Understanding HD formats

I just read this article and thought it was amazing and very easy to explain the various formats and concepts.


Videoguys Guide to Understanding HD Formats

If you are reading this article, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that you have a big screen HD TV in your house. Now that you have it, you wonder how you ever watched sports or the latest action movie or a documentary or even the cooking channel without it. I know that now when I watch standard definition TV, all I can think about is how much better it would look in HD! Lets face it, everything just looks better in HD. Well maybe not everything or everyone, but I think you get the picture. It’s an HD world, and the time has come for you to step up from your old DV or DVD camcorder into a new HD camcorder.

But which camcorder do you buy? What format to choose? Are some better than others? Are some HD formats better than others for editing and producing your video? The answer to all of these questions is YES. But it all depends on what you want to do and what gear you have to work with already.

The goal of this guide is to provide you with a general foundation of knowledge about each of the most popular HD formats, so that you can use this information as part of your decision. It is not a technical manual. I am going to do my best to avoid tech speak and keep it in simple to understand terms.

This guide was NOT written to help you choose a specific camcorder. For that our best advice is to go to your local store and check them out. Talk to your friends/ colleagues who are already shooting HD and ask them what they like best and least about their camcorder. If you can, try to borrow it and try it yourself. If you already have an HD camcorder, this guide will help you better understand the format you have, and it’s pluses and minuses for post production.

HD is not DV
This is a very important fact you need to understand and appreciate. Editing DV footage is a breeze. Even with a four year old computer it’s a piece of cake. You don’t need a ton of processing power or storage. You don’t need special hardware and the workflow of importing DV footage into your computer via FireWire (or USB), editing it, encoding it and then burning it to DVD or publishing it on the web is easy.

Unfortunately working with HD footage isn’t that simple, and each HD format has it’s own unique workflow that can require special settings, plug-ins, work arounds and even hardware. Don’t let that scare you away. By the end of this article you will have a solid understanding of each HD format and a bunch of suggested workflows and solutions.

As always the Videoguys are here with the answers you need to the questions that are most important to your success as a video editor and producer. If you still have questions about HD formats and the post production process, do not hesitate to call us at 800 323-2325 We are the HD Video editing and production experts!!
HD Camera Formats

Some HD formats are better for acquisition, but not so great for editing. This is because of the compression algorithms they use. While the image looks great, you need lots of computer power to be able to decompress and then compress the footage in order to edit it. The faster your computer, the easier these formats are to edit. Fortunately today's current computers and the latest versions of our NLEs will allow you to edit these formats pretty well.

Other formats have been created specifically for editing, you don't shoot in these formats, but you can capture to them or convert your files over before you edit. These formats are not as compressed and the compression algorithms they use are easier for the computer to handle, so editing is much easier and smoother. While files created using these formats are significantly larger then the heavier compressed HD acquisition formats, they are still small enough to be handled with affordable storage.

Each compression format has it's own specific data rates storage requirements. We will talk about those storage requirements as part of each formats discussion. We will also let you know which of our NLEs will allow you edit each format natively. At the end of each section are links to additional on-line resources with more detailed and technical info on each format.


HDV is a tape based format that records HD footage onto DV tapes. Think of it as the HD version of DV. HDV is imported into your computer via FireWire, just like DV. I like HDV and I shoot with it using my Canon HV30. Canon, Sony and JVC make HDV camcorders for consumer, pro-sumer and professional editing. HDV supports 1440x1080 resolution, which looks spectacular, but it is not the full 1920x1080 HD spec.

One of the things I like best about HDV is that it still uses tape. That gives me a long-term archive copy of everything I shoot. One of the biggest disadvantages of HDV is that it still uses tape, which means you have to capture all of your footage into your computer. The good news is that this is super easy. HDV is captured via FireWire. Any ordinary Firewire 400 port will do the job. The files created using HDV are basically the same (25 Mb/s) as DV. You need 13GB of storage per hour of video. It still takes an hour to capture an hour of HDV footage.

Current versions of Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Sony Vegas Pro, Avid Media Composer and Grass Valley Edius all support native HDV editing. Even if you are using an older copy (1 or 2 previous versions) from several years ago.

With the latest version of one of these software titles in a dual core or faster machine you will be able very well. While you may need some rendering if you get into multiple layers of video and graphics and filters, the workflow will be very productive. If you are doing projects that require lots of rendering, you'll need to upgrade to a faster machine with more cores or add in a realtime accelerator card like the Matrox RT.X2 LE.


Tim Kolb wrote an excellent article for the Creative Cow called Demystifying HDV Workflows

o Douglas Spotted Eagle and the Gang at VASST have published a great HDV FAQ


* P2 - DVC Pro HD and AVC-Intra 100
Panasonic P2 is Panasonic's tapeless HD workflow. You capture directly onto solid state P2 cards while you are shooting. P2 uses the DVC Pro HD or AVC-Intra 100 compression format, which each use a 100 Mb/s data rate. This translates into 60GB per hour. One of the big advantages of DVC Pro HD is that the files are not super compressed, so working with them is pretty easy, as long as your NLE supports P2 workflows. DVC Pro HD records 720p footage as 960x720 and 1080i footage as 1280x1080. AVC-Intra 100 gives you full 1920x1080 HD resolution in full 4:2:2 color space. Editing AVC-Intra 100 compressed video requires a much faster computer then DVC Pro HD, so you'll want to make sure you have the horsepower to handle it.

The latest versions of Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut Pro and Grass Valley Edius support AVC-Intra and DVC Pro HD P2 workflows (Older versions will support DVC Pro HD only). Unfortunately Sony Vegas does not support P2 workflows and because it's Sony vs. Panasonic, we don't think it ever will. Media Composer 3.5 supports native editing of AVC-Intra without any transcoding or file conversions.

Unfortunately P2 media is still pretty expensive. A 32GB P2 card will store only a half hour of footage but it will run you almost $1,500! While new, cheaper P2 cards were introduced at NAB, I'm not that excited about them because they have nowhere near the useful life or long term reliability. The Focus FS-100 DTE recorder is made specifically for use with P2 camcorders and gives you 100GB of storage for under $1,000.


Panasonic has an excellent micro-site loaded with info about P2 HD workflows

o Also check out this easy to read FAQ



Sony XDCAM is Sony's tapeless workflow format, which has recently been adopted by JVC as well. The original XDCAM format used optical media based on Blu-ray technology. The latest and greatest version is XDCAM EX which uses solid state memory sticks. It has evolved over the years from SD to HD. XDCAM Ex uses solid state SxS removable media, based on the newest PCMCIA ExpressCard Technology. A 32GB SxS card will cost you around $1,000, but you get 140 minutes of SP recording time on it (100 minutes in HQ).

XDCAM EX supports the full HD resolution - 1920x1080. You actually get 2 modes SP 1440x1080 at 25 Mb/sec or HQ mode 1920x1080 at 35 Mb/sec.

The current versions of Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, Grass Valley Edius and Sony Vegas Pro all support XD CAM workflows. You use the free Sony XD CAM EX clip browser to import your footage into your NLE. XDCAM EX Clip Browser serves many functions, including Clip Preview, Logging, Media Management, Rewrapping and Exporting media to various devices such as Sony PSP and Apple iPod. The latest version of Media Composer 3.5 actually allows you to edit directly off the SxS media without having to use Clip Browser!

We are seeing many news, cable and local broadcasters standardizing on XDCAM workflows. They call this a flat workflow. everything that comes in is either native XDCAM or captured directly into XD CAM for editing, producing and archiving.


Sony has a great micro-site that has downloadable XD Cam EX NLE workflow guides



AVCHD is the latest and greatest HD format. AVCHD camcorders are very small and affordable. It supports 1080i, 720p and 1080p with the full 1920x1080 HD spec. The image quality is incredible, but it uses very strong compression (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264) to pack the video into extremely small files. Video is recorded at 24 Mb/sec data rate, which means you can get over 2 hours of 1080p video on a cheap 32GB memory card. Amazing!

Unfortunately there is a downside to this compression. Because the files are packed so tight, it makes editing AVCHD footage very difficult, even with a super fast 8-core workstation. Only Adobe Premiere Pro and Sony Vegas Pro support native editing of AVCHS files, but requires a ton of processing power and even then it is a less then optimal workflow.

Today you have a couple of options to make life easier. The first is converting the files into a more editable format such as ProRes or Cineform. (more on these HD editing formats later in this article). Or you can capture the footage using the HDMI output of these cameras directly into a more editable HD format using inexpensive hardware like the new Matrox MXO2 mini ($449).

HD Editing Formats

* Avid DNxHD

Avid DNxHD is a lossless HD compression format that allows you to edit HD footage at exceptional quality with manageable data rates. At the highest quality DNxHD, with a data rate of 220Mb/sec, requires 100GB per hour of footage. Using Avid Media Composer 3.x you can a few streams of DNxHD footage using a dual-core processor or over 10 streams with a big 8-core workstation.

Currently only Avid NLEs like Media Composer support DNxHD footage. You also need special Avid hardware in order to be able to capture and encode into DNxHD footage on the fly. You can convert HDV, P2 or XDCAM into DNxHD, but the conversion time will depend on your processor speed and it will take more then real-time even with an 8-core workstation.


Avid has some great information on their DNxHD micro-website

* Apple ProRes

Apple ProRes is a nearly lossless HD compression that allows you to edit HD footage at exceptional quality with manageable data rates. At the highest quality ProRes 422 HQ requires just under 100GB per hour of footage. Just about any Intel based Mac and faster G5s can edit ProRes. You can edit few streams of ProRes footage using Final Cut Pro on a dual-core processor or many streams with a big 8-core workstation.

Currently only Apple Final Cut Pro supports ProRes footage. Unlike Avid, you do not need any required special hardware in order to be able to capture and encode into ProRes footage on the fly. With a Quad-core Mac, you can capture directly into ProRes using inexpensive I/O cards from Aja, Matrox and Blackmagic. Aja offers hardware (I/O HD and the new Ki Pro) that will capture directly into ProRes. Since the encoding is done in the hardware, you don't need a quad-core Mac to capture it, just a Mac that is fast enough to edit ProRes. You can convert HDV, P2 or XDCAM into ProRes, but the conversion time will depend on your processor speed and it will take more then real-time even with an 8-core workstation.


You can read Apples ProRes white paper here

o I really like this article Tim Wilson did over at Creative Cow

* Cineform

When the first HDV camcorders where introduced the computer hardware readily available was not able to easily handle the MPEG-2 based HDV compression. So editing HDV footage was a bear. For decent workflow you had to go with hardware accelerators like the Matrox RT.X2. The engineers over at Cineform had a solution. They created the own compression that maintained all of the quality without any of the hassle. With Cineform even a slow laptop could edit HDV footage using Adobe Premiere Pro or Sony Vegas.

Fast forward to today. While current computers can handle HDV, complex productions can overwhelm even an 8-core machine. As we talked about earlier AVCHD is a bear and even an 8-core monster machine will struggle with it. Cineform NeoScene will allow you to convert your footage into the Cineform format and editing with Premiere, Vegas or Final Cut Pro, will be a breeze, even on a dual core machine. The Cineform format at 1920x1080 HD resolution requires about 35GB per hour with a data rate of 10/Mb/sec.


Cineform has just launched a new website with some great information on their technology

* Uncompressed HD

Uncompressed HD is just what it sounds like. Pure digital HD footage without any compression added. No compression means it's the best possible video quality. This is very important if you do a ton of compositing using multiple layers of video. It is also important if you are collaborating on a project that will require multiple generations of rendering.

We do not recommend using uncompressed video. You are much better off using one of the easily edited formats described above. If you have to use uncompressed video, we hope you are keeping the clips short as well as the final project. Uncompressed video files are huge, and it requires special hardware to import and export it into your computer. Uncompressed HD footage at the highest resolution requires 558GB per hour of footage!! The throughput is so high you need specialized RAID storage and controllers in order to handle more then a single stream of it.

* H.264

H.264 is a compression format used for delivering HD and SD content. It is not good for editing. It is used for Blu-ray, Flash, web streaming and mobile video. For delivering the very best quality HD video we do recommend your final encoding use the H.264 compression. Someday we may be able to edit H.264 footage natively, but today the latest versions of our NLEs will not allow you to edit it.

One of the drawbacks with H.264 footage it that it takes a ton of processing power to encode it. Compressing a 1 hour ProRes video at the highest video quality settings into H.264 using Compressor on an 8-core Mac workstation can take well over 4 hours! Fortunately, we have a solution for that. Matrox has introduced their CompressHD card and MXO2 family of products with MAX technology. Using the new Matrox hardware, that same 1 hour video encodes to H.264 in under an hour! That's right, faster then realtime!

Click here to learn more about Matrox Compress HD and MAX technology

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Man , that is a good find . I really find this information useful . I thought I'd be shelling out more than the cost of a new camera ... but 8 core:censored: Thanks for the article . :)
amazing timing... i was just wondering how to convert avchd into something that vegas can edit better... and voila! here you are giving us all of this wonderful information :) thanks for posting it. i, for one, appreciate it :)
I prefer tapes, but the quality from many of the tapeless cameras, especially the new RED and soon to be SCARLET cameras, and the Sony EX series are hard to pass up. As much as I like the safety of tapes, but quality of material wins out for me.
That quality and the quick downloads are the determining factors as well . I've fallen in love with my FS 100 .And thanks Sonny for that great chart you posted above... AWESOME .
I prefer tapes, but the quality from many of the tapeless cameras, especially the new RED and soon to be SCARLET cameras, and the Sony EX series are hard to pass up. As much as I like the safety of tapes, but quality of material wins out for me.
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