Formatting for YouTube

The name YouTube has become so well known that it is no longer techno speak, but a huge part of the popular culture. Most people with a computer and Internet access have visited the site to search for videos ranging from how to tie a necktie to the antics of cute puppies, to crowd-sourced news from foreign countries in turmoil. Indeed, after the controversial Iranian election of 2008, it was people on the streets uploading videos to places like YouTube that kept the world informed during a government imposed media blackout.

Easy Does It

One of the things that makes YouTube so powerful is its relative ease of use. If you’re savvy enough to use your non-linear editing software, getting your clip up on the web will seem easy. Once uploaded to the site it is quickly viewable by people in most places on Earth, making it a lot more convenient than duplicating VHS tapes or mailing DVDs.

With a potential audience of tens of millions, your magnum opus stands a better chance of getting eyeballed on YouTube than at many short film and video festivals. In conjunction with this, built in sharing tools allow people to very easily forward your video to others or embed it, along with a player on a web page or blog.

There are a few caveats to using this website though; one is that there are limitations on size and duration. Heeding complaints that the website was being used to distribute stolen movies and television, YouTube limited the length of files uploaded by most users to ten minutes, though they recommend keeping things at 2-3 minutes for the sake of a rapidly bored audience with millions of other videos to choose from. File size is also limited to two gigabytes.

Once your video is uploaded, YouTube’s back end will re-compress it into a remarkably small flash FLV or H.264 file. H.264 is part of the MPEG-4 codec and is what allows Apple iPhones to play back YouTube content without flash. But enough of this – how DO you encode video to get it to play on YouTube?

Anything In, Video Out?

One of the great things about YouTube is that it accepts nearly any video format, from common ones like Windows Media and QuickTime, to more obscure ones like the open source .ogg and .mkv – it’s not very picky. It will even take video right from a number of cell phones.

Optimum Input?

While YouTube will take many formats, they have some specific recommendations (figure 1.) – this optimized list is from the “help” page.

  • Maximum length: 10 minutes (we recommend 2-3 minutes)
  • Maximum file size: 2 GB

Does this mean you can’t use QuickTime? Not at all. The QuickTime format works very well with YouTube, using H.264 as your compression, a frame rate of 30, and the highest quality resolution, YouTube will gladly take your output as it will with .avi, .wmv and .mpg files.

Video From Your Phone

A large number of cell phones and PDAs nowadays have the capacity to shoot and send video. YouTube knows this and accepts most cell phone produced file formats directly from your PDA, in formats like 3GP, designed as part of the Third Generation Partnership Project. Google’s Android phone has YouTube uploading built right in, and Apple’s iPhone has it available via a number of easily installed apps.

Image Size

As home video technology has become more sophisticated, YouTube has adapted. Initially, all videos were mono 320×240, but recently, options for higher quality have been added, as well as a variety of ratios. Clearly, in catering to so many quality standards, YouTube hopes to appeal to a broad spectrum of users, from the casual, to the earnest, to the professional. From big budget Hollywood trailers to serious work by short film directors to the roughest home videos, all have a place and an audience on YouTube.

Quality and Codecs

As with image size, YouTube initially offered only one quality of video, but over the years has adapted to provide multiple quality levels, including 720p High Definition in 2009 and 1080p a year later. It also supports a number of different aspect ratios, including 16:9. All these conspired to change YouTube from simply being the delivery method of greatest expediency – rather, now you can be sure that your clips will be seen in a way that you like. When outputting video for YouTube, export in the native aspect ratio – don’t use letterboxing or pillarboxing. Their import software will recognize your video, and format it accordingly.


YouTube has come a long way from its low-resolution beginnings and its software does a lot of work behind the scenes to get video from a myriad of different computers and file formats into a common format that can be viewed worldwide by almost every computer on the Internet. Giving YouTube the highest quality file you can will ensure that the best video is available on the web where it has millions of potential viewers.

Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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