As creatives, we’re always looking to push boundaries with our work. That often means exploring new standards and technology to tell more engaging stories and produce better content. 4K has become the gold standard for sharp, crystal-clear video, displaying around 4 times the pixel resolution of HD. But more doesn’t always mean better. When it comes to choosing between HD vs 4K for your video projects, you may have some questions. For instance, what exactly is the difference between 4K and HD? Is it really worth the higher price of producing video in 4K, or is HD good enough?
Before rushing out to buy the latest ultra-high definition camera or display, read this post for some guidance. When used correctly, 4K video can deliver a jaw-dropping viewing experience. But it’s not necessarily right for every video you create, and there’s a lot to consider before making the leap to 4K.
4K vs HD: What’s the difference?
In the late 2000s, high-definition or “HD” became the worldwide broadcast standard. This kicked off a brand new digital era for video. Compared to the old analog standard, HD video appears crisp and sharp, even on much larger screens. But what does high-definition actually mean? Understanding HD vs 4K video comes down to pixels. Every display is made up of pixels, which are densely packed together to create the illusion of a single image. The higher the number of pixels, the smoother an image will appear. If you’ve ever gotten too close to a screen, you’ve probably noticed the individual colored squares that make up the display.
Screen resolution is typically represented using two numbers corresponding with how many pixels are displayed horizontally and vertically. Before the shift to digital, standard-definition television was broadcast at a resolution of 640×480 pixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This standard was known as “480i”. HD video’s arrival introduced 720p and 1080p resolutions, made up of 1280×720 and 1920×1080 pixels, respectively. 4K video has a resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, significantly higher than even 1080p HD. Now let’s break down each of those resolutions even further.
Common video resolutions: SD vs HD vs 4K
480i/480p (standard definition)
This display resolution was the standard-bearer in the analog video days. Images in 480i and 480p both have a resolution of 640×480 pixels. The difference comes down to how images are displayed on screen. 480p displays use “progressive” scan technology to display all of an image’s pixels at once (hence the “p”). By contrast, 480i uses what is known as “interlacing”, where pixels are displayed in alternating lines. As a result, 480i video often appears less sharp and clear than 480p. Both 480p and 480i displays contain 307,200 pixels.
720p is the lower-grade HD standard compared to 1080p, displaying images at 1280 pixels wide by 720 pixels tall. Though noticeably less crisp than full 1080p, 720p displays contain 921,600 pixels, a big upgrade from 480p/i.
Download Looking Up at Sky with Palm Trees (720p)
1080p (Full High-Definition)
Upon the arrival of HDTV, 1080p was the gold standard, with a resolution of 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall. That’s over 2 million pixels, if you’re keeping count. Both 1080p and 720p video are displayed in a rectangular 16:9 aspect ratio. Standard-definition displays, by contrast, appear in the square 4:3 aspect ratio.
Download Time Lapse of Passing Stars Behind Silhouette of a Telescope (1080p)
4K (Ultra High-Definition)
4K quadruples the resolution of 1080p, displaying images at an eye-popping 3840×2160 pixels. For most home televisions, 4K resolution is 3840×2160 pixels. Whereas the dominant standard for 4K movie projectors is 4096×2160 pixels. That’s nearly 8.3 million pixels, quite a leap from standard-definition’s 307,000 and change.
Download Red Cosmic Nebula Looped Background (4K)
The TL;DR here is the more pixels on a screen, the higher the resolution will be. In walking through the evolution of displays, you can see how rapidly they’ve improved in just over a decade.
When should you record in 4K vs HD video?
As a content creator you’re no doubt familiar with 4K already. What you might not be sure of is how you can use it to your advantage in your own videos. Certain types of videos can look absolutely breathtaking in 4K. But for many others, 4K might be more pixel firepower than you really need.
For cinematic-style videos, you typically want to shoot in the highest resolution possible. Sometimes, the focus of a video is a cinematic effect like an incredible landscape shot. When that’s the case, capture every pixel you can.
Maybe you know your video will end up playing on a 4K display, like at an event. In this case it’s best to produce your video at the same resolution as the display. You’ll waste both time and effort shooting in 4K if your video will be shown on a non-4K screen. And the video quality will be noticeably reduced.
Another reason you would want to record in 4K vs HD is if you think you might need to zoom in on a frame or crop in post-production. Or, maybe you don’t have a zoom or telephoto lens in your kit and want to try different zoom effects. In that case, shooting 4K footage or higher and then editing your project in 1080p is your best option. The greater pixel density of 4K footage means you can zoom way up close without losing image quality. For this very reason videographers often record in 4K knowing that they’ll downscale the footage to 1080p in post-production.
Example of zooming in on 4K footage. Download the clip.
In short: when the highest visual quality is your focus, 4K is the way to go.
When wouldn’t you create 4K videos?
An important lesson any video professional will tell you is that more isn’t always better. Even when it comes to pixel count. Certain video types can be greatly enhanced using 4K vs HD video. But you have to weigh that benefit against the extra work and cost involved. Producing video in 4K is expensive. For starters, you’ll need a computer powerful enough to efficiently process footage in such a high resolution. 4K video files are big. Really big. A minute of footage shot in 4K can be almost 1 gigabyte in size. Manipulating files so huge is no easy feat. So if your editing rig is slow or out of date, it may not be up for the task. Not to mention you’ll likely find yourself juggling more hard drives than ever before.
One more thing to consider is how most people consume video content today. The fact is, the majority of your viewers will probably watch your video on their mobile device. Even the best mobile screens can’t fully capture the grandeur of a 4K video. And the human eye usually can’t discern regular HD video vs 4K at sizes so small.
Creating videos in 4K offers comparatively higher fidelity compared to HD, but it can be overkill. Remember: more pixels isn’t automatically better. Resolution is just one aspect of your footage, and not always the most important one. Just because you can shoot something in 4K doesn’t mean you should. Many cameras these days can capture footage at 4K resolution. However, the quality of the camera’s sensor will dictate how much dynamic range and detail is actually recorded. A cheaper camera might technically meet the specifications to claim it records in 4K. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s high-quality 4K.
4K vs HD video: Which should you choose?
It may be tempting to believe that more resolution is always better. But you have to ask if the associated costs (recording equipment, storage, processing power) are really worth it. Choosing the right resolution for your project isn’t a “one size fits all” decision. Consider the types of videos you create and how your audience watches them. Chances are in most cases HD will be perfectly adequate for your needs.
But if you have the budget, equipment, and storage capacity to accommodate it, it’s worth capturing in 4K to future-proof your work. As technology marches on, 4K will undoubtedly take the place of HD eventually. If you need your work to be evergreen, 4K footage will ensure your videos look current for years to come. If you’re shooting cinematic footage meant for large screens, your audiences will appreciate the difference between 4K video vs HD.
Start using 4K video today with a Storyblocks subscription
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Editor’s note: We updated this article to include additional information. It was originally published on September 19, 2019.