How To Get The Best Looking Video – Codecs & Containers

This is a topic I have seen all over the web over the years.  Everyone is looking for those export settings that will give them the perfect looking, high quality video.  Heck, I myself was looking for that “silver bullet” a few years back.  Soon I began to realize a sad fact that my research would later confirm.  There is no one perfect universal setting.

What is the best codec?  What is the best container?  What export settings will give you the best quality video?

These questions flood the web.  The answer, unfortunately for most of us, is that it depends what you want to do with the final product.  Are you going to post it to Vimeo or YouTube?  Are you going to burn it to a DVD or Blu-ray?  Are you going to watch it on a tablet or smartphone?  Maybe you want to do all of these.  Well, sad to say, you might need to export your video several different times for each platform.

One of the best explanations I have ever read as to why it ‘depends’ as to what your codec & container should be, is best summed up in the following analogy.

Think of Youtube, a DVD, and a smartphone like print media – a book, magazine, newspaper, billboard, or even a post-it note.  They can all contain words and pictures but you would use each one in a different way.  This is how you should look at which container you choose.

Now the codec is the way to display whatever information you want to publish.  Obviously if you wrote a novel on post-it notes, it would take thousands of them to write on and would be a terrible way to read the book.  I doubt many people would read the entire story.  You want to read a long novel on a nice hardback book just like you want to read a short article with lots of pictures in a nice colorful magazine.  You do not, however, need to print a note to your spouse to pick up milk in the same colorful, glossy magazine.  You can, but it is kind of a waste of time.

The same premise goes for video. Just how different media publications use different material depending on what they are producing, so should you use different codecs and containers for your video. Newspaper works fine for a lot of words and some pictures using less ink and detail, but if you want high quality, high detail images, use that heavier glossy magazine paper to get the job done properly.

So which settings for which video delivery?  That is likely what you are wanting to know, but the answer may be unsatisfying.  I will give you this advice, though. Some editing software, such as Adobe Premiere, have presets under their H264 codec. This is a good place to start.  I usually find one I like, such as Vimeo HD, and then go back and fine tune some of the settings.

Remember, the higher the quality, the longer it will take to export.  If you have the time to wait, it can be worth it in some scenarios, but make sure you aren’t wasting valuable time for quality that isn’t really there.  I once did a long export with the highest quality settings I could muster and compared it to a previous export with just ‘good’ quality settings.  To me, the difference was not enough to justify the extra hours of writing video.

Sometimes you end up exporting your video multiple times before seeing the results you really like, but once you get what you want, save those settings and you should be good to go…at least for a while.  Since codecs are constantly being updated and changed, these will never be your ‘forever’ settings, but will hopefully last you a year or two before the next big thing comes along.

As far as which containers to use, again, it can often be up to the user to decide, but here are just a few of the standards people use today:

DVDs – MPEG 2
Web Streaming – MPEG 4, WMV, MOV
Blu-Ray – MKV, M2TS

There are a plethora of other containers, but these are just a few to get you started.

Hopefully this clears things up a little.

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