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Editing Nikon D90 Footage in Final Cut

If you know what you’re doing, the footage from the D90 comes out spectacular. It’s the perfect companion to any filmmaker’s workflow. However, when I purchased the D90, I was under the impression that the Motion JPEG video files created would work with Final Cut right off the card.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

Footage is imported as letterboxed 4:3 clips, and is accompanied by the dreaded orange video render bar—meaning subpar editing performance unless you render first.

Google to the rescue.

It turns out that Final Cut (both Express and Pro) don’t fully support the version of Motion JPEG that the D90 is using in AVI files, so the footage needs to be converted to Apple Intermediate Codec or Apple ProRes before editing. 1

If you have an extra $30 laying around, you can pick up a copy of QuickTime Pro (which I highly recommend), but you can only convert a single file at a time, and there’s no way to save presets.

Enter MPEG Streamclip, a free, cross-platform conversion utility, that won’t be winning any beauty contests, but gets the job done. After tinkering with it for a couple minutes hours, I’ve configured the ultimate preset for making Nikon D90 footage work smoothly with Final Cut.

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Click image for full compression settings

Essentially, you are converting the Motion JPEG AVI file to an Apple Intermediate Codec MOV file with uncompressed stereo audio (as opposed to the mono audio from the D90). This will allow you to edit the footage natively with Final Cut with both right and left channels of audio.

From my experience on an older MacBook Pro, the conversion process was real-time—meaning that a 3 minute clip takes about 3 minutes to convert. The file size does take a jump as well, usually by a factor of 1.5—meaning that a 100MB AVI file will convert to a 150MB MOV file. It’s also worth noting that the conversion process usually underexposes the footage by 1/3 of a stop.

The secret to MPEG Streamclip are the presets: choose your settings once, and call them up for all your D90 footage. You can also batch process your clips all at once by hitting Cmd-B and dragging all the clips you wish to convert into the popup window.

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After awhile, the process becomes second nature. Right click on your D90 footage, open in MPEG Streamclip, hit Cmd-E to export it, load your Nikon D90 preset, and hit enter to begin the conversion.

It’s disappointing to see this trend grow among consumer and prosumer video cameras. We want to record HD footage on tiny flash chips, and want them to take as little space as possible. The same issue plagues the newly released Canon 5DMKII. While it records in the more commonly used H.264 codec, it can’t be easily edited due to the compressed nature of the footage.

How about giving us a choice? We have RAW and JPEG options for photos, why not for video? Apple Intermediate Codec or ProRes for those that plan to post-process their footage, and H.264 for those that want to upload or share their footage right off the card.

  1. If you’re not in tune with these codecs, basically, they are designed for editing, as opposed to compressed footage which is difficult to edit.