Journalists' Toolkit

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A training site for multimedia and online journalists

The best video export options

How do you choose the best settings for exporting your video, after you have edited it?

I remember how confusing this was for me when I started working with Web video several years ago. With the slower computers we had back then, I would wait for what seemed like forever while exporting a small 2-minute video — only to have it come out looking horrible. Then I would change the export settings, using whatever information I had to base decisions on, and then go through the process again.

I kept thinking someone, somewhere must have the list of instructions for how to export my video properly! Why couldn’t I find that list?

I couldn’t find it because it doesn’t exist, and here’s why:

  1. Every video editing program has a different constellation of options for exporting.
  2. The options change, at least slightly, every time a new version of the software comes out. This is at least partly because improvements are being made in digital video technology almost continuously.
  3. The character of the video itself can require different settings for best results.
  4. There are so many different possibilities for your output — will it be playing on an iPhone or on a large HD screen?

The good news

To save yourself a lot of time, start by looking at where the final video is going to appear. If it’s going to be on YouTube, then start by reading about their supported file formats. YouTube has a list of helpful articles about editing videos.

If it’s going to be on Vimeo, read their guide on compression. This is actually a list of common things you will see in your video editing software when you go to export your edited video. They also list their supported file formats on that page.

In other words, work backward from the end result you are aiming for. Choosing the file format cuts out many of the myriad options offered by most video editing programs.

If you’re working for a company that frequently puts videos on its website, you can bet there is already a “recipe” for how to export. If no one has experimented, determined the best practices, and written that recipe yet — then maybe that’s YOUR job! Seriously, if you’re part of a media organization and no one has codified the preferred workflow and export settings for video, then someone needs to step up and get that done.

Highest quality

Do not choose a low-quality option for exporting your video. In some programs you might have an option such as “For e-mail” — that would make a small, ugly video, because the emphasis is on making the file size small enough to be practical for sending as an e-mail attachment (which no one should ever do with video anyway!).

In Windows Movie Maker, there is a setting “For Web,” which you might think is a good choice for Web video. Wrong! Again, you are choosing an unreasonably bad quality. In that case the highest quality is “For computer.” (Windows is just weird.)

On the other hand, “For DVD” in any program is likely to do all kinds of things you DO NOT want for the Web.

Once you have exported a high-quality video file, it is possible to convert it to other formats and lesser quality without going through the whole export process again. If you have a low-quality file, however, it is not possible to improve it — UNLESS you go back and export all over again.

General terms and things to look for

File format: I mentioned this already. Every computer file has a format, and that format is represented by a file extension, such as .docx for Microsoft Word documents and .jpg for most photographs. There are lots of different video file formats, but some of these are far more common than others. MP4 (.mp4) and WMV (.wmv) are two you might be familiar with. What about .ogv or .webm? Not so common today, but it’s likely they will be, as HTML5 gains ground. You need to figure out which format will be suitable for the video you want to export.

Codec: This word is short for coder/decoder, and in many video editing programs, this is what you need to select before you get a choice of file formats. So, choose H.264 for MP4, for example. If your software does not offer you a choice of codecs (like Windows Live Movie Maker), it is probably because there is only one, so you don’t get to choose.

Frame rate: Digital video usually has a frame rate (number of frames per second) of 30 or close to 30 (29.97). Film has a frame rate of 24 frames per second. Generally you’re going to shoot at 30 fps and export for 30 fps.

Audio: If you get to choose audio settings, keep in mind that “CD quality” is 44.1 kHz and 128 kbps. Anything lower starts to sound bad. If you can choose mono instead of stereo, you could consider that the file size will be significantly smaller if you select mono.

Data rate: This is a big consideration for quality for streaming video. Lower numbers mean lower quality. Higher numbers, while they do provide higher quality images and motion, also increase the file size. If you’ve ever watched an online video that stopped and started repeatedly, that video probably had a high data rate. I start with a data rate of 1000 kbps for a video that does not have a lot of action and motion in it. If the quality of the exported file seems poor, then I try again with 2000.

Deinterlacing: Always choose this for online videos. Otherwise, the image can be messed up.

Aspect ratio: An easy way to think about this: Is your video frame almost square, like an old-style TV? That’s 4:3. Is your video frame long and wide from side to side? That’s 16:9. These are the two most common aspect ratios.

Resolution: This is measured in pixels — and for Web video, keep in mind that many people do not have gigantic computer screens. A standard (4:3) video is typically 640 x 480 (width x height), and a widescreen (16:9) video is often 853 x 480. HD video (also 16:9) is 1280 x 720 — half-size (still 16:9) would be 640 x 360.

Keyframes: I usually choose “Automatic” if the video editing software gives me an option. You may choose to have a keyframe added for every x frames, but I don’t know the criteria for choosing the number. I do know that a higher number will increase the file size!

Final tips

If you have exported a video and you like the results, go back immediately and write down all the settings you used. There’s no way you will remember them next time!

If you’re using the same settings you always use, but this time the video came out poorly (especially if it is indistinct, or smeared in appearance), maybe this video has a lot more changes at a faster pace. It does not have to be motion; it may be just a lot of fast cutting among very different scenes. Try increasing the data rate and/or adding keyframes — for example, keyframes every 30 frames.

Video Resources updated

The new Video Resources page has been added to this site.

This is a carefully curated page with links to good tutorials for video editing software, video shooting tips, and the like. It’s intended for beginners, particularly journalism students and journalism educators who are teaching video in their classes.

7 Do’s and Don’ts for Video on Point-and-Shoot Cameras

Video shot with a still camera costing less than $300 is often better in quality than video shot with a video camera in the same price range.

For best results when shooting video with an inexpensive still camera, follow these tips:

1. Do NOT zoom. Ever. EVER! The quality for video on these cameras is only acceptable at the widest angle (not zoomed at all). This is true even though the zoom works great for your still photos.

2. Do NOT move the camera around while shooting. This will make your clips difficult to edit. VERY difficult. Stand completely still, like a rock, while you are recording video. Do not pan (camera moves left or right). Do not tilt (camera moves up or down).

3. Do NOT shoot inside an apartment or a house. They are almost always too dark! Some indoor settings are fine — for example, a brightly lighted classroom with the overhead fluorescent lights on.

4. DO pay attention to the light — not only the amount of light, but also the direction. If the light is BEHIND your subject, the person will be a dark blob in silhouette — and that’s not good!

5. Do NOT shoot in dark places. Video game rooms, pool rooms, bars and indoor performance venues are usually too dark for acceptable video with these cameras. A more expensive digital video camera ($600 and up) can often get decent video in low light, but most of these little cameras can’t compensate for darkness. (For exceptions to the rule, look for a camera with a bigger sensor size.)

6. Do NOT turn the camera into a portrait position (vertical) for video — EVER! Always hold it in landscape position (horizontal).

7. When shooting a video interview, DO stand VERY close to your subject. The microphone built into the camera is going to capture all the sound around you, and unless you are quite near the person who is speaking, the voice will be drowned out by surrounding noise.

More tips for shooting video: Five Shots, 10 Seconds.

Avoiding the shakes: How to hold the camera.

iMovie 09 tutorials for journalism students

For journalism students just starting to learn video, I created two compact, illustrated handouts in fall 2010:

Basic iMovie 09 Tutorial — PDF, 9 pages, 1 MB

More iMovie 09 Tips (Part 2) — PDF, 6 pages, 552 KB

The reason I made two handouts instead of one:

In the first video editing class, I teach purely editing. I focus on how to trim, what to trim, and how to match the action. I talk a little about avoiding jump cuts. I explain how to export a high quality file.

In the second video editing class, I devote most of the time to how cutaways work and how to make them. Then I cover how to add audio, titles and credits. Adjustments to audio volume and detaching audio from video are also explained.

You can use these handouts under this Creative Commons license.

Apple’s how-to videos for iMovie 09 are here.

New tutorial: Windows Live Movie Maker

As an aid to a journalism training session I agreed to give, I created a short PowerPoint that is aimed at journalism students.

Windows Live Movie Maker Tutorial

Windows Live Movie Maker is quite different from its predecessor — Windows Movie Maker (not “live”). It is less versatile in several ways. To answer my own questions about WLMM, I did quite a lot of searching on the Web. To spare others the trouble and share the answers I found, I made a two-page PDF with links:

Windows Live Movie Maker Tips (PDF, 128 KB)

If you have any helpful WLMM links to suggest, please add a comment.