more compatible format - check filesize to see if it’s exported properly
  • Blocky appearance -> Use higher bitrate encode settings
  • Colours look washed out -> Check chroma subsampling isn’t too high - experiment with a different compatible filetype

Testing on target devices catches issues before sharing final cuts!

Lightworks: Simplifying Video Editing for Beginners

Hopefully, this beginner’s guide has demystified key concepts like video formats and codecs for you. But if delving into the technical side feels overwhelming at first, powerful yet easy-to-use video editors like Lightworks can smooth the learning curve.

How Lightworks Addresses Format and Codec Challenges

Lightworks simplifies working with different formats and codecs thanks to: 

  • Input support for GoPro, smartphone and HD camera formats  
  • Flexible project format selections and import/export options
  • Integrated processing to effortlessly optimize and convert formats 

We handle the complicated heavy lifting so you can focus on the best bit: editing!

Lightworks' Role in a Beginner's Editing Journey 

As you progress from first video edits towards crafting compelling stories, Lightworks enables you to:

  • Import a wide array of source footage formats
  • Use the intuitive timeline tools to sculpt scenes finely 
  • Export to the right formats for popular sharing platforms 

Download our free version now to make Lightworks part of your journey!