Video resolution 101: What it is and how it impacts video quality

Computer editing a video

Video resolution. Aspect ratios. Progressive vs. interlaced scanning. You’re probably wondering why you should know these concepts in detail if you’re not a video professional (or just a huge video nerd). The truth is, video resolution is the foundation of your video quality and plays a crucial role in making your videos look their absolute best.

By understanding what video resolution is, how it works, and how it affects the editing process, you can create polished, crystal-clear videos that your audience will appreciate. The best part? You can do it using intuitive video editing tools, including options like Descript.

In this article, you'll find everything about video resolution as a content creator. Our panel of video production experts consulted for this article include:

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What is video resolution?

Video resolution refers to the total number of pixels in a video frame rate. It dictates the amount of visual detail and sharpness in your video, and how crisp or blurry the image looks. 

You can imagine your video as a digital canvas made up of tiny dots (the pixels) and the pixels as the elements that work together to create images on the canvas. In that case, video resolution is the number of pixels you have to work with. The more pixels you’ve got, the more detailed the images they can create. 

When we refer to video resolution numbers, we're talking about the number of pixels arranged on your screen. More pixels mean a higher resolution, translating to a clearer, more realistic video. So, when you hear terms like 720p or 1080p, this is how many pixels are lined up vertically on your screen.

Typically, these pixels are measured within a standard shape known as the aspect ratio, with 16:9 being the most common shape for TVs and computer screens (we’ll get into aspect ratios later in the article).

Types of video resolutions

Different types of video resolution exist to accommodate different output needs and preferences. It’s one of the most important considerations during the planning stage of your videos. “When deciding on what resolution to shoot your project in, you should first consider the video resolution requirements for the end platform,” says video producer Jim Costa.

Over time, smartphone screens and monitors have evolved to accomodate higher resolutions—but aiming for the highest resolution shouldn’t always be the goal.

“If you have a limited amount of storage, guess what? That 4K 60fps video isn't gonna fly,” says Amber Krasinski, founder of the video production agency IvyHill PR. “You’ll have to lower your resolution to save some space.”

Let's explore the key types of video resolutions and what purpose they each serve.

1. Standard Definition (SD)

Standard Definition (SD) video was relevant and widely used from the early 1950s until the mid-2000s. During this period, SD was the best video format for television broadcasts, VHS tapes, DVDs, and early digital video formats. It gradually started to phase out as High Definition (HD) formats became more prevalent and affordable, beginning in the mid-2000s. 

When you watch an SD video, it looks clear and watchable but it’s not super detailed. SD videos have fewer pixels (640x480 pixels), so you won't see as much fine detail as you would in High Definition (1280x720 pixels) or 4K videos (3840x2160 pixels). 

SD videos work well for things like classic movies or simple content that doesn’t use too much visual flair, like text-based videos. Amber adds that lower video resolutions like SD can give your videos "an aesthetic look and feel that makes your audience feel nostalgic."

So, while SD may not give you the sharpest picture, it can come in handy when you need the file size of your video to be smaller.

2. High Definition (HD)

High Definition (HD) resolution is a step up from Standard Definition (SD). When we talk about HD, we mainly refer to the resolution of 1280x720 pixels (720p).

3. Full High Definition (Full HD)

Full High Definition (Full HD or 1080p) videos are a significant leap above the standard High Definition (HD) videos above. The "1080p" label means these videos have a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels or 1920x1200 pixels. Full HD is the current common resolution for mobile phones.

4. Quad HD (2K)

Quad HD or 2K resolution, or QHD, provides more detail and sharpness than HD resolutions. It's commonly used in higher-end smartphones, gaming monitors, and advanced displays. This resolution allows for viewing on larger displays, precise image editing, and reframing without losing video quality. The typical 2k resolution is 2,560x1,440 pixels or 1440p.

“If you’re a YouTube creator, you are perfectly fine shooting in 1080p Full HD or 2K QHD (1440p) resolution,” says Jim, “Because when you upload a video to the platform, YouTube compresses the video uploaded anyway to save storage on its end via their compression algorithm.”

5. Ultra High Definition (UHD or 4K)

Ultra High Definition, also known as 4K video, has a pixel-rich resolution of 3840x2160, four times that of Full HD (1080p). While it may seem similar to 2K, it gives video creators more room for editing and zooming in. The amount of detail in this resolution makes the post-production process easier, making it an ideal choice for color grading, graphics, and theatrical releases. 

For viewers, the difference may not always be noticeable, but for creators, 4K unlocks the potential for precision and cinematic excellence. It’s why Descript offers 4K resolution as an option for recording (depending on your recording device) and editing your videos.

6. 8K resolution

8K videos, with a 7680x4320 pixel resolution, are typically reserved for cinema and commercial projects. This relatively new video format is yet to be widely adopted. The rich amount of pixel information in the 8K format gives video professionals more creative freedom during post-production.

7. Custom resolutions

Custom video resolutions refer to user-defined resolutions that deviate from the standards like 720p, 1080p, 4K, or 8K. These resolutions are tailored to specific project requirements, often for specialized applications or unique creative projects. 

Custom resolutions can vary widely in terms of pixel dimensions and aspect ratios, and they're typically defined according to specific project needs, hardware limitations, and artistic preferences. While they give you more creative freedom, custom resolutions may be incompatible with standard video playback devices and platforms.

Image showing the different types of video resolutions.

Why is video resolution important?

Whether producing content for your brand, sharing on social media, or delivering professional projects, understanding video resolution is essential to the video-making process. It's important to strike a balance between resolution and accessibility. Higher resolutions, for example, demand more from your storage and computer processing. You need to find the sweet spot between visual clarity and technical constraints in a way that suits your project's needs. 

Here are some reasons why resolution plays an important role in the quality and impact of your videos, and why you need to make resolution considerations a key part of your video-creating process.

Video resolution is the key to visual clarity

The first and foremost reason to prioritize video resolution is its direct correlation with visual clarity. The resolution of a video, along with bitrate and compression, establishes the level of detail it can capture and convey to your audience. 

Higher resolutions—like 1080p (Full HD), 4K, or 8K—give you more pixels to work with, resulting in sharper images and finer details in your final video. Lower resolution videos can look pixelated and blurry, and don’t scale on large screens very well. 

Video resolution determines creative freedom

Your choice of resolution directly impacts how you can manipulate and edit your footage during post-production. Higher resolutions—like 4K or 8K—give you a lot of pixel data, enabling you to crop, zoom, and reframe shots without sacrificing quality.

“Filming in 8K can give you the option to crop your frame and still have a high resolution image,” says Bryce Anderson, head of revenue at video production agency LightSwitch Video. “If your end product is going to be 1080p, and you film in 8K, theoretically you could crop the image to 1/16 the size and still have a "high res" image. This can be useful for things like a quick interview when you only have time for a one camera setup. By filming in 8K, you can crop in on your interviewee to provide editing options and simulate a second camera.”

This creative freedom opens up new horizons for storytelling, allowing you to experiment with different compositions, visual effects, and artistic choices. For novice video creators, understanding this aspect of resolution means unlocking the potential to craft more dynamic and visually striking content.

Video resolution determines the longevity of your videos

As technology evolves, so do display devices and playback platforms. If you want your videos to withstand the test of time and relevance, producing them at a decent resolution is important. Higher resolutions, like 4K and 8K, position your content to shine on modern high-definition screens. These high resolutions also support virtual reality formats and augmented reality experiences. 

“Large scale conversion to 8K is several years away,” says Jim. “Most stations won’t be broadcasting in 8K till the end of the decade (at least) as converting equipment is still cost prohibitive. Home sets are still expensive as well. Few people in the USA have 8K TVs currently, so you have time before you need to make the switch.”

By future-proofing the visual quality of your videos, you’re guaranteeing their compatibility with future devices and formats, allowing your videos to go beyond the limitations of outdated resolutions and technologies.

Understanding video resolution gives you the ability to adapt

Different platforms have varying requirements and recommendations for video resolutions, and understanding these nuances is crucial for effective content distribution. 

By mastering video resolution concepts, video creators can tailor their content to meet the specifications of social media platforms, streaming services, and websites. This adaptability improves your content's reach and engagement potential, ensuring it looks its best whether viewed on a smartphone, computer monitor, or television screen.

What does “p” and “i” mean in video resolution?

You might have noticed those "p" and "i" letters at the end of resolution numbers like 1080p or 1080i. These abbreviations refer to something called a scanning method. Don't worry if you have no idea what that means; we'll break it down below.

To understand what a scanning method is, imagine video as a bunch of static pictures (also known as frames) that play super fast, one after the other, to create motion. Scanning determines how those frames are put together and shown on your screen.

When a resolution number ends in "p," that means it uses progressive scan. Progressive scan displays an image starting at the top-left corner and finishing at the bottom-right, one piece of the entire frame at a time. Most modern shows, movies, and recorded content use this because it gives you a crisp, flicker-free picture.

The difference between interlaced and progressive scan.

Then there's "i," which stands for interlaced scan. Picture this as splitting your picture frame into two parts: first, the odd lines, then the even ones. These two parts switch really fast to create a full image. It used to be handy for older TVs, but it can sometimes cause flickering or strange lines in fast-moving scenes.

The difference between a progressive scan and an interlaced scan is that in a progressive scan, there's no splitting or alternating between odd and even lines. Instead, it presents the full image all at once in a smooth, uninterrupted flow. This approach produces a more natural and higher-quality picture, making it the preferred choice for most modern videos. 

Pros and cons of higher video resolution

Beginners and amateur video creators usually aim for the highest resolution possible to make their content shine. But before you hit that 4K or 8K button, there are some important things to consider. Let’s start with the advantages of creating high resolution videos:

Pros of higher resolution videos

  1. High image quality: Your videos will boast incredible detail and clarity when you opt for higher resolutions, like 4K or 8K. For video creators, this means your visuals look more professional and captivating, making a lasting impression on your audience.
  2. Better video viewing experiences: When you offer a high resolution, your viewers will enjoy a more immersive and engaging time watching your content. As a creator, this translates into increased viewer satisfaction and retention, making your videos more effective.
  3. Future-proof your content: Creating content in higher resolutions keeps your videos relevant as technology evolves, and higher resolutions become more commonplace (remember when 4K was hardly heard of? Now it's a standard format most displays offer). Think of high resolution as future-proofing your videos. You won't need to revisit and update older videos to meet rising quality standards, saving time and effort.
  4. Post-production flexibility: With higher resolutions, you get more flexibility during post-production. You can crop, zoom, and edit your footage without sacrificing quality. This creative freedom is a game-changer for video creators who want to achieve a specific look or make adjustments after filming.

Now, onto the reasons why you might not want to make your videos too high in the resolution chart:

Cons of higher resolution videos

  1. High storage requirements: “The file size. Oy vey, the file size,” says Amber. “Trying to transport massive amounts of video footage and data to other editors is a challenge. Very high resolutions require hardware that can handle the additional size and amount of data contained in a video clip.” Those ultra-HD videos can quickly eat up space in your hard drive, and the more high resolution videos you create, the more you'll need to invest in bigger storage solutions.
  2. Higher processing demands: Editing and rendering videos in high resolutions can be demanding on your computer's processing power. You might need a beefier computer setup to handle the increased workload, which can be costly. “For 1 hour of 1080p footage, you're talking hundreds of gigabytes. For 1 hour at 8K, you're talking 5+ terabytes,” says Bryce. “To be able to process and edit that footage is going to take a lot longer, require more expensive equipment, and generally be a pain in the a**.”
  3. Limited accessibility: While 4K and 8K are fantastic for quality, not all devices or platforms support these resolutions. Your audience might struggle to access your content if their devices can't handle the higher resolution, potentially limiting your reach. “People have been creating content for years with a lot of technological upgrades over time,” says Amber. “It's all a bell curve, though. At a certain point, a person will not be able to tell the difference between resolutions. Always ask yourself: Is this high resolution absolutely necessary to accomplish what I want to create?”
  4. Bandwidth requirements for streaming: High-resolution videos can hog much of your streaming bandwidth. Viewers with slower internet connections may experience buffering issues, leading to a video-watching experience full of interruptions. It's essential to consider your audience's internet capabilities when choosing higher resolutions.

What are aspect ratios?

An aspect ratio is the shape or dimensions of your video screen. Think of it as the width and height of the video frame. In simple terms, it's how wide the video is compared to how tall it is. Aspect ratios and video resolutions are closely related because they determine the quality and shape of your video. For example, the common 16:9 aspect ratio often pairs with HD or 4K resolutions, creating those widescreen movie-like visuals we’re all used to. 

Knowing about video resolution and aspect ratios is essential because it helps you choose the right settings for your project. Bryce highlighted the importance of knowing aspect ratios for your work and clients, adding: “You will much more frequently be asked to film things in 9:16 aspect ratios for Instagram reels, TikTok, and other social media formats than you will in 8K. Get used to framing content to be used in wide screen and vertical formats, and you'll be ahead of the pack.”

Understanding these basics will save you time and ensure your videos look just the way you want them to.

Types of and most common aspect ratios

Aspect ratios are the different frame shapes of your videos, shaping how they appear on screens. There are many aspect ratios because they each serve a different purpose. 

For example, a square aspect ratio (1:1) is great for some social media platforms, while widescreen (16:9) is the standard aspect ratio for TV and online videos. Aspect ratios are closely tied to the resolution of your video, determining both the dimensions and quality of your visuals.

  1. 1:1 Aspect Ratio (Square)
  2. 4:3 Aspect Ratio
  3. 16:9 Aspect Ratio (Horizontal)
  4. 9:16 Aspect Ratio (Vertical)

1:1 aspect ratio

The 1:1 aspect ratio, often referred to simply as a "square ratio," is a perfect square shape where the width and height of the video are equal. In practical terms, this means that if you have a 1080-pixel width, you'll also have a 1080-pixel height, resulting in a square frame. 

4:3 aspect ratio

The 4:3 aspect ratio is a classic video frame shape that's not commonly used anymore. It's slightly wider than the square shape of 1:1, where the width is 4 units, and the height is 3 units. 

This aspect ratio was prevalent in older televisions and computer monitors, making it the standard for content created before widescreen displays became mainstream. It's still found in some presentations, older video games, and vintage video footage. The format is also making a return in movies, like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. However, it's less common in contemporary online platforms and streaming services.

Image showing 4:3 aspect ratio in film
Video frame in a 4:3 aspect ratio

The 4:3 aspect ratio is typically associated with resolutions like 640x480 (SD), 800x600, or 1024x768. These resolutions are now considered lower quality than high-definition formats like 16:9 (widescreen) and 4K, which offer better image clarity and detail.

16:9 aspect ratio (horizontal)

The 16:9 aspect ratio, or 1:1.77, is the most common horizontal widescreen format used in modern media, including YouTube video format. It's a rectangular shape where the width is 16 units, and the height is 9 units. This aspect ratio is the standard for most television screens, computer monitors, and digital devices today.

Common resolutions associated with the 16:9 aspect ratio include 1920x1080 (Full HD), 1280x720 (HD), and 3840x2160 (4K UHD).

Image showing 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratio on different screens

9:16 aspect ratio (vertical)

The 9:16 aspect ratio, or a vertical aspect ratio, is a tall and narrow frame with a significantly greater height than the width. This aspect ratio is the opposite of the traditional landscape-oriented 16:9 aspect ratio. It's the standard ratio for mobile device screens and social media platforms like Instagram Stories, TikTok videos, and Snapchat posts.

Image displaying 16:9 aspect ratio in horizontal and vertical format

The most important thing to remember about aspect ratios, just like with video resolutions, is the end user and end platform constraints. “Shoot in an aspect ratio for your end use,” says Jim. “If your video is going on YouTube or monitor, you’ll be shooting in an aspect ratio of 16x9 (horizontal mode). However, if your end user is a social media platform like Instagram or TikTok, the aspect ratio for video on that platform is 9x16 vertical (vertical mode).”

Improve your video editing skills with Descript

So, you've learned about video resolutions and aspect ratios. Now you're ready to put that knowledge into practice as a filmmaker. With Descript, you don't need to be a video tech expert to make it happen. Descript simplifies the video editing process with user-friendly and intuitive tools like:

  • Transcript-based editing: Descript's unique text-based editing interface allows you to edit videos by editing text, just like a document. You can make changes by typing, cutting, copying, and pasting text.
  • Multitrack editing: You can edit multiple audio and video tracks simultaneously, giving you more control over your content.
  • Collaboration: Collaborate with team members by sharing projects, making comments, and tracking changes in real time.

Descript also offers a range of video resolution and aspect ratio options to suit your needs. You can effortlessly edit videos in various resolutions, including standard definition (SD), high definition (HD), and even 4K. You can also adjust your video’s aspect ratio depending on the platform (YouTube or Instagram, for example), or whether you're working with square, horizontal, or vertical videos.

Video Resolution FAQs

What size is a 1920x1080 video frame?

A 1920x1080 video frame, often called 1080p, measures 1920 pixels in width and 1080 pixels in height. This resolution is commonly used for high-definition video content.

How do I know if my video is 720p or 1080p?

You can check your video's settings or properties to determine whether it is in 720p or 1080p resolution. On most devices and video players, you can right-click on the video file and select "Properties" or "Get Info." Look for the resolution information in the video details. Alternatively, while playing the video, you can often find resolution details in the player's settings or by clicking on the video display.

Which is the best video resolution?

For most general purposes, 1080p (1920x1080) and 4K (3840x2160) are considered excellent choices. However, for professional video production or when targeting high-quality displays, 4K or even 8K (7680x4320) resolutions may be preferred. The best resolution ultimately depends on factors like your audience, distribution platform, and the equipment you have available.

What is the best video resolution for YouTube?

YouTube supports a wide range of video resolutions, but it's recommended to upload videos with at least 1080p (1920x1080) display resolution for optimal quality. If you can produce content in 4K (3840x2160), that's even better, as YouTube allows viewers to watch videos in higher resolutions if their devices support it. However, remember that a higher resolution may require more processing power and bandwidth, so consider your target audience's viewing capabilities.

What is the standard and best video resolution for Instagram?

The standard video resolution for Instagram is 1080p (1920x1080) in a 16:9 aspect ratio. This resolution works well for most Instagram posts and Stories. However, Instagram also supports other resolutions and aspect ratios, such as 720p (1280x720) and 4K (3840x2160). The best screen resolution for Instagram depends on your content and how you want it to appear on the platform. 1080p is a good choice for regular posts and Stories, but you can experiment with other resolutions to achieve specific visual effects or styles.

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