This is a question I get a lot. With the popularity of high-definition video, especially in video cameras, there's a lot of confusion of what resolution to make your social media videos. Should you 1080p? Does it matter?
My optimal final product is usually rendered out at 720p. I know what you may be thinking... "everything's 1080p these days! Why not shoot for the highest standard? I thought you were the guy who pushes to make thinks look better!" True, but there are a few good reasons why 720p is a good ending point.
- Your 1080p camera may not actually be 1080p.
You read right. Not every camera that's stamped as 1080p is truly shooting 1080p. It's the dirty little secret in consumer electronics, and why it matters to do your homework when buying a camera. Many cameras are capable of recording a 1080p image, but the sensor doesn't have the pixels to fill out the 1920x1080 pixel frame. In that case, the camera is "interpolating," or upscaling it's lower-resolution image to a 1080p recording. Sometimes, cameras recording at lower quality settings will actually record "1080p" at a horizontally-squeezed resolution of 1440x1080 and un-squeeze it to fill your widescreen frame. Pretty much any HD video camera that's advertised as 720p or 1080p will render an actual 720p video file.
- Even if your camera can do true 1080p, your computer might choke on it.
1080p video files, even compressed, are sizable. And yes, they are compressed. Whether it's 720p or 1080p, it means that your computer needs to be able to unpack the data in that file on the fly, and chances are it'll have an easier time doing that to a 720p file.
- 720p is a nice happy medium that looks good on all HD screens.
If you're producing for YouTube, 720p strikes the right balance between sharpness and smooth playback. Not every computer is capable of playing back smooth 1080p video. Sure, YouTube lets you toggle resolutions, but there's no good reason to bother going the extra step unless you're planning on creating a Blu-ray Disc of your final product. Heck, even if you did, you can burn a 720p Blu-ray. 720p looks amazing on mobile phones and tablets capable of playing back HD, and even those watching your video on their snazzy 1080p monitors and HDTVs will see a fantastic-looking picture. Half the broadcast TV stations and pay TV channels are offered at 720p these days, and you'll rarely hear complaints from football fans who watch the NFL on FOX every Sunday!
- The quality jump between 720p and 1080p, to most casual viewers, is minimal at best.
Think about the video you're producing -- are you trying to point out super-fine textures on a piece of clothing? Are you putting details into your video so tiny that the bump in resolution is pivotal to a viewer's enjoyment? Chances are... no.
- 720p video files are smaller!
If you've ever twiddled your thumbs waiting for a video to upload to YouTube, you'll know why keeping your file sizes smaller matters. Unless you've got a big, fat pipe from your Internet service provider, your upstream bandwidth is likely a fraction of your download speed. 720p files are the perfect balance between file size and quality. Not only does resolution matter in terms of file size, but also the "codec" (or compression scheme) with which you encode your files. Avoid older codecs like MPEG-2 and opt for more modern, intelligent codecs like H.264 and AVCHD. It's the codec your camera uses, and it does for a reason. It needs to pack lots of recording time on small flash cards. A 720p AVCHD file is a good looking video that takes less time to upload. (Did we mention 720p files take less time to encode once you're done editing?)
- Many cameras require shooting in 720p mode for image stabilization.
If you have a cheaper video camera with "electronic" image stablization, chances are it won't kick in unless you're shooting 720p, even if it's a "1080p" capable camera. That's because it needs some extra resolution to do its mathematical simulation of the better image stabilization done with optical mechanisms. 720p mode gives it some breathing room for this purpose. While I typically detest the electronic flavor of stabilization, it's sometimes better than nothing. So you may as well be shooting in 720p anyways!
Here's a bonus quick tip for streamlining your video editing and rendering time: Setting your project resolution on your video editing software at the same resolution in which you shoot your video may save you time. Some video editing programs employ intelligent rendering techniques that don't re-render the video you shoot if there's no effects or graphics overlayed on it. If you're doing an edit that is comprised mainly of cuts, your computer may not have to render much video to craft your final edited file. Sony's Vegas line of consumer and pro editing programs employ such intelligent rendering on certain video file types. Also, if you shoot at one resolution and render in another, your computer has to slave over each frame, blowing it up or shrinking it down. Save it the work by planning your workflow in advance.
Mark also writes regular columns on social media, technology, television and the Web.
Mark is available for freelance jobs and consultation. E-mail Mark at mark[at]markzahn.com or leave a voicemail at (920) 403-0403.
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