By Gordon Hiles

Image by Gordon Hiles

Video file formats may seem complex, but this breakdown of their evolution will help you look at them with fresh eyes.

Technology has a tendency to confuse the masses. It is evident that only a few people are able to keep abreast with the acceleration of technology; some pretend to understand it and others just go with the flow, getting it half right.

When it comes to video files, formats and codecs, there are important must-knows that you should consider when using a video camera, especially regarding the intended result. This naturally applies to both above and underwater use of a video camera.

We hear a host of file format names being thrown about – MPEG, AVI, MOV, MP4, H.264, AVCHD, UHD, 4K, etc. As video technology evolved, there was a need to work to a common standard and so the MPEG was established. This group set the technical standards for the basis of what video technology has become. Some of the earliest video formats include MPEG-1 and MPEG-2.


All this technical information may seem a bit daunting, so permit me to clarify it in simple terms below.

Home televisions (TVs) used to be square with a 4:3 picture ratio, known as Standard Definition (SD). This was great because back then, we did not know any different. As technology began to improve and new ideas in visual display evolved, the era of High Definition (HD) dawned, with picture quality and resolution that was four times higher than SD. It also presented a new 16:9 picture ratio. This caused much concern because now all our cherished SD cameras suddenly became redundant.

This was also the era of HD-ready TVs. Those who owned one wanted to see the wide-screen picture, but were mostly unhappy to further invest in an HD decoder. This meant that the SD pictures were stretched from side to side, making the human race look like a bunch of short, stubby people! Animals and fishes were victims of this effect as well, of course.

Barely 10 years after the HD invasion, HD was pushed into second place with the arrival of UHD/4K. The quality was four times that of HD, so the HD cameras (that took a long time for most to acquire) were now no longer good enough.

Perhaps it is not all bad news. I imagine most of us watch our videos on our computers with the occasional plugin to the flat screen in the lounge.

We also share our videos on the internet, often using popular and efficient data transmission file formats like MP4 or H.6264. Here, the 16:9 ratio is also the norm. At least that part is standardised. So strictly speaking, these are the only formats that you need to work with to be able to share videos online. Since the ratios are standardised, this also means that HD cameras and editing equipment are safe for now.

But it does not stop with 4K as there are options such as UHD4K, full 4K and 6.5K (8K is just around the corner too). UHD4K is the 4K picture that is designated for the 16:9 aspect TV screen. This gives a pixel ratio of 3 840 x 2 160 whereas full 4K is designated for cinematic use giving a pixel ratio of 4 196 x 2 160 or 17:9 picture aspect. The 6.5K and 8K levels naturally offer higher resolution quality. While there are consumer-level 4K cameras available, the optimum use for these is to play your videos on your UHD screen at home.

So, if you took the step to upgrade to HD, or if you make use of the HD video option on your DSLR camera, and you happen to capture that unique, once-in-a-lifetime “money shot” that National Geographic wants, all is not lost as your HD-quality video clip will still be very useful to them. So for now, do not get rid of that HD gear. Save yourself the cost of trying to keep up with the pace of 4K and beyond.