Exporting Standard Definition Video for YouTube

The article just deals with handling Standard Definition (i.e., non-HD) video. If you want an overview of export settings for HD video, you can go to this page: Exporting HD Video for YouTube. Almost all camcorders record in HD nowadays, so this article is only really suitable if you are working with old archive footage.

For SD video, the main concerns for exporting would be choosing the appropriate resolution and pixel aspect ratio.

Basically, when you are exporting and/or uploading your video to a site like YouTube, you are looking for a pixel aspect ratio of 1:1 (known as square pixels). Most of the article will deal with choosing the resolution, so let’s get some of the basic recommended settings out of the way first:

  • Format & Container: H.264 & MPEG-4
  • Pixel Aspect Ratio: Square pixels (1:1), unless you have chosen the ‘easy solution mentioned in this article. For this solution, you would choose the pixel aspect ratio of your original footage.
  • Field Order: None, non-interlaced, progressive (different terms for the same thing)
    TV Standard: NTSC or PAL (depends on your original footage and/or settings in your video editing program)
  • Frame rate: 29.97 (for NTSC) or 25 for (PAL) (depends on your original footage and/or settings in your video editing program)
  • Bitrate Encoding: (Updated October 2014) YouTube and Vimeo now recommend Variable Bit Rate (2 pass)
  • Video Bitrate: At least 5 to 6.5 mbps for 1280 x 720 , 2.5 mbps for 480 video (the height is 480 pixels and 1 mbps for 360 video (the height is 360 pixels). (Updated May 2014).
  • Audio Code and Channels: AAC, Channels: Stereo
  • Audio Frequency: 48 khz
  • Audio Bitrate = 320 kbps or 384 kbps

1. Terminology; PAR, DAR, Pixel Dimensions

Digital images are made of pixels—tiny little squares or rectangles. If you zoom in on a digital image you will start to see the individual solid-color pixels that make up the image. The more pixels there are in an image, the higher its resolution.

  1. Display Aspect Ratio = The ratio of the width to the height of the entire image (widescreen is 16:9, non-widescreen is 4:3)
  2. Pixel Aspect Ratio = The ratio of the width to the height of each pixel that makes up the image. A square pixel has a pixel aspect ration of 1:1
  3. Pixel Dimensions (i.e., resolution) = The width and height of the image measured in terms of pixels (e.g, 1280 x 720). In this article, I will refer to pixel dimensions as ‘resolution’.

2. Standard Definition Resolution: Problems and Solutions

Computer monitors display images using square pixels (i.e., a pixel aspect ratio of 1:1) and video-sharing sites like Vimeo and Youtube prefer uploaded videos to be in formats with square pixels. However, standard definition video formats like PAL and NTSC, which are based on their respective television broadcast formats, produce images using rectangular pixels. For example, PAL video (standard definition, non-widescreen) has a display aspect ratio of 4:3, a pixel aspect ratio of 12:11 and pixel dimensions of 720×576.

The Easy Solution
One solution is simply to keep the pixel aspect ratio AND resolution of your original footage and  let YouTube transcode the video.  I would recommend you try this first.

The Bad News
You may not like the conversion job done by YouTube (though I think their transcoder is much improved). Video uploaded to some sites like Vimeo tend to work work better if it is uploaded in a standard square pixel format. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

PAL 720 x 576 (non-widescreen)

You want a display aspect ratio of 4:3 and pixel aspect ratio of 1:1. Change the pixel aspect ratio to ‘square pixels’, crop some pixels of each side (you will need to crop around 16 or 17 pixels in total). You can then export the video at a resolution of 704×528 or 640×480 (the latter is the resolution YouTube will use). If you don’t crop the video, when you export it, your video exporting programme will likely either add black bars to the top and bottom of the video (known as letter-boxing) or will stretch out the video, making objects appear slightly distorted. Letter-boxed video will look OK on your computer monitor, but when you upload it to YouTube, your video will be smaller than it should be and will surrounded by black bars on all four sides (ugly!).

NTSC 720×480 (non-widescreen)

You want a display aspect ratio of 4:3 and pixel aspect ratio of 1:1. Change the pixel aspect ratio to ‘square pixels’, crop a total of around 15 or 16 pixels from the sides (e.g., 8 from the the left and 7 from the right side) and export the video at a resolution of 704×528 or 640×480 (the latter is the resolution YouTube will use).

PAL Widescreen (720 x 576) and NTSC Widescreen (720 x 480)

The solutions are very problematic and may vary depending on the camera that you are using and the website you are uploading to, so you will need to experiment with different resolutions when exporting. Basically, you are looking to change the pixel aspect ratio to ‘square pixels’ (i.e., 1:1) and change the resolution so that the display aspect ratio is 16:9.

You can try downsampling to 640 x 360 or 512 × 288 (or 524 x 288 for PAL video, according to some websites), but the video will then be quite small. You can also upsample to 1024 x 576 (or 1048 x 576 according to some websites).

It is even possible to upsample it to HD at 1280×720. Upsampling (increasing the resolution of an image or video) is generally a bad idea because you are not really increasing the resolution, you are just making the image dimensions bigger (To understand this, try zooming in on a photo in your computer. The image on the monitor will get larger, but after a while the pixels that make up the image become more and more obvious). However, it is one method of dealing with PAR problems when exporting video in widescreen formats.

I did this kind of upsampling (to 1280 x 720) for one video and it looked OK on YouTube (though admittedly the video ended up with a ‘soft’ look); what this approach did was to get YouTube’s transcoder to accept and convert the video into an appropriate standard definition widescreen format without any letter-boxing. It is definitely worth trying.

For NTSC Video, you can try  the following dimensions: 960 x 540, 853 × 480, 854 x 480 (recommended by many websites and the closest to a 16:9 widescreen ratio) or 856 x 480 (the composition settings After Effects uses for NTSC widescreen). You may need to crop pixels off the side (try a total of around 15 pixels of the image) when exporting it. Again, you can try upsampling (to 1280 x 720) and seeing how the final video looks.

Note: Video transcoders tend work better when your dimensions are multiples of 16. (e.g., 1920, 1280, 720, 704, 640, 524, 480, 360, etc.). YouTube’s transcoder prefers these standard pixel dimensions and but can usually handle other dimensions (like 853 x 480).

Let me know how these settings work or if there are any problems with the suggestions.

My Other Articles on Video Editing

~by longzijun


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4 thoughts on “Exporting Standard Definition Video for YouTube

  1. Thanks for your article about converting SD widescreen for youtube and Vimeo.
    I specially appreciate you trying to help us Pal users. As you noted: “…trying to get widescreen formats, standard definition and square pixels to get long with one another is very problematic”, indeed, and the Pal format makes it even more so.

    I first tried exporting from PP6 direct to H264, using the Pal D1DV 16:9 presets, it was clean enough so I uploaded it to youtube but the out-coming results were very poor. It was widescreen alright, but the sharpness and colors were terrible, much worse then with Pal 4:3 DV material converted to H264, Mpeg4 or WM, and uploaded to YT.

    Then I tried to upscale the DV file in PP6, then I converted it to a H2641280 x 720p file and uploaded it to YT, but it was just as bad!

    I know there are several issues involved here… YT converters prefers NTSC, 25 fps progressive, square pixels, and finally it is said that multiples of 16 give better results…

    So should I first convert my Pal DV file to a NTSC DV file, then convert this anamorphic 720 x 480 NTSC DV file to H264 square pixels? If so, what would be the best size? I would like to keep as much of the original image size and quality as it’s been shot with 1/2 inch 3 ccd pro DV camera and it is very good…

    And also, what size should I use? And do both numbers have to be multiple of 16?

    – 720 x 405 (405 is not multiple of 16, does it matter? )
    – 720 x 480 (again not a multiple of 16)
    – 852 x 480 (That seems good but 852 is again not a multiple of 16)
    – 1024 x 576 (better maybe, as both numbers are a multiple of 16, and the ratio is right?).

    On the behalf of the Pal community, I thank you for any additional help and advice.

  2. As someone stuggling to come up to speed on what to me, and my generation, are highly complex issues, never anticipated to be needed by our “demographic” (over 50), I cannot thank you enough for so clearly explaining these aspect ratio issues.

    I am a children’s author, and need to “join” the crowd and get my book out on a DVD and uploaded to YouTube.- Or, I will not be able to compete and my “lifes work” will not be seen-especially since it is geared to ages 3-8 yrs old, and therefore their parents are likely to be utilizing YouTube, and DVD as the format of choice, not an “old fashioned” printed book. I cannot thank you enough! Great job, with the unintended consequences of helping the “elders” to pass on their stories to the younger generations. (Now I have to go look up what a “tag” is.) Very best regards, Una King

  3. iDealshare VideoGo can
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