Understanding Video File Types: Codecs, Containers, and Outputs

In January we posted about image file types. Now it’s video’s turn. While there is a plethora of video file types, which consist of codecs and containers, choosing the right one doesn’t have to be complicated … but it certainly can be.

Let’s dig into this jargon bin and try to simplify things by the end of this post.

Codecs (are for compression)

You may have heard the phrase video codec when referring to video files. A codec is simply the software that compresses your video so it can be stored and played back on a device. While the word “compression” can conjure images of pixelated video, the process is both necessary and efficient with modern digital cameras. It gives you much smaller files sizes with minimal quality loss. Compression is your friend!

Like the “pinch” in an hourglass, compression helps devices and the internet keep up with a big stream of data

The codec of your original video file is often determined by your video camera or screen recorder, which you may or may not have control over in your camera settings. Examples of popular codecs include h.264 which is often used for digital videos, MPEG2 which is often used for DVD media and TV transmission. Now-a-days video editors and cameras will take care of the codec stuff for you and it really isn’t something to worry about unless you’re looking to get into high-end video or outputting to a very specific destination. If you’re really interested in video codecs click here for more info.

Containers (are file extensions)

Most often when talking about video file types, people are referring to file containers. A container is the file that contains your video and audio streams and any closed caption files as well. It’s common for a container to be called a file extension since they are often seen at the end of file names (e.g. filename.mp4) Popular video (visuals-only) containers include.mp4, .mov, or .avi, but there are many more. Audio actually uses it’s own codecs. Often times your video camera will determine the container for your original video file as well. Our Canon DSLRs record .mov to the memory card, however our Canon camcorders can do AVCHD or MP4, which can be changed in the camera settings menu. Modern video editors will be happy to accept all kinds of containers, especially from well known camera brands.

Two apples in a bowl

Choosing a container for exporting (hint – use MP4!)

When it’s time to export your video after editing, you’ll most likely be tasked with choosing a file type (container). Nine times out of ten when exporting a video for the web an MP4 will be your best bet. Occasionally you may need to use a different container depending on where you plan to host your video. If you’re creating a video for a client always check to see if they have any specific file type needs. If you’re unsure or are exporting to YouTube, Vimeo, or screencast.com, an MP4 will do just fine.

Preset outputs

To make things simple and take out the guess work, many video editors have presets for exporting with ideal settings. Camtasia for example has multiple MP4 outputs. Just pick a preset for the resolution of your video and a folder in which to save it and you’re on your way to exported video town, population YOU! Or cut out the middle man and skip having to determine an output all together by sending your video directly to a cloud platform like Google Drive or YouTube. Your file will be encoded at the best settings for the chosen platform, so there are even less settings to worry about.

Output settings

Preset outputs in Camtasia Studio 8

Additional resources

As previously stated, the topic of video codecs and containers can be simple or complicated depending on how deep you want to dig. Luckily modern editors make it easy to export without having to think about the nitty gritty details of the file. Speaking of editors… why not give Camtasia a try! I have it on good authority that it’s a swell program with easy to use outputs and sharing options.

We also made a video about video file types that covers a few bonus topics and quickly wraps up the content of this post. So without further ado, here’s former techsmith video guru Mike!