Video Resolution Basics: A Guide to Pixels and Aspect Ratios

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As any aspiring YouTube personality, filmmaker, or cinematography enthusiast knows, video resolution impacts the clarity of your video. The term refers to a video’s visual quality as represented by its pixels.

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What is video resolution?

Visual comparison of HD, 4K, and 8K resolutionsREDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock

Video resolution is the number of distinct pixels (which are made up of photosites) an image contains within its frame, or aspect ratio. 

  • Pixel number: A pixel is the smallest single part of a picture that reflects a sample of the original image. Together, these individual pixels combine to create an entire image. More pixels means better quality, and fewer pixels means lower quality. 
  • Aspect ratio: The aspect ratio, or how wide the frame is compared to its height, also informs a video’s resolution. Resolution is most commonly measured with the 16:9 aspect ratio used in the majority of modern film and TV production. IMAX theaters use an aspect ratio of 1.9:1, making the image nearly twice as wide as it is tall. Alternatively, many social media content creators prefer a 1:1 square aspect ratio to fit seamlessly on to a Facebook or Instagram feed. 

Video resolution can be measured spatially or temporally, although spatial is the most common resolution measurement type.

  • Spatial resolution: The sum total of the pixels in each frame of a video
  • Temporal resolution: The amount of frames shown per second

Video resolution sizes and types

video resolution aspect ratioHadrian/Shutterstock

The different resolution types and their pixel counts and aspect ratios are:

  • Standard definition: Standard definition, SD, or 480p is 640 x 480 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 4:3. 
  • High definition: High definition, HD, or 720p is 1280 x 720 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9. 
  • Full HD: Full HD, FHD, or 1080p is 1920 x 1080 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9.
  • Quad HD: Quad HD, QHD, or 1440p is 2560 x 1440 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9.
  • 4K: 4K, Ultra HD, or UHD is 3840 x 2160 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 1.9:1.
  • 8K: 8K or Full Ultra HD is 7680 x 4320 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9.
  • 12K: 12K is 12288 x 6480 pixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9.

What is standard definition resolution?

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1080p is considered to be standard resolution. As technology advances and screen sizes grow, what’s thought of as standard resolution evolves as well. The standard definition video resolution of the past is now seen as archaic. Today, full high definition resolution is considered industry standard for videos with quality definition and crisp visuals—without eating up space on your computer or phone. 

Why video resolution matters

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Although there are many moving parts that impact video quality, including compression, frame and bit rates, codec, macroblock, and color depth, video resolution is the primary factor affecting the viewing experience. Video resolution impacts a video’s clarity and file size.

  • Clarity: If you’ve ever decried the blurriness of a low-pixelated image or video, then you already know the importance of using high-quality video resolution. Comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked that Bigfoot is actually blurry, and that’s why the ape-like creature can’t be properly seen on film. “Bigfoot is blurry, and that’s extra scary to me,” he said. “There’s a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside.” Although it might be able to obscure Sasquatch’s true form, lower resolution means frustratingly unclear—even frightening—image quality. Higher resolution means clearer, crisper videos. 
  • File size: While higher definition resolution is usually considered superior, it takes up much more space than lower definition videos, so the amount of storage available on a given device might dictate possible resolution quality.

Which video resolution should you use?

Comparison of video resolutionsDigital abstract Art/Shutterstock

Choosing the right video resolution can be tricky. The elements you should consider when picking a video resolution include your goals for the video, audience desire, physical limitations, and storage and sharing capabilities.

Video goals

If you’re shooting short-form TikTok videos or other media that won’t be viewed on the silver screen, it’s okay to use HD or even SD video resolution. 

  • Computers, tablets, and phones: Movies viewed on a computer monitor can use 1080p and videos viewed on phones or tablets can use even lower video resolution and be seen as high quality. The smaller the size of the device, the lower the video resolution quality can be. The larger the size of the device, the higher the video resolution quality should be.
  • TV: While “1080p versus 4K” was the primary debate for many years, today, most TV shows and digital media use 4K UHD video resolution.
  • Cinema: Since it’s considered the standard resolution, you may be wondering if 1080p is good enough for cinema. Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) uses a 4K resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels, so the answer is probably not. When viewed side-by-side, high definition videos have much more texture, higher color quality, and sharpness than standard definition videos. This means that if you’re shooting a film that you want to be seen in theaters, you should likely shoot in 4K. 
  • Unknown: It’s possible to reduce video resolution quality after shooting, but it’s not possible to increase it. If you’re not sure if your film is going to theaters or direct to TV, shooting in the highest resolution possible is a good idea, since you can always reduce the quality to regular HD or whatever resolution fits the device you intend your video to be viewed on.

Audience desire

Many audiences prefer knowing they’re watching the highest quality video resolution possible, but it may depend on the type of audience and the format they prefer. Higher video resolutions stream more slowly, so it may be best to shoot in UHD but offer lower resolution options so that your audience can watch at their style and speed.

Physical limitations

If you’ve ever watched a high definition resolution video on a smaller TV, you’re likely familiar with a strange soap opera quality to the video image. Despite the common belief that higher resolution is always better, the human eye is fallible, meaning that higher resolution doesn’t always translate to a better viewing experience

“Many filmmakers believe that the best measure of perceptual image quality is to count the photosites on a camera’s image sensor, but that is not substantiated by the evidence,” says cinematographer Steve Yedlin (“Star Wars: Episode III - The Last Jedi,” “Knives Out”). He contends that camera resolution hits a peak where the human eye can’t interpret any more detail; instead, the increased sharpness makes the image seem to enter the uncanny valley. 

Standard definition and high definition have a large, noticeable difference in audience perception of video quality, but the jump between high definition and ultra-high definition provides less of a difference—and anything beyond ultra-high definition may prove ultra meaningless. 

Storage and sharing

Shooting in 4K or above results in hefty images files; filmmakers using older equipment or smaller file storage space will run into issues, and possibly may not be able to share these files over email. Keep these utilitarian elements in mind when choosing what video resolution to use as well, unless you’re a master of compression.

How to make low resolution videos look more professional

Phone with ring light taking video of food on a tableRHJPhtotos/Shutterstock

These techniques can help make your videos look more professional even if you shoot using lower resolution.

  1. Light it up: Whether going high-key or low-key, lighting sets a film’s tone and mood and shows viewers where to look and which details matter. If shooting outside, aim for the soft light that emerges at dawn and dusk. Indoors, use key lights, fill lights, and back lights intentionally to craft the precise effect you want to see in the final video.
  2. Keep it steady: Unless you’re purposely shooting shaky to create a spooky or homemade vibe à la “The Blair Witch Project,” avoid shaky footage by using a tripod or another unmoving surface. Instead of moving the camera around for different shots, cut in between shots to create a more cohesive narrative.
  3. Mix up angles: To keep things interesting, use multiple angles when you cut from one shot to the next. This will help retain viewer engagement in your video and distract them from any graininess caused by low video resolution.
  4. Audio matters: Video resolution makes the greatest impact on a video’s visual qualities, but audio elements are also part of how audiences experience a film. Although the discerning viewer may be distracted by low video resolution quality, poor audio quality puts off audiences even more. Ensure your video has clear, crisp audio by properly soundproofing the space and using quality sound equipment.