With prices ranging from free to thousands of dollars for professional video editing software, it’s important to learn what features are out there and which will help improve you’re next video production. We can take a closer look at the latest options and get a better sense of where to look for your next purchase.
Free Video Editing Software for Beginners
It’s hard to say “no” to free and, in fact, free video editing software has improved greatly over the last few years. But as they say, you get what you pay for, and free video editing software is no exception. In this category of video editing software, tools like Microsoft’s Windows Live Movie Maker and Apple’s iMovie have a limited set of features, but still deliver on a great user experience. (Editor’s Note: While Apple’s iMovie is “free” when you buy a Mac computer, it does require a purchase of the iLife suite if you want to upgrade to the latest version in the future. So, we’re cheating a bit on our definition of “free” with iMovie.)
You can expect free software to be very limited in its feature set, but both Movie Maker and iMovie have enough video editing features to put together a simple video production, like a video of your son’s first birthday, a photomontage set to music for your parent’s 30th anniversary, or a video tour of your summer vacation to Hawaii. Both of these tools use a simple storyboard-style editing interface over the more professional timeline interface. You can do text for titles, video and photos within your production and add music too. But you won’t find endless multi-track options to layer different text, graphics and other animations. Nor will you get multi-track audio so that you can layer more than two tracks; natural sound from the video clip and one additional track is all that is available. For most projects in the nature of birthdays and vacations, two tracks of audio is sufficient. You can have one that plays back the natural sound that was captured with the video, and additional track for music or narration.
There are two more tools worth mentioning in the free video editing software category. They are Pinnacle’s VideoSpin and VirtualDub. Both of these are good for what they do, but each have their deficits. VideoSpin has a flushed out user interface and VirtualDub does really simple editing tasks, but they don’t have the user-friendly polish of Movie Maker and iMovie. Our recommendation for anyone looking for free video editing software: if you’re on a PC, go with Movie Maker, if you’re on a Mac, stick with iMovie. It’s that simple. Now for those of you who want to experiment with something more, there’s plenty of options.
Beginner to Intermediate Editing Software
If you want more, you can have it, but it’s going to cost you anywhere between $50 to $200 for a intermediate-level video editing software solution. In this category there are quite a few options to choose from and they’re intended to give the hobbyist to semi-professional video editor more creative control. If the price range doesn’t intimidate you and you enjoy a bit more of a challenge, even the serious beginner should consider jumping in at this level.
Products like Adobe’s Premiere Elements ($100), Nero‘s Multimedia Suite ($130), Cyberlink’s PowerDirector ($70-$100) Sony’s Vegas Studio ($95), Corel VideoStudio Pro X4 Introductory Editing Software ($80), MAGIX Movie Edit Pro 17 Plus ($100) or Pinnacle System’s Studio Collection ($130) are great options. These tools are great for the hobbyist who wants to take advantage of more technologies, for an aspiring student of video production who wants more fine control, or the IT manager who’s putting together video tutorials for employees. These tools provide quite a bit of punch and can do a lot of different tricks.
Video editing software at this level will have a timeline interface, either as the only interface option, or some might allow you to toggle between a storyboard-style interface and the timeline. But if you’re serious about editing, you will be using the timeline. Additional technologies set this category apart, for example Adobe Premiere Elements 9 has a great method for organizing your media with tags. You can tag your video clips with keywords so that you can easily find clips by location or person. Sony Vegas Studio HD 11 can author Blu-ray discs and do stereoscopic (3D) video editing. And, Pinnacle Systems Studio HD Ultimate Collection version 15 has a ton of video filters, utilizes Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and even includes a green screen. You might see some chroma-keying features in this category, too. This technology allows you to remove a specified color and turn it into an alpha channel. From there, you can put in other background images. It’s the same technology broadcast news uses to put the weatherman in front of the forecast graphics.
In this category, you should find most if not all options allow for many different video and audio tracks so that you can mix many different text and graphic elements together, as well as mix multiple tracks of audio. You can also expect greater control over the video clips themselves so that you can trim clips with frame-by-frame accuracy.
You may also be able to do keyframe some video clip properties. Keyframes are an important tool for professional video editors that allow them to control a particular property of a video or audio clip over time. For example, you may be able to set keyframes for a video clips opacity. In this case you could set the first frame of the video clip at 0% opacity and then set the 90th frame to 100% opacity. If the video clip plays back at 30 frames per second, then the clip will fade from completely transparent to 100% opacity in 3 seconds. The same technique can be applied to audio, except instead of opacity we could manipulate the audio gain so that the volume increases over time. Keyframing tools like these are pretty common at the intermediate video editing software level, however it’s common that only a few properties can be manipulated. Video opacity, video size, video position, and audio gain are the most common properties in this category of software. If you want to be able to control much more than that, you’ll have to look to the professional tools.
Professional Video Editing Software
Now it’s time for the big toys. Professional video editing software is not a place for new users to wander around without some training. Gone are the cookie-cutter video effect options and in their place are control panels that look like you’re running NASA’s ground control. If you have any experience editing video, certain areas will look quite familiar while others will take some time to get used to before feeling comfortable. Professional video editing software is ideal for any editor who makes a living producing video or at least spends much of their day using the tool. Wedding videographers, production departments of big companies, corporate videographers, filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers are among the few types of users who require the best tools on the market.
Among some of the top products are Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 Production Premium ($1,699), Avid Media Composer ($2,495), Sony Vegas Pro 10 ($600) and Apple Final Cut X ($300). One significant difference as we get into this category is that we start to see software suites – that is, multiple software applications bundled together. For example, Adobe CS5.5 Production Premium bundles together Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop, Audition, Flash Catalyst, Flash Professional, Illustrator, OnLocation, Encore, Device Central, Bridge, and Media Encoder. That’s a mouth full and it’s even more difficult to list all the technologies and features that one gets with all this software. But the main thing to know is that as a professional video editor you deal with more than just video. Top-notch videos require top notch media (photos, graphics, audio and more). If you’re going that route, we highly recommend looking for a video editing suite, or, just remember that you may need to tack on extra applications to whatever video editing software you choose as your own.
In the professional video editing software category you can expect unlimited video and editing tracks, access to a cornucopia of controls, metadata and other pro tools. For the uninitiated, metadata is additional information about media files that help editors understand the ins and outs of the media in the video production. Pro video software also contains niceties that only the pros really require.
For example, an option to burn the timecode for the project into the image. This allows editors to share the video with a producer or another editor and they can make notes to exact time-synced portions of the project. There are many of these features in these professional tools, too many to cover them all.
Get Your Edit On!
Now that you have entered the world of video editing, remember to take each edit session as a “lesson” to further understanding – you can’t learn it all overnight. Most long-time editors still read the trades, learn new techniques and watch for new trends all the time – take your time, be patient and get your edit on!
Contributing columnist Mark Montgomery is a web content specialist and produces instructional videos for a leading web application developer.