I see a paradigm shift in online video happening

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Saturday January 9, 2010.

Something I think about quite a bit (for some obvious reasons) is video quality and how the proliferation of online video has affected it. I don’t mean videos that are well-done, good, Oscar-worthy, or anything like that. I think of video quality in terms of the picture quality, technical mastery, etc.

I always found it odd that while the FCC was mandating US television broadcasters adopt the standard known as HDTV (moving from what is called NTSC) back around 2005 and 2006, YouTube was becoming the powerhouse that it is today. The two things were happening at the same time, and what made it odd to me was that while we were all foaming at the mouth to get our hands on HDTVs, we were begging the internet for some of the crappiest-looking video there was—YouTube. I’m actually convinced that part of what made YouTube so successful was that when you uploaded something there, the site compressed whatever you gave them further and made for some very snappy loading times. YouTube set itself apart because they downgraded the video quality in return for faster response times. Other sites with better video quality suffered because of lagging. Hence, what I see as The Great Video Quality Irony™.

Fast forward to now. The new thing that’s taking off is cell phone video. Yes, it has been around for a looooong time already. But because of the release of the iPhone 3GS, I think it has become a normal thing as opposed to a geek thing. With the way AT&T sets up data plans, it makes uploading a video really damn easy. But there’s something weird that I see happening with the iPhone 3GS video. Let me explain.

Since digital cameras came around, we’ve all been taking pictures. Fine. Cameras are built so that when you hold it normally, the take a picture in a format that’s wider than it is tall—landscape mode. That fits the default style of video since that’s how televisions are set up. However, cell phone cameras default to the taller format—portrait mode. I noticed this with people I know who didn’t use their digital cameras a ton. Christy, for instance, takes a ot of pictures with her iPhone, and just about all of them are in portrait mode. It’s easier, and it’s there. I take just about every picture by turning my phone sideways and shooting in landscape mode. It’s a conscious thing as opposed to an unconscious thing.

When you apply that same principle to video taken with the same phone, what you get is something weirder. You get video that is upright instead of sideways, and it doesn’t fit with video players. I began seeing this when the iPhone 3GS first came out, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to stay. I thought about it again recently while attending The Girl’s dance recital an I saw a mom a few rows ahead of me break out her iPhone 3GS and start shooting—in portrait mode. For someone like me, who looks at video and photos every single day in a professional capacity, it’s very easy to think about which way I want to shoot something. For the normal people in the world, it doesn’t cross their minds, so they shoot how it comes naturally.

I asked the question on Twitter a few weeks ago and got exactly what I figured would be the response. It was totally mixed. Some people said upright (portrait) and others said landscape. Others even said it depended. (You can see the replies by looking at @replies to me on December 21, 2009.) To me, it never wavers. I would shoot every video in landscape and there’s no argument. But that’s what is shifting. And it makes for some awkward stuff on YouTube. I solidified my position on this when I saw a video taken during the Las Vegas Courthouse shooting last week. If you look at that video, it’s filling a mere 1/3 of the screen. Certainly not ideal, right?

The conclusion that I’ve come to is that the upright stuff is here to stay. It would be interesting to see if this actually becomes a standard feature on video sharing sites—an option to have one type of player or the other.

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