What is Video Encoding? The Ultimate Guide

what is video encoding

What is video encoding? For the uninitiated, it’s like a foreign language. Bitrates, codecs, audio channels…it can seem more than a little confusing.

Of course, there is a lot to it and it can take time to get up to speed. And that’s where we come in. In this article, we’ll provide a complete guide to help answer the following question: what is video encoding?

Table of Contents

  • What is Video Encoding?
  • Video Encoding vs. Transcoding: What’s the Difference?
  • How to Encode Video with vzaar
  • What is Adaptive Streaming, and Why Is It Important?
  • Quality vs. Size
  • Common Encoding Challenges
  • Video Encoding Glossary
  • Conclusion

What is Video Encoding?

what is video encodingHere’s one definition of video encoding.

“In video editing and production, video encoding is the process of preparing the video for output, where the digital video is encoded to meet proper formats and specifications for recording and playback through the use of video encoder software.”

But what exactly does this mean? To understand, we have to dive into some background.

Specifically, to answer the question “what is video encoding?” we need to understand what video is. First, video is simply a collection of still images. When these images appear quickly in succession, they compose a “moving picture”—a movie.

In other words, imagine a basic flip-book. That’s similar to what a video is.

In the early days of digital video, video files were all RAW video. This means that video files were a collection of still photos. For a video recorded at 30 frames per second, you had 30 photos per second of footage. That’s 1800 images per minute of video. As a result, video file sizes were massive.

Later, video compression came into play, and thus the world of video encoding was born.

What is Video Compression?

In essence, video compression involves some math that reduces the file size of digital video.

In the most basic form, video compression analyzes the content of video to reduce overall file size. If two frames are basically identical, you can toss out the data for one frame and replace it with a reference to the previous frame. In this simple example, you’ve just reduced your video file size by about 50 percent.

All video compression uses variations of this basic idea to reduce file sizes. When we talk about video encoding, however, we’re referring to different types of video compression.

How Does Video Compression Work?

Video compression typically happens at the camera level. For example, smartphones, consumer-grade camcorders, and most professional camcorders record video in the H.264 format.

This means that, as the camera is recording, the raw images from the video sensor encode in real-time using (most often) the H.264 format. This compressed (encoded) video then records to the storage on the camera.

About Codecs

codecsThe tools that for video file compression and playback are called “codecs.” First, codec stands for compression/decompression. As such, a codec is a piece of software that compresses raw video and audio files when encoding and decompresses/decodes the files on playback.

Different devices have different types of support for various codecs. Have you ever downloaded a video, then tried to play it to find that playback failed? You might not have had software capable of playing back video encoded with that codec.

Today, the most common video codec is H.264. Just about every device in existence supports this protocol, and it’s common for use with online video. However, there are many other codecs out there, such as MPEG-2, HEVC, VP9, Quicktime, and WMV.

Video Encoding vs. Transcoding: What’s the Difference?

It’s fairly common to hear the terms video encoding and transcoding in use interchangeably. However, for the purposes of this article, we should make a proper distinction between them:

  • Transcoding is the process of re-encoding a video into a different format.
  • Encoding refers to either the initial process of compressing RAW video, or to the process or re-encoding a video into a different format.

Reasons to Transcode a Video

There are a variety of reasons why you might want to transcode (or encode) a video. Some common reasons include:

  1. Reduce file size
  2. Reduce buffering for streaming video
  3. Change resolution or aspect ratio
  4. Change audio format or quality
  5. Convert obsolete files to modern formats
  6. Meet a certain target bit rate
  7. Make a video compatible with a certain device (computer, tablet, smartphone, smartTV, legacy devices)
  8. Make a video compatible with a certain software or service

How to Encode a Video with vzaar

vzaar by DaCastNow, we’ve discussed the question of “What is video encoding?” overall, and why you might want to do it. The next logical question is how to encode a video. Let’s answer that question next.

First, a note that DaCast video hosting and live streaming solutions do offer video transcoding services. However, for advanced video encoding and uploading features, DaCast offers an advanced video hosting platform, called vzaar. Today, the vzaar platform includes features such as an advanced bulk uploader and dropbox uploader.

When you’re using the vzaar online video platform, note that video encoding already comes with your plan. Simply indictate your preferred settings when uploading your video. Then, we’ll automatically transcode your video into multiple different formats according to your instructions.

Let’s take a more detailed looked below at how the encoding process works with vzaar by DaCast:

Step 1: Create an “Ingest Recipe”

The first step in encoding your videos on the vzaar platform is to create an ingest recipe. For context, an ingest recipe is a group of encoding presets at which the platform will encode and deliver your videos.

First, log into your vzaar account, and then navigate to your encoding settings. Once there, click the button labeled “Create New Recipe.”

On the next screen, click the name at the top to give your recipe a name. Next, use the checklist to decide which renditions (or quality/size presets) you want to use for this ingest recipe.

Finally, check the box at the bottom if you want to use this as your default setting. Then, click the “Save and Close” button.

Note that optimal visual quality (1080p) is best for HD video playback. Be aware, however, that you’ll use more bandwidth this way, and that viewers on slow Internet connections might experience buffering issues.

Good option if you want to save bandwidth and ensure smooth playback for viewers on slow Internet connections. Be aware that the visual quality will be low. 360p
Good for smaller embeds and displays. Expect medium visual quality. 540p
High visual quality. Not recommended for full-screen playback. 720p
Optimal visual quality, best for HD video playback. Be aware that you’ll use more bandwidth, and viewers on slow Internet connections might experience buffering issues. 1080p
Ultra-high resolution 4k. The best possible quality, but most viewers don’t have sufficient internet speed to stream this content. 2160p (4k)

Step 2: Repeat as Necessary

MOV fileYou can create different ingest recipes for different initial video formats.

For example, let’s say you film most of your content at 1920 x 1080 resolution, 30 frames per second, and recorded using H.264 video codec and AAC audio codec in the .MOV container format.

You can create one ingest recipe for this video content. This recipe might transcode this video into three additional versions: one 720 pixels wide, one 480 pixels wide, and one 240 pixels wide. Plus, you’ll maintain the original format. This will allow viewers to be served the optimal quality via adaptive streaming—a topic we’ll cover shortly.

Sometimes, however, you have footage filmed in an entirely different format: 720 x 480 resolution, 24 frames per second, and recorded using the MPEG-2 audio/video codec in the .AVI container format.

You can create a second ingest recipe for this type of content. When you upload videos in this format, just select this recipe and your content will be automatically transcoded into your chosen formats.

Step 3: Upload Your Video Files

The vzaar bulk uploader can handle hundreds of video uploads at a time. Mix and match video file types and resolutions, and we will expertly encode your videos to the highest quality possible using your chosen ingest recipes.

During this stage, we can also create audio-only versions of your video.

Besides selecting the qualities into which you want to transcode your videos, you can also add watermarks and generate thumbnails. In addition, our tool also allows you to upload huge video files (50+ GB) with no interruption. Also of note, the vzaar intelligent video uploader automatically pauses and resumes uploads when your network connection goes down.

As mentioned above, the vzaar platform also supports Dropbox upload. You can connect vzaar and your Dropbox account to set as many videos to upload as you require. Once the Dropbox Uploader is active, a folder will appear for you in your Dropbox account into which you can put your video files. Once there, any videos in that folder will automatically upload using your default ingest recipe.

Note: It’s Impossible to Increase Quality Retroactively

Before we move on, let’s clear up one common misconception. Encoding can do a lot of things, but magic isn’t one of them. After you upload a video file to vzaar (or any other video hosting platform), there isn’t much you can do to increase its quality.

In other words, you can’t make something from nothing. Encoding the video into a larger resolution than you started with will only result in a very bad quality video.

Of course, there are ways to upscale video to larger sizes. However, this is a complicated and intensive process. It’s best handled using a dedicated application like Final Cut X, Adobe Premier Pro, or another app.

What is Adaptive Streaming, and Why Is It Important?

transcodingAdaptive streaming is also known as “Adaptive bitrate” and “Variable bitrate.” This term refers to delivering an appropriate rendition of a video to the viewer based on the strength and speed of their internet connection.

If you’ve ever watched YouTube or Netflix on a smartphone in a moving car or train, you’ve probably experienced adaptive streaming. When the cell signal is good, video quality is high. When signal strength drops, you’re automatically switched to a lower video quality to avoid buffering.

The underlying technology behind adaptive streaming is transparent to you and your users. Vzaar simply delivers the best version of your video—based on the versions we created using your ingest recipe—to your viewer. This is known as multi-bitrate streaming, and it’s a premium feature in the online video industry.

Video Quality vs. Size

When it comes to video, you can’t always have both high quality and small size. In general, these represent a trade-off:

  • High-quality video files are larger, take longer to upload and require more bandwidth for viewers.
  • Low-quality video files are smaller, take less time to upload and require less bandwidth for viewers.

Now, imagine that your Internet connection is a tube. The faster your connection, the larger the tube. Low speed Internet connections have narrower pipes. Those large files need to squeeze through them. As a result, you run the risk of subjecting your clients to stuttering and buffering streams.

On the other hand, opting for lower quality videos means they’re available immediately, no matter where your clients are watching them. However, the footage won’t look as good.

If you have your target bit rate in mind but are struggling to achieve desirable video quality, you’ll need to cut back in some respect. All else being equal (same codec, for example), there are four main contributing factors that determine video file size in relation to quality. These are:

  • Time: longer = bigger files
  • The number of pixels (resolution): larger = bigger files
  • The frame rate: higher = bigger files
  • The amount of motion present in the video: more = bigger files

Common Encoding Challenges

My viewers tend to have slow Internet connections.

common challengesVideo files are typically quite large, so they require good Internet speed (or bandwidth) to display the video properly. When the Internet connection is slow, the video starts stuttering and often displays in a very poor quality.

With vzaar, you can use our analytics to determine where most of your viewers live. Then, we can help match that information with average internet speeds to get a sense of the average connection speed of your customers.

Next, you can set your overall bit rate to match their download speed, in order to achieve a reliable playback. We recommend a short trial and error test to determine which settings to use. This test will help you determine how low you can get the bit rate of a video, while maintaining acceptable quality.

For example, start with a high frame width (say 1280px, which is 720p at the 16:9 aspect ratio) and a relatively low bit rate (around 512kbps). See how the video looks when encoded with these settings. If you are not pleased with the image quality, try either lowering the frame width or increasing the bit rate.

Also, be sure to encode multiple versions of your video. Adaptive streaming (as described above) will ensure viewers get the best quality they can stream smoothly.

I want to save bandwidth.

The more often your videos play, and the higher their quality, the more bandwidth you will need. Every vzaar plan comes with a particular bandwidth limit. You can use the same approach as in the previous question to reduce bitrates to the lowest acceptable level. This will reduce your bandwidth consumption.

My encoded video has a larger file size than the original.

While encoding can’t increase quality, it always changes file size. In other words, don’t worry too much about a larger file size. Sometimes, this just means you’ve been overly generous with your bitrate settings. Other times, it means you’ve changed from one codec to another.

If you really need to reduce file size to lower bandwidth consumption or serve users with slow internet connections, try reducing bitrate.

After encoding, the audio is out of sync.

This could have something to do with the frame rate of your video. Use a free tools such as MediaInfo to check frame rate of your original file. If the frame rate of your video is unusual, you may discover the audio is out of sync after encoding.

In that case, we recommend you to try the Two-pass Encoding feature. This can solve many issues the encoder might have interpreting frame rates.

If it’s not the frame rate and the audio continues to play up, you will need to check the relative length of the audio and video streams. You can use the same tool mentioned above to get that information. In some cases, you may have created source files with different lengths for their audio and video streams.

When this happens, the encoder doesn’t always succeed in precisely matching up the streams as they were before. Again, try two-pass encoding. However, if the problem persists, you may need to ask your video editor to cut the original file.

My video is already encoded in a web-ready format

If your video is already a H.264 encoded MP4, you can turn off vzaar’s encoding by selecting “no encoding” in your ingest recipe. However, one thing you need to keep in mind is the MOOV atom. MOOV atom is a bundle of metadata. Before saying no to vzaar’s encoding, ensure the MOOV atom is positioned at the beginning of the file.

If this sounds complex, we recommend simply using vzaar’s built-in encoding to re-encode your MP4 file. As long as you choose the same frame size and bit rate as your original file, encoding the video with vzaar will not have any noticeable impact on its quality.

I don’t want my videos in an MP4 format

We only encode content to H.264 in an MP4 container.  However, if you feel that you need your videos encoded in another format, have a chat with our Support Engineers and we’ll see what we can do for you.

I uploaded a video and the quality is really poor

Generally, this means the frame size and bit rate of the target video is much lower than the original video. To get the maximum quality of your videos, be sure to use the “Original” profile in your ingest recipe in addition to any lower qualities you have selected.

This will match the source file’s frame size and ensure you have a high-quality version of your video available.

“What is Video Encoding?” Glossary

what is video encodingFrame rate is the number of frames that display per second in a video. The faster the frames flicker along, the more lifelike and immersive the video becomes. The rate at which these still images display is expressed in frames per second (fps). Common frame rates are 24, 25, 30, and 60 fps. Higher frame rates show action better. Lower frame rates give your video a more “cinematic” look.

Bit rate describes how much data a video file contains (measured on a per second basis). In general, a higher bit rate means better video / audio quality. However, you can’t make the video look better or improve sound quality by increasing the bit rate if it was low in the first place. Bit rates are usually measured in kilobits per second (kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps).

Aspect ratio refers to the shape of a video recording. Specifically, it’s the proportional relationship between the width and height of the video. This is usually expressed in the W:H format, where W stands for width and H stands for height. For example, most modern television and computer monitors have an aspect ratio of 16:9. But this will vary – remember the old square television sets? That’s a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Resolution describes the number of pixels in a video file. In other words, it’s the width and height of the projected image, measured in pixels. For example, a video might have a resolution of 1280 (horizontal pixels) × 720 (vertical pixels). This is usually written as simply 1280×720, or abbreviated to 720p.

Codec stands for “compression/decompression”. It’s a piece of software that compresses raw video and audio files when encoding and decompresses/decodes the files on playback. Codecs are necessary because video and audio files are very large. Therefore, they become difficult to transfer across the Internet quickly. There are hundreds of different codecs out there. Common video codecs are: H.264, MPEG-2, DivX, XviD, Theora, VP8, and the WMV family. Common audio codecs are: MP3, AAC, Vorbis, and the WMA family.

Remember, codecs do not determine the file’s extension. Rather, that’s the container format. Some of the most popular container formats include mov (Quicktime), P4, OGG, and AVI.


Video encoding is a complex topic. We hope that this article has helped you to answer the question “what is video encoding?”.

Of course, there’s always more to learn. For example, if you’re interested in a scientific approach to calculating the optimal bitrate for a H.264 video encode, check out the Kush Gauge calculator. And technologies are changing all the time. But with this basic grounding, you should be able to get up and running.

As we’ve shown, vzaar has easy-to-use and powerful video encoding functionality built right into our online video platform. If you’re interested in accessing a powerful video hosting solution with scalable live streaming delivery, contact us below:


Still have questions or feedback about this what is video encoding article? Post a comment below, and we will get back to you. Finally, for regular tips and exclusive offers, you can join our LinkedIn group.

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