These days just about all of us have some kind of video camera, whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket, an action camera, an advanced compact camera that shoots 4K video or a DLSR or high-end camcorder that could shoot the next indie blockbuster. Almost anyone can – and does – shoot video, but the challenge is editing that video into something that other people actually want to watch. Raw footage looks, well, raw and messy; you need the patience of a saint to watch more than a minute. If you want to make home movies that won’t bore your friends and family, or put something up on YouTube that someone else will watch, then you really need video-editing software.
These used to cost a bomb – and the high-end professional video-editing packages still do – but you don’t need to pay a penny to find something slick and usable. Splash out more, and you’ll get more advanced effects and features and the power to put some really sophisticated films together.
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How to choose the best video-editing software for you
Fundamentally, most video-editing software packages work in the same way. You assemble audio and video clips in tracks on a timeline, which runs from left to right along the bottom of the screen. You can cut each clip down to a watchable length or split longer clips into several shorter clips you can use in different places or set in and out points to tell the program where you want to start playing and where you want to stop. You can also smooth out the joins between clips by applying transitions, which merge the clips together using flashy wipes and animated effects or more elegant, classical Hollywood fades and dissolves.
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Most modern video-editing apps go much further, however. In many you can have multiple tracks of video and audio and switch, blend and fade between them. You can apply titles, graphics or animated visual effects. You can use chroma-key effects, shooting actors or objects against a green screen background then making them appear on top of another clip. You’ll also get some features for adjusting colour and making your raw footage look generally slicker and more professional.
Consumer vs prosumer editing
Really, the key differences between packages come down to whether they focus on consumer users who want to make home videos and more ambitious, sometimes semi-professional users who want something with more power and control.
Consumer packages tend to come with alternative Storyboard modes or guided and magic edit modes where you can pull clips roughly together – or even just import a bunch of clips. From there, the program will practically do the editing for you, analysing each clip for content and camera movement, splicing them together, then adding titles, transitions and effects for you to tweak. Purists knock this kind of thing, but video editing can be a long and exhausting business; a lot of people just want to put out something polished-looking, fast.
Prosumer packages come with more advanced features for colour grading, precision editing, picture-in-picture effects, lens correction, controlling the speed of the footage and adding freeze-frames and compositing multiple video and audio tracks. Some of these features have inevitably trickled down into consumer packages, though generally in an easy-to-use form that doesn’t give the same level of creative control.
What other features should I look for?
4K video format support is now pretty standard across most video-editing apps, though you might find some struggle with certain, more manufacturer-specific formats or the newer H.265 HEVC standard. Meanwhile, many packages now offer built-in features to enhance footage shot by drones and action cameras, including motion smoothing, lens correction, detail enhancement and colour grading.
Otherwise, the big thing at the moment is support for 360-degree VR footage, using the footage shot by 360-degree VR cameras, like the Samsung Gear 360 or Ricoh Theta, to make movies for VR headsets where the user can look around the scene – or just to scroll around in on a smartphone. This is a definite nice-to-have if you’re keen to play around with that kind of thing.
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The best video-editing software you can buy
Adobe Premiere Elements 2019: The best video editor for east home movies
Price: £75 | Buy now from Amazon
If you’re new to video-editing, then the latest version of Adobe’s consumer-level editor is pretty hard to beat. The revamped home screen takes you straight to interesting projects and tutorials, while the guided edits cover everything from simple trimming and editing techniques to the latest glass pane and Luma fade effects (a good option for those who love eighties pop video effects). The new Quick Edit mode gives you a simplified storyboard view for assembling your clips and you can rely on Adobe’s Sensei AI technology to do some of the hard work for you, even assembling fun split-screen montages from multiple shots and still photos. With Adobe’s help, you can knock out a great-looking holiday video in well under half an hour.
Premiere Elements’ other strength was always that it scaled up to cover more ambitious editors as well, and to an extent this still holds true. The more advanced, track-based editing view still works as well as ever, and there are excellent tools for smoothing out action cam footage and tweaking colour and tone. However, other editing apps now offer more and the user interface is starting to look dated. It’s still the best choice for absolute beginners, but those with serious aspirations should look elsewhere.
Shotcut: The best free video-editing software
Price: Free | Download now from Shotcut
This open-source video editor might be free, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fully-featured or effective. If you’ve ever used a video editor before, you’ll find the methods for adding clips to the timeline and trimming them second nature, and it’s arguably faster to assemble, cut and add basic cross-fade transitions than with some of the prosumer packages.
Things get a little tricky when it comes to the more advanced stuff, such as adding titles or controlling the more advanced transitions, where the lack of previews makes for a suck-it-and-see approach. However, there are video tutorials online to smooth your way, both from the developers and an enthusiastic and helpful user community. What’s more, the Shotcut team isn’t standing still, and is continually refining the interface and adding new effects. Shotcut might not give you all the tools of the paid-for packages, but you get everything you need to make home movies and YouTube videos and you don’t need to pay a thing.
FXhome Hitfilm Express: The best free video-editing package with scope to expand
Price: Free | Download now from FXhome
Hitfilm Express has an interesting pricing model where the core package is free but you pay extra (between £8 and £50, with a 14-day money-back return policy) for additional effects and features, giving you a cost-free way in to video editing that won’t hold you back as your ambitions grow. What’s more, the basic features are still extremely powerful, and the team at FXhome has a ton of tutorials to help you make the most of them, down to walkthroughs on copying the effects of the latest blockbuster movies.
It’s easy to assemble clips, blend tracks together, use chroma-key effects and add titles and filters, and the highly customisable filters and effects are way beyond what you’d expect from a free package. And while Hitfilm’s approach can be a little idiosyncratic at times, it’s nothing you can’t get used to within a few hours. A lot of the tools and add-on packs target YouTube creators, too, making Hitfilm a good bet if that’s your bag.
Vegas Movie Studio 16: A great editor for beginners with room to grow
Price: £40 | Buy now from Magix
Sony sold its Vegas line of video-editing apps to Magix a few years back, and it’s taken a while for Magix to drag the consumer-level Movie Studio into the era of smartphones and YouTube. With Movie Studio 16, it’s finally found its feet, with an app that has plenty for beginners but scales up to cover more serious video-editing as well. You can start off with a simple guided editing process that imports clips, assembles them and adds transitions, music and titles, or go straight into a more advanced user interface packed with fixes, enhancements, filters and effects. Magix even throws in its Music Maker package so that you can fit out your film with its own score.
Even the basic Movie Studio 16 has enough features to be getting on with, but move up to the Platinum version and you get video stabilisation, 360-degree video support and motion tracking, plus a range of more advanced transitions. The Suite version adds pro-level title editing, with advanced filters, effects and chroma-key support. This makes Movie Studio 16 a great entry point that gives aspiring auteurs scope to do more. Head for Corel and Cyberlink’s apps if you want to jump straight into serious editing, but if you’d rather stick a toe in the water first, Movie Studio 16 is the editor for you.
Corel VideoStudio Pro 2019: The best video editor for more ambitious users
Price: £55 | Buy now from Corel
Looking for a step-up from the entry-level packages? Corel VideoStudio Pro is an excellent choice. On the one hand, Corel keeps on improving ease-of-use, with a streamlined workflow that enables you to resize, crop and trim your clips with ease. The interface is slick, modern and impressively intuitive, but a massive range of effects and filters is only ever a few clicks away. You can work with templates or just head straight to the timeline view, while built-in tutorials cover many of the more advanced features.
And there’s certainly no shortage of those. Corel already had impressive picture-in-picture and split-screen effects, along with lens correction and motion smoothing effects for action cameras. Support for 360-degree video has also seen improvements. However, Corel has overhauled the colour correction tools for better control, matched lighting and fine-tuning, while adding new silky smooth transitions, including some impressive morph effects. These still put huge demands on your PC or laptop, so expect some waits if you’re working on old hardware, but VideoStudio Pro 2019 now matches and sometimes even beats CyberLink’s PowerDirector, while undercutting it on price.
Cyberlink PowerDirector 17 Ultra: The best video editor for VR and creative control
Price: £80 | Buy now from Cyberlink
While Cyberlink is driving its users towards Adobe-style subscriptions, you can still buy PowerDirector 17 Ultra as a single purchase with a perpetual license (otherwise plans start at £60 a year or an outrageous £18 a month). That’s good news as it’s a great all-rounder, giving you the features that used to be the preserve of high-end packages with a more accessible interface at a fraction of the price.
You can work in a novice-friendly storyboard mode or using a more traditional track-based timeline, and there are some superb tools to help you get a quick-and-dirty first cut up and running. Then, when you’re ready to polish, you can colour grade your footage – there’s a new one-click correction tool – or trim and make your edits snappier. You can even colour-match shots from different sources. And if you want to composite and blend different video tracks, PowerDirector covers that as well.
PowerDirector also delivers a vast range of impressive transitions and effects, complete with GPU-accelerated previews and custom options. The enhanced Title Designer comes with new motion and colour effects, and there are some cool tools to enhance clips using masks with areas of transparency. We also get powerful lens correction and stabilisation tools for action cameras, while the 360-degree and VR support is right up there with the best. Throw in improved features for motion tracking and composing collage shots in a single frame and you have an incredibly comprehensive package, with some interface enhancements those working on longer videos will love.
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