They’re essential to any sort of multimedia editing. You usually have to pick one when you decide to export your files. New videographers often just see a string of random letters and numbers, but the concept is actually straightforward: a codec helps you resize your video, audio and other media files to the appropriate playback size. It’s a combination of the beginnings of two words – compression and decompression and it serves this exact purpose. Sounds simple, right?
Figuring out which codec to use often leaves people stumped. If you think about the sheer number of options for playback formats – a mobile phone screen, a SoundCloud file, an HD TV, a tablet, a YouTube clip- it’s no wonder people get confused. Hopefully this tutorial will help you decipher the code and choose the right codec for you.
WHAT A CODEC ISN’T
Codecs shouldn’t be confused with containers. Containers are formats that carry all components of the video – the images, the sound and the edits. Codecs serve as tools to resize the content that would go into a container.
- Examples of containers: Quicktime, MP4, AVCHD, Flash
- Examples of codecs: H.264, Xvid, MPEG-2
LOSSY VS LOSSLESS
You may hear the terms lossy and lossless tossed around when discussing codecs.
- Lossy: These codecs REDUCE the quality of your product for faster playback. They are better suited to playback on smaller devices, such as mobile phones or tablets.
- Lossless: These formats compress data without actually getting rid of any of the original information in the file, like a .zip file.
Most video codecs are lossy – video compression usually needs a high data rate and it would be very difficult to keep the entire quality of a video on a smaller playback device.
HOW A CODEC FUNCTIONS IN PREMIERE
When you export from Adobe Premiere or Adobe Media Encoder, you can choose from a wide range of codecs. There are lists of the formats that your piece will be exported as (e.g. QuickTime, MP3, H.264), the frame sizes (1920×1080, 1280×720) and the frame rates (29.97fps, 23.976fps).
You already made some of these decisions when you started shooting. For example, you set the frame rate in the camera. When exporting, you should make sure that you pick a codec that matches the frame rate at which you shot. Your camera also shoots into a given container, such as DV or AVCHD. You can change the container format depending on the new codec that you pick. For example, you can use a codec to export your footage into a QuickTime format, even if it was recorded in DV.
- MPEG-2 – this is used in DVD and digital video compressions. It is a lossy compression format.
- H.264 – this is a video playback codec that is often used for Vimeo or YouTube videos, as well as BluRay discs. It’s a lossy compression format.
- Apple ProRes 422 (LT) – a lossy compression format.
- HD 1080p 23.976 – this is the one we recommend for editing Canon C100 footage at the journalism school. (Note: Apple ProRes are codecs used as intermediate, not end use, codecs. These are ideal for video editors and are used while you’re editing your footage. You can export your finished product using a new codec.)
- NTSC or PAL – this is the standard for analog TV screens. NTSC is used in North and South America and uses 30 frames per second. PAL is used in most other countries and scans at 25 frames per second.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT CODEC
It’s important to understand where you want your media file to play. Are you compressing a file for editing purposes? Where will your video be shown – online or on a big movie theater screen? How was your video shot – at 30fps or 24 fps? Once you’ve answered all of these questions, figuring out which codec to use should be much simpler.