Short Description

Here's looking at you kid
frame from Casablanca with Bogart Movies are a great way to capture a special moment. A classic scene from Casablanca pictured.

Movie format refers to a cameras video resolution and frame rate. Video resolutions come in different sizes and aspect ratios. The aspect ratio, resolution and frame rate all contribute to the overall quality of a video. Standard video sizes range from a minimum resolution of 320x240 up to 1920x1080, frame rates range from 15 to 30 frames per second and finally aspect ratios are typically 4:3 or 16:9.

Digicam vs SLR for Movies

Previously most DSLRs did not come with a movie mode but that is changing, currently many SLRs have movie shooting capabilities. Almost every digicam now ships with a movie mode. SLRs tend to have more advanced movie shooting capabilities beside those represented by the movie format. In general the movie format of a camera is just one element contributing to the quality of the movies.

The rest of the section goes over the movie capability in detail, covering resolution, frame rate and aspect ratio.

Recommended Cameras for Shooting Video

We have found (as seen in our review of aspect ratios, video resolutions and frame rates below) that 720p (1280x720) at frame rates of 24fps or higher offers the best compromise between high def and ease of use. Here are some great cameras that shoot at least 720p.

WB30F - 720p @ 30fps
Samsung WB30F The Samsung WB30F is one of the best ultra compacts for movies.
PowerShot S200 - 720p @ 24fps
Canon PowerShot S200 The Canon S200 is one of the best pro digicams for movies.

Aspect Ratio

The aspect ratio refers to the ratio of width to height of the image. You'll notice that in a movie theater they tend to have really wide screens, some wider than they are tall. The reason for this is its a lot closer to the aspect ratio of human vision (which must be very wide (2:35:1) to capture all of our peripheral vision but not very wide (4:3) to capture our high res center vision ), by filling up all of our vision with the video it becomes more immersive. Theatres got this right in the 1950s. To create that cinematic feel with your digicam you need to go wide wide wide.

16:9

16:9 Ratio Video
depiction of 16:9 ratio 16:9 - the new standard for home video.

16:9 is a ratio of 1.78:1, that is the width of the video is 1.78X wider than the height. This is the aspect ratio you're likely to see when you walk into your local electronics store and check out the latest TVs. 16:9 (aka sixteen by nine) is the international standard format for HDTV, that means your videos will display well at home and overseas as all HD TV sets have been standardized around this aspect ratio.

4:3

4:3 Ratio Video
depiction of 16:9 ratio 4:3 - the old standard for home video.

4:3 is a ratio of 1.33:1, that is the width of the video is 1.33X wider than the height. This aspect ratio dates back to the invention of the television. Up until recently this was the aspect ratios for TVs and TV programming, but that is quickly changing. 4:3 (aka four by three) can in some way be thanked for the move to wider formats such as 16:9. Back in the 1950s when TV threatened cinema attendance Hollywood developed the widescreen aspect ratios to differentiate themselves.

Difference between 16:9 and 4:3

The only difference is width but that doesn't tell the whole story when comparing them. Here are two copies of the same image (shot on a Canon EOS XTi), but formatted to different aspect ratios. We're using a high quality image to best illustrate the differences vs a video frame grab which tend to not illustrate the difference as well.

16:9 Example
Example of a 16:9 Image Sample 16:9 Image, illustrating the wider formats larger horizontal coverage.
4:3 Example
Example of a 4:3 Image Sample 4:3 Image, illustrating the traditional standard definition format (SDTV).

You can see the wider 16 by 9 format feels more natural, displaying more of the scene and capturing a better balance. So the wider format gives you different creative options. More importantly though is to consider what TV you're going to be displaying the video you shoot on your digital camera.

How will the video look in my old school 4:3 TV?

As you can see if you own a 4:3 TV and you shoot 16:9 video you're going to end up with a lot of your screen getting wasted, if you have a giant TV this might be okay but in general it is best to pick a video aspect ratio that matches what it will be displayed on. That being said many people love the look of the 16:9, widescreen format so the loss of display space may be worth it.

4:3 in a 4:3 TV
Example of a 4:3 video displayed in a 4:3 TV 4:3 video displayed at its native aspect ratio - filling the whole screen.
16:9 in a 4:3 TV
Example of a 16:9 video displayed in a 4:3 TV 16:9 displayed on a 4:3 sdTV takes up less space as black bars must be put at the top and bottom to preserve the 16:9 ratio.

How will the video look in my brand new 16:9 high definition TV

As you can see if you own a 16:9 TV then 16:9 video really looks the best, it fills the space up nicely and just looks better than the 4:3 video. If you do happen to shoot 4:3 video most 16:9 TVs are pretty big and 4:3 ends up looking good.

4:3 in a 16:9 TV
Example of a 4:3 video displayed in a 16:9 TV 4:3 video displayed on a 16:9 hdTV takes up less space as black bars must be placed to the right and left to preserve the 4:3 ratio.
16:9 in a 16:9 TV
Example of a 16:9 video displayed in a 16:9 TV 16:9 displayed in its native aspect ratio on a 16:9 hdTV TV. The ideal way to watch wide format videos.

Resolution

The resolution of the video refers to the size of the video, which is often related to the display resolution (the display resolution is the resolution of what you'll actually watch the video on: TV, monitor, projector, etc). The bigger and higher resolution of your TV the more important it is to have higher resolution video to show on it. Just like a camera's rating resolution rating, video is rated for the number of pixels. The more pixels the bigger you can make the video and still have it sharp and clear. Here's an overview of the different resolution options.

Visualization of 480p vs 720p vs 1080p
image showing the difference between 480p, 720p and 1080p Comparing the difference between 480p vs 720p vs 1080p. The full image (1920x1080) takes up a lot of screen space so you may have trouble viewing it without zooming and scrolling. Full 1920x1080 Comparison of Resolutions.

480p (640x480)

Sample 480p Image
image showing a sample of 480p Click to view a full size preview of 640x480 resolution.

640x480 (480p) is the resolution that almost every camera can shoot at, most digicams from the last two years shoot at least 480p. Although there are lower resolutions (typically for high speed video), 640x480 should really be the lowest resolution to consider. 640x480 is a pretty good resolution, its not HD but its the resolution of standard definition television (SDTV) and a good quality source at 480p can look pretty good. Most people will be happy with this resolution but those who love the idea of widescreen, high definition home movies will want to venture into the two HDTV options.

How does 480p Measure Up?

  • 480p vs 720p: 480p has 1/3 the resolution
  • 480p vs 1080p: 480p has about 1/7 the resolution
  • Click on the full resolution sample and you'll see that a clean 480p image can be fantastic - DVD is after all "only" 480p

720p (1280x720)

1280x720 (720p) is the lowest of two HDTV resolutions. The ability for digital cameras to shoot high definition video started to pick up in 2009 and is now available on many cameras. 720p provides fantastic video quality that is perfect for large screen TVs and high definition home movies.

720p Landscape
Top 720p Camera
Sony CyberShot DSC-H400
Sony CyberShot DSC-H400
$60 - $288
66
digicams
0
DSLRs
0
four-thirds
66
total

261 out of 650 (40.2%) recent digital cameras shoot 720p video or better, with the Sony CyberShot DSC-H400 at the top of the heap. The Nikon Coolpix S3600 is the least expensive at $60. See all recent cameras that shoot 720p.

Sample 720p Image
Sample 720p video image Click to view a full size preview of 1280x720 resolution - Remember 720p is very high resolution video, your browser may resize this image - zoom in if it does.

How does 720p Measure Up

  • 720p vs 480p: 720p has 3X the resolution
  • 720p vs 1080p: 720p has about 1/2 the resolution
  • 720p is a fantastic high definition resolution to shoot at

Affordable 720p

Shooting 720p doesn't have to be expensive, you can shoot 720p video on a small budget - here are some different low cost 720p digital cameras:

Nikon Coolpix S9700
Nikon Coolpix S9700
from $60
Zoom Great zoom Help
30x
Screen type OLED Screen Help
Bright and vivid
Screen resolution High resolution screen Help
921k dots

Learn more about the Nikon Coolpix S9700

Casio Exilim ZR700
Casio Exilim ZR700
from $128
High-speed framerate High speed movies Help
1,000 fps
Continuous shooting Rapid fire Help
30 fps
Battery life Great battery life Help
470 shots

Learn more about the Casio Exilim ZR700

Nikon Coolpix S6500
Nikon Coolpix S6500
from $84
Image stabilization Image stabilization Help
Lens
Sensor type CMOS Sensor Help
Better in low light

Learn more about the Nikon Coolpix S6500

Olympus VH-520
Olympus VH-520
from $89
Size Really small Help
Super compact 100x60x20 mm
High-speed framerate High speed movies Help
240 fps
HDR In-camera HDR Help
Combines multiple exposures

Learn more about the Olympus VH-520

Green arrow See more of the top affordable 720p digital cameras

1080p (1920x1080)

1920x1080 (1080p) is the highest of two HDTV resolutions. 1080p is also known as Full HD and is very high resolution video. Because of it's extreme size it requires more storage space, faster computers to edit, more powerful camera processors and a very large TV to notice the difference. Currently 12 of 500 cameras released in the last 2 years shoot 1080p

1080p Landscape
Top 1080p Camera
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4
$60 - $6,497
129
digicams
64
DSLRs
0
four-thirds
193
total

193 out of 650 (29.7%) recent digital cameras shoot 1080p video or better, with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 at the top of the heap. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-XS3 is the least expensive at $58. See all recent cameras that shoot 1080p.

Sample 1080p Image
Sample 1080p video Click to view a full size preview of 1920x1080 resolution - Remember 1080p is very high resolution video, your browser may resize this image - zoom in if it does.

How does 1080p Measure Up?

  • 1080p vs 480p: 1080p has 7X the resolution
  • 1080p vs 720p: 1080p has about 2X the resolution
  • 1080p is a fantastic high definition resolution to shoot at
  • 1080p is the pinnacle of HD quality - but more suited for pros and hard core enthusiasts

Affordable 1080p

Shooting 1080p doesn't have to be expensive, you can shoot 1080p video on a small budget - here are some different low cost 1080p digital cameras:

GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition
GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition
from $400
Movie format High resolution movies Help
4096 x 2160 @ 12fps
Wide angle Wide angle lens Help
5 mm
External mic jack External mic jack Help
Record higher quality audio with a microphone

Learn more about the GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition

Canon EOS 70D
Canon EOS 70D
from $200
Touch screen Touch screen Help
Less buttons
Shutter lag Barely any delay taking photos Help
75 ms shutter lag
Autofocus Phase detection video autofocus Help
fast and accurate

Learn more about the Canon EOS 70D

Canon Rebel T5i
Canon Rebel T5i
from $200
Touch screen Touch screen Help
Less buttons
Screen flips out Flip-out screen Help
Great for movies
Screen resolution High resolution screen Help
1,040k dots

Learn more about the Canon Rebel T5i

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
from $389
Zoom Great zoom Help
50x
Supports 24p 24p movies Help
For that film look
Screen flips out Flip-out screen Help
Great for movies

Learn more about the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS

Green arrow See more of the top affordable 1080p digital cameras

Visual difference between 480p, 720p and 1080p

The following three images demonstrate the relative differences between adding more pixels. Each image is exactly the same but scaled to show how each different resolution captures more pixels and thus more details. These show the exact difference in size between the 480p, 720p and 1080p. Each using successively more pixels and capturing more detail.

720p
Example of 480p resolution - 100% crop The above is a 100% crop of 720p video. 720p captures the image with the second most detail - 1/2 of Full HD 1080p.
480p
Example of 720p resolution - 100% crop The above is a 100% crop of 480p video. This captures the image with the least detail - 1/7 of Full HD 1080p.
1080p
Example of 1080p resolution - 100% crop The above is a 100% crop of 1080p video. 1080p Full HD captures the image with the most detail.

Can you See the Difference between 480p, 720p and 1080p?

These images are designed to help you understand whether you can tell 480p,720p and 1080p apart given your viewing environment. Is there really a big difference by using 1080p? Take into account that your TV won't change size based on the video your watching, instead the video will just be scaled to fit your TV. Consequently, the best way to understand the differences is to see 480p,720p and 1080p scaled to the same display resolution. 1080p is being showing at 100% crop full resolution and 720p and 480p are both being scaled up.

Look at these images and walk away from your screen - when does 720p look basically the same as 1080p - how far are you from the screen. Remember two things when doing this mini test

  • You'll likely be 5-10ft away from your TV when viewing
  • A monitor 11" tall 2.5ft in front of you is the same as a 52" monster flatscreen 8ft in front of you in terms of size within your field of vision.

We think what you'll find is that 480p is pretty good, 720p definitely makes a difference if you're close enough and 1080p really isn't such a big deal despite the quoted 2X resolution advantage.

1080p
Example of 1080p resolution - 100% crop The above is a 100% crop of 1080p video. 1080p Full HD captures the image with the most detail.
720p
720p video scaled to 1080p 720p resolution scaled to 1080p to simulate the difference. Although slightly softer, when standing slightly back and when the picture is moving the difference is negligible.
480p
480p video scaled to 1080p 480p resolution scaled to 1080p to simulate the difference. Although visibly softer, the quality is still quite good from reasonable viewing distances. DVDs can still look fantastic when watched on a 50" screen - and they are the same resolution as this. For home movies this is still quite good.

Conclusions

  • 720p is the likely the best option if you want high definition video
  • 1080p is better for pros
  • 16:9 vs 4:3 - 16:9 looks better but its best when you have a widescreen TV
  • Image quality is also important

Related Info

Discussion

Showing 25 comments

Avatar for Randall Krause Randall Krause (10:45 PM, February 02, 2014)
Very well written and informative article. And this is coming from someone who has been doing video editing for almost eight years.
 
Avatar for wb7ptr wb7ptr (9:58 AM, January 28, 2014)
DPI stands for "Dots Per Inch" and is a holdover from the old print days when they put screens over photographs to scan them for printing. It has nothing to do with video to my knowledge. Look for something that specifically says it shoots High Definition video. Otherwise, you may accidentally end up with camera capable of shooting only stills ...
 
Avatar for wb7ptr wb7ptr (9:55 AM, January 28, 2014)
Hope you're still on here since I noticed you asked that 11 months ago. Anyway, got something of an asnwer for you. I'm a film student, and in the second semester of video production, they actually had some exercises using cameras at different frame rates (the 24, 30, 60, etc. is a the frame rate ... how many images it will capture in a 1 second period). Between 24fps and 60 fps, you could notice a definite difference in the clarity and sharpness of the image, especially with a moving subject such as someone on a skateboard. Just as with still photography, the faster frame rate will capture action much better. I would use a slower frame rate in low light and with subjects not moving that much but if you want a clearly shot video of a football game, or some other event where people move quickly, use a higher frame rate. Also color balance your camera for your environment if it's capable of it. The colors will look more natural if you do. Anyway ... there's my dissertation for the evening!
 
Avatar for Dre Hund Dre Hund (7:49 AM, October 24, 2013)
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II at 1920 x 1280. Let's say, I open it in Photoshop Extended. Under Image, it will say in P.S. that the image is 1920 x 1280 and approx. 26.664 inches wide by 15 inches high at 72 dpi. Someone please tell me how this file, which even on my 27 inch Mac in full screen starts to show a bit of breakup, can even be projected in a theatre at anything larger than that without simply falling apart.
 
aj (5:41 PM, February 24, 2013)
Thanks for a great article! I have few questions though, Is 1080@60p better than 1080@24p? Because I saw many new release digital cameras are all 1080@60p, not 24p (except canon)
 
SCD (11:34 AM, January 30, 2013)
Great Work.... Thnx guyz
 
siddharth (2:49 PM, November 24, 2012)
very good ppt. topcs are upto the point,clear and easy to understand.
 
Satish Shivan (11:57 AM, October 23, 2012)
wonderful article thaxa a lot
 
Avatar for caob163 caob163 (2:41 PM, August 14, 2012)
 Cool, the image quality is importants, i find that the same 1080p movie has many different size copies.
 
Avatar for Ric C. Ric C. (11:10 PM, May 26, 2012)
OMG. This is by far the best article Ive read. it makes it very clear to a person like myself who is sick of HD jargons but no real explanation. Thank you so much. Now one question, you may be the right person to ask> Have you seen the Genius DV800 camcorder? Its selling for less than 90USD at the moment and the specs are: 30fps 720p x 1280p 8mp cmos. does that mean its a really good specs or is there any catch? The CMOS as far I can understad means that it is somehow interpolated quality, like all those HD webscams, that simply make photos look big but not sharp at all. Help would be so much appreciated, I have a box full of HD cameras and they are all rubbish...Including a Nikon d5000, which records videos at the same rates but is no good at all....thanks in advance! Hope this comment can generate responses here.
 
O-H-Y-A (2:56 PM, May 20, 2012)
HI I just want to ask how many minutes a canon powershot sx40 hs can take a video?  thank you in advance 
 
Mike (5:55 PM, May 18, 2012)
This subject had been in relatively poor resolution  in this digital camera new-bee's brain up until now.  You have a gift for concisely and clearly explaining this topic so a tenderfoot like myself can actually walk away with a degree of knowledge and understanding.   I do not know where the automobile picture was taken, but it looks to maybe have a parking ticket decorating its windshield.  If that was the case, hope it was not yours.
 
Tetankhkara (0:04 AM, May 05, 2012)
very nice presentation.  cudos!!
 
Avatar for X-Sorv X-Sorv (9:20 PM, March 11, 2012)
AWESOME explaination. Never ever such aclear, to the point but still so easy to understand, details for an information on how video works, I have seen yet anywhere. Superb SNAPSORT. love you
Sourav Kings
 
Imran Manzoor31 (1:40 PM, November 13, 2011)
This really helped me decide which format is best to convert my dvd movies!
 
Video6guy (0:16 AM, November 05, 2011)
Very good article Snapshot.  I do believe that 30p (30 frames per second) in basically the same as 60i.  The difference being that shooting video in 30p is good for low motion video.  If the 30p setting is used in fast motion video a flicker of judder can develop when viewed.  Now 60i is not really 60 frames per second it is still only 30 frames per second.  The reason being that we have to consider the analogue interlaced scan lines.  Every second of interlaced video consists of 2 fields, A&B or upper and lower. There are in each field 525 scan lines.  So every frame of interlaced video has 1050 scan lines.  So in reality 2 fields together add up to 1 frame of video.  This means both 30p and 60i are both really 1 frame of video.  If you are shooting fast motion video some people  recommend an interlaced camera setting.  While shooting slow moving video a progressive setting is recommended.  The reason for this is that interlaced video motion looks smoother with less flicker.  A lot of times on live news new channels they have fast motion video shot with a progressive setting.  The flicker or judder is easily recognized compared to a interlaced setting.
Hope this helps. 
 
NLittleM (9:04 AM, October 19, 2011)
hi, Snapsort, it would be handy if you mentioned the TERM "WVGA"(aka Wide Video Graphics Array) under your explanation of Aspect Ratios.
 
NlittleM (8:20 AM, October 19, 2011)
Enlightening article for the amateur looking to buy an upgrade of still camera &/or  camcorder with HD capability.
BTW,
what does it mean when the specs of a still camera states its can record video at 1280x1024 dpi ? (I thought dpi usually refer to the Resolution Quality of Printed Image)
Does it mean that the ASPECT RATIO of the Video shot by this camera is ( 1.25 : 1 ), ie. poorer than the 4:3 aspect ration of Standard Definition TVs?
 
Shirish Ratnaparkhi (0:35 AM, July 09, 2011)
It would be nice if difference between (p) and (i) is explained. 480, 720, 1080 would mean differntly for p - progressive imaging and i - interlaced imaging. Also the titles of the gadgets do confuse calling the same product once as 1080i and then as 1080p.
 
Avatar for Snapsort Snapsort (1:11 PM, April 05, 2011)
Also check out our article about 24p video.
 
Avatar for Snapsort Snapsort (1:09 PM, April 05, 2011)
24fps is the standard film frame rate in most Hollywood productions, it gives you that movie feel when filming. 30fps will give you a little more clarity when filming a moving subject, but most people will not see a huge difference.
 
Avatar for Nezar AlBasha Nezar AlBasha (7:28 AM, April 05, 2011)
is there difference between 720 @30fps and @24fps??
i see some camera have 24p ..is it refer to video??
 
Avatar for Snapsort Snapsort (6:32 PM, February 08, 2011)
Thanks Fredrik, we've fixed that up.
 
Fredrik (11:46 AM, February 08, 2011)
Hi! Nice and clearly written article!
However you seem to have mixed up the titles and captions for the images under "Visual difference..."? The 480p example should be the smallest image. /Fredrik
 
Agip (5:29 AM, November 20, 2010)
Thanks for the info, very nice site btw