HD vs. 4K: Which Resolution is Right For Your Project

September 19, 2019

HD vs. 4K: Which Resolution is Right For Your Project

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Since 4K resolution has been around for several years and its prominence is growing, you might be wondering: exactly what is the difference between HD and 4K? Is it worth the higher price to produce video in 4K? Or is HD good enough?

As creatives, we’re always looking to push the boundaries of our work — both artistically and technically. Every time a new camera or display launches, they tout a higher resolution and more pixels. 

Before you rush out to buy a new video camera or ultra high definition panel, there are some things to consider. In this post, we’ll talk about the advantages of 4K and the situations it makes sense for video recording and post-production.

What’s the difference between HD and 4K?

About a decade ago, high definition or “HD” became extremely widespread. For consumers, this meant that sharper footage and images were broadcast or streamed to their displays. What does “high definition” actually mean?

First, it’s essential to understand that pixels make up all displays. Those tiny squares that you’ll see if you stand too close to your screen combine to render every digital image you see. And the number of pixels in a display come together to form the video image. 

Standard definition television was broadcast at a resolution of 640×480 pixels. This seems like a distant memory now, but once upon a time, a resolution called “480i” was the standard. When the HD era arrived, the 720p and 1080p resolutions became commonplace. And now, 4K is the latest standard for ultra-high-resolution video.

Let’s define the resolution terms that you’ve probably seen while looking at specs:

  • 1080p – as HD become popular, the gold standard was 1080p footage, which had a resolution of 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall. 
  • 720p – a lower resolution “HD” grade that some panels topped out at was 720p, which is 1280 pixels wide by 720 pixels tall. It’s slightly lower resolution than 1080p, but still a significant upgrade over 480p. This also became a popular web video resolution. 
  • 4K – this resolution is defined as four times the resolution of 1920×1080, in terms of the total number of pixels. 4K resolution can actually be 3840×2160 or 4096×2160 pixels. 

In short, the more pixels you put on a screen, the higher the resolution will be. You’ve probably heard the term “retina” in Apple’s marketing, which describes the ultra high definition displays on Macs and iOS devices.

When should you record or produce in 4K?

As a content creator, you’re likely considering how you should take advantage of the 4K wave. When is 4K optimal? When will HD suffice? 

For a highly cinematic video, you want to capture your footage in the highest resolution possible. Sometimes, the focus of a video is the stunning cinematic effect. 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. If that’s the case, you will want to produce your video at the same resolution as the display. Otherwise, you’ll lose visual quality during playback.

Another reason you would want to record in 4K is if you think you might need to zoom in on a frame or crop in post-production. Maybe you don’t have a zoom or telephoto lens in your kit, or you want to try zoom effects. If that’s the case, using 4K footage or higher, and editing your project in 1080p is your best option. You can maintain crisp quality in your video when you zoom in. Many times, videographers will 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.

Why wouldn’t you record or produce in 4K?

While it may seem like having more pixels is always better, you also have to consider how higher resolutions make the footage more cumbersome.

Above all, producing in 4K can be costly. One example of the higher cost comes in the form of needing a computer powerful enough to process the high resolution footage efficiently. If your machine isn’t powerful enough, your editing program will stutter and stall, and watching a playback before you export will be nearly impossible.

Storing 4K footage has a cost as well. Because you’re capturing more detail in 4K, the file sizes are larger, which leads to more storage space consumed. You might find yourself juggling more hard drives than ever before.

Finally, let’s face it: the majority of viewers will probably see your video on a pocket-sized mobile screen. In the case that you’re producing for the web (desktop or mobile), the human eye usually can’t discern the difference between 4K and 1080p. Creating in 4K is comparatively higher fidelity, but it can be overkill considering how most content is consumed.

Remember: resolution is just one piece of your video footage’s technical aspects. While many cameras can capture footage at 4K resolution, the sensor quality influences how much dynamic range or detail is recorded. Just because the footage is 4K resolution doesn’t necessarily mean it’s high quality.

4K or HD: Which should you choose?

Ultimately, if you have the equipment and storage capacity to accommodate 4K, it’s worth capturing in 4K to future-proof your work. 4K will be the new HD eventually. If you need your work to be evergreen, 4K footage will set your video up to look high quality for years to come. And if you’re shooting highly cinematic footage that you know will be consumed on large screens, your audience will appreciate viewing it in 4K.

While it’s tempting to say “more resolution is always better,” does the cost (recording equipment, storage, processing power) justify the additional resolution to you? Choosing the right resolution for your project isn’t a “one size fits all” decision. Based on the types of productions you create or how your audience will watch your video, HD might be a perfectly fine solution for now. 

Want to experiment with 4K footage? Browse through thousands of 4K clips available in our library.

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Andrew Childress

Andrew is a freelance contributor to Storyblocks who writes about video production, video editing, and fittingly, the business of freelancing.

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