Video file formats are not one size fits all. Different file formats serve different purposes. It’s helpful as a videographer or content creator to understand the differences.
Whether you’re uploading your video to YouTube or projecting it on a big screen, you’ll want to produce your video in the best format and quality for its purpose. Let’s explore common video file formats and define codecs and containers.
Common Video File Formats
When you start creating videos, you’ll find dozens of common video formats and other less common ones. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. What is MP4? What’s the difference between H.264 and DivX?
Digital video files are made up of two parts: a codec and a container. Most video formats are named after their container. When you see a file type such a .MP4, .AVI, or .MOV, it doesn’t tell you exactly what the video file format is – it’s only telling you the container type.
Choose a video file format based on three things: it’s purpose, the hosting location, and your audience.
Compression, Codecs, and Containers
One of the challenges with video is that file sizes tend to be very large. With high-resolution cameras and monitors making 4K accessible to the masses (and 8K looming on the horizon), file sizes are getting larger.
Without unlimited storage or bandwidth, file size is a concern. As a result, every video file has some degree of compression in the form of a codec.
A codec is used to compress and then decompress a video file. This compression can be either lossy or lossless.
Lossy compression creates smaller file sizes but it leaves out some of the data, resulting in lower video quality. This is especially apparent with repeated compressions that lead to a cumulative loss of significant amounts of data.
Lossless compression, on the other hand, keeps all of the data from the original file. This gives you higher video quality and prevents progressive degradation from multiple saves. You do, however, end up with larger files.
Sometimes you have to compromise between the highest quality video format and the smallest file size.
Common Video Codecs
There are common video codecs that will meet most of your needs:
- HEVC (H.265)
Probably the most common, particularly for HD, is H.264. It’s one of the more efficient codecs, allowing smaller file sizes while retaining high quality as well as offering options for either lossless or lossy compression. It’s compatible with the .MP4 container and can be played on many different players and streaming services.
Another very common codec for online streaming is the MPEG-4 codec. Newer standards within MPEG-4 (specifically MPEG-4 Part 10) are identical to H.264, while the older MPEG-4 Part 2 is somewhat different. MPEG-4 has a very wide range of compatibility.
DivX, along with the open source version XviD, is a somewhat older codec that is designed to maximize video quality at the expense of having significantly larger file sizes. It’s commonly used in a variety of commercial settings where there is less concern over file size.
A predecessor to MPEG-4, MPEG-2 was the standard codec for use on DVDs and early Blu-ray discs. It’s not commonly used for streaming video. Professional camera codecs which use MPEG-2 are HDV and XDCAM.
New video codecs are constantly evolving to keep up with modern technology. HEVC, also called H.265, is one such codec designed to offer more efficient compression for 4K video and Blu-ray. It’s the video compression standard widely used by GoPro to capture their level of video content at half the size.
Video containers bundle and store all elements of a video into one package. Elements include the video and audio streams, subtitles, video metadata, codec and more.
Each video container type is compatible with certain video codecs. Your video editing software should only allow you to choose compatible pairings, but try to plan what codec and container you want to use ahead of time, to avoid running into issues when you go to render your final video.
Common Video Containers
Like video codecs, there are common video containers:
The .MP4 container is probably the closest thing to a universal standard that currently exists. It can use all versions of MPEG-4 and H.264 and is compatible with a huge range of players. Videos using the .MP4 container can have relatively small file sizes while retaining high quality. Many of the largest streaming services, including YouTube and Vimeo, prefer .MP4.
One of the oldest and most universally accepted video file formats is .AVI. It can use an enormous range of codecs, resulting in a large variety of different file settings. While .AVI videos can be played on a wide range of players, file sizes tend to be large making it less ideal for streaming or downloading. It’s a great option for videos you plan to store on a computer.
Apple developed the .MOV container to use with its Quicktime player. Videos using .MOV generally have very high quality but also fairly large file sizes. Quicktime videos don’t have as much compatibility with non-Quicktime players, though there are third party players that will read them.
Made for Adobe’s Flash player, .FLV videos were extremely common for a number of years thanks to their very small file size and a wide range of browser plugins and third party Flash video players. There has been a significant decline in Flash videos recently.
WMV (Windows Media)
Windows Media videos tend to have the smallest file size, which makes them a good option if you need to send through email or other methods with file size limits. However, this comes with the tradeoff of having a significant drop in quality. A common use for .WMV is emailing video previews to clients.
What Video File Format Should You Use?
Consider how you will be distributing and delivering your video. For most video creators, .MP4 and H.264 are a good choice. It’s the preferred format for YouTube, giving a mix of small file size and high quality. It’s commonly available on video cameras. It’ll also be playable on most devices. Learn more about how to choose a camera for vlogging in The 15 Best Cameras for YouTube Videos in 2018.
Deciding on the best file format is based on your specific needs. Keep in mind your audience and how they’ll be watching your videos. Refer back to our guide for common codecs and containers to help with your decision.