Video File Format Guide


When you consider that 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute and nearly 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every day, that’s truly remarkable. And in its first year, TikTok racked up 13.1 million video views per day! The 1979 song Video Killed the Radio Star has come to fruition on a scale its creators never could have imagined. Video has become so ubiquitous, the medium is likely something most people take for granted and perceive solely in terms of viewing. Whether you’re a professional or amateur videographer, understanding video principles (e.g. file format) is key to capturing memorable moments that people can enjoy long after you created them.

All video clips people watch on smartphones, computers, TVs or tablets are associated with a specific type of file format. When you create videos, it’s important to understand how video file formats work. For example, video file types that are optimal for posting on social media platforms aren’t typically the best choice for embedding on a website. Video files are significantly larger than most digital files. Moreover, as video resolution continues to increase, file sizes also increase, and this needs to be taken into consideration. The format you select when creating videos contributes significantly to the size of your video file. 

What is a Video File Format? 

Different components in addition to the video itself comprise the file. All of these need to work together in order for the video to work properly. The two essential parts that enable this to happen are the codec and the container. Regardless of the format, videos typically include the following different components: 

  • Frame or frame frequency: Reproduced in either hertz (Hz) or in frames per second (fps); the higher this value, the more images used to create the video
  • Color depth: This relates to color and brightness values
  • Film format: Information on image resolution and aspect ratio of the video (e.g. 16:9 or 4:3)
  • Audio track: All information related to the recorded sound 


What is a Video Codec? 

Codecs are used to organize media data held within a container. A codec compresses and decompresses data that video files contain, interprets the content in these files, and controls how this content is played back. Many different types of audio and video codecs exist, and each of them has associated pros and cons. Codecs are used to compress huge video file sizes. For example, if you wanted to download a typical Blu-Ray blockbuster movie to your computer, it would take 30GB to 50GB of storage space, which is more than most people want to devote to a single movie. If you encounter an incompatible codec, you’ll see the message “file extension not supported” or “cannot play media” message instead of the video footage. 

Video Containers Hold Codecs 

A container holds audio and video data together in a single file along with additional information. Containers have file extensions such as .mov, .avi or .mp3. The container has information that determines if both audio and video data are included, enabling media players to play them both at the same time. Frequently, containers also hold media metadata in the file. This includes the frame rate of the video, the camera, and lens used to record the footage, camera settings, location it was shot, and other details about the production. 

Common Video File Formats 

AVI (audio video interleave) and WMV: Created by Microsoft, AVI files once dominated the video container market. In the mid-2000s, Microsoft replaced AVI with the WMV format. Although the original WMV was exclusively designed for streaming applications, other WMV formats such as WMV Screen and WMV Image were released for use with specialized types of content. Pros: Wide compatibility with both PC and Mac systems and improved video quality. Cons: Large files take up more space, and inherent to this format, is the inability to select aspect ratios manually. 

AVCHD (advanced video coding, high definition): A collaboration between Panasonic and Sony, this type of video file was designed exclusively for digital camcorders. Pros: Allows you to store hours of video using little data, without a significant sacrifice of visual quality. The latest edition also supports 3D video. Cons: Although AVCHD uses H.264/MPEG-4 video compression technology to reduce the file size, it is still comparatively large. When stored on a computer, this format acquires a .m2ts extension.

FLV and SWF (Flash formats): The original FLV format was very popular for streaming video on websites (e.g. YouTube). SWF (Shockwave Flash) is a movie that can be viewed as a Flash animation file, and is used predominantly to display animated vector graphics online. Pros: Typically small and easy to download. Cons: Unsupported by iOS devices (e.g. iPhones and iPads). 

MKV (Matroska format): This free and open-source format offers a wide selection of video and audio tracks, as well as text information such as menus, chapters/subtitles, and photos, all contained in the file. Pros: It’s compatible with nearly every codec. Cons: Fewer programs are available for direct editing compared to other formats. 

MOV and QT (Quicktime formats): Created by Apple, MOV and QT formats are compatible with PC and Mac systems and are commonly used by professional and semi-professionals. Both formats employ a multimedia container file that can be separated into a variety of tracks. Pros: Compatible with an extremely wide range of codecs, with high quality relative to its size. Cons: Primarily interchangeable with QuickTime-only players. 

MP4: Popularized by Apple in their iTunes Store, this format stores video and audio files, as well as text and still images. Pros: Widely supported by a variety of the most popular digital devices on the market including Xbox 360 Apple products (e.g. iPad and Apple TV). Cons: Lower definition and fewer features than the MKV format. 

WMV (Windows Media Video format): Introduced by Microsoft as a series of codecs, this format was originally intended solely for online streaming applications. Pros: Requires less storage space to maintain the quality of the original material, making it ideal for Internet use. Cons: As a Windows video format, it is difficult or even impossible to play on other systems (e.g. Mac and Linux). 

What Video File Format Should I Use? 

Not every video format is compatible with every digital platform. When you record a video with a device (e.g. smartphone or video camera), the device creates its own preset video file format. Professional video cameras include other settings in which you can make further adjustments and define the video format for recording. The decision on the best video file format to use depends on a number of factors. The bottom line is that one size doesn’t fit all. These are the questions you need to ask to help determine the best video format for your project. 

  • Are you only downloading/ripping an existing file or producing your own video?
  • What kind of computer hardware and software are you using?
  • Are you planning to share your video file online or via physical media (e.g. DVD)?
  • What are your overall plans for distributing the video? 

If you have old videos that you wish to digitize and edit, ScanCafe offers uncompressed H.264/MPEG-4 files – the best option for post-production editing and creating high-quality final videos.