Understanding Video Bit Rates and Why They Matter

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When it comes to video cameras, most people focus on one thing; the word 4K.  But 4K is actually a video resolution, not an indication of absolute video quality.

With video cameras, there are multiple factors that determine the actual quality of the video.  And in this post, I’m going to cover one of them;  video bit rate.

Let’s cut to the chase.

The bottom line for you to remember is this – the higher video bit rate your camera records at, the better your video will look.

You can think of video bit rate like a piece of paper with text on it. If you have a high video bit rate, the text will be sharp and crisp. But if you have a low video bit rate, the text will be fuzzy and dull.

Video bit rate becomes even more important when your video goes on the web.

That’s because when your video goes from your camera to being on the web (via YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc.), your video is compressed…which means the video bit rate is reduced…so the video can play on the web.

It’s like your video is going through a photo-copier, where a lower-quality version of your original video is spit out. And if the original version of your video is low quality to begin with, an even lower quality version comes out for the web.

That means you always want to shoot your videos at the highest possible bit rate before that video gets sent to YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook or wherever else to be seen online.

So what should that bit rate be? Well, it depends on the resolution of the footage you’re shooting.

For example, if you’re shooting 4K, your camera should be recording the video at a bit rate of 80mbps or higher (or 80 mega bits per second). And ideally, it should be above 100mbps.

If you’re shooting full HD, your camera should be recording the video at a bit rate of 35mbps or higher…and ideally it should be around 50mbps.

After your video is shot, the compression dance begins. That’s because first, you’ll likely edit your video and export it out of your video editing software. And when it comes out of your video editing software, it’s going to be compressed, or have a lower bit rate.

If you’re shooting and editing 4K, you’d ideally want to export your video at a bit rate of 40-50mbps…or about half the bit rate at which it was originally shot.

And if you’re shooting and editing full HD video, you’d ideally want to export your video at a bit rate of 15-20mbps…again, about half the bit rate at which it was originally shot.

Why is the bit rate being reduce so much? File size. The lower the video bit rate, the smaller the file. And because your video will have to be uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc., a smaller file means it can upload faster (plus all video hosting platforms have file size upload limits to begin with).

Oh…and then your video will be compressed yet again. Once it’s uploaded to a video hosting platform, they’ll convert it so it’s playable on the web. Which means they are going to cut the bit rate in half again, if not more.

Which leads us back to the photo-copier analogy. If you’re making a copy, of a copy of a copy…you’d want to start with a copy that’s the highest quality possible, right?

It works the same with video bit rates.

But how can you tell what video bit rate your camera is recording video at? Sometimes camera manufacturers will tell you and sometimes not.

But a tool called MediaInfo will tell you 100% of the time. You can download it for free here.

In the end, video bit rate is not the only thing that will determine the quality of your video…far from it.  But it is something that you typically can control.

The bottom line for you is that if your camera offers bit rate options, always choose the highest bit rate available. Got it?

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