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HEIF could benefit digital photography, but getting the industry on board won't be a simple matter

Create: 06/18/2017 - 14:08
HEIF

HIGHLIGHTS

  • High-quality images with a significantly smaller file
  • Can store multiple layers of images in the same file
  • Can be applied to still images and movies

HEIF might be the next big thing in digital imaging – or not

When it comes to photography, a few image formats have endured, and the dominat one is the JPG (pronounced jay-peg), which was produced by the Joint Photographic Experts Group.

It became popular in the Internet age, because a decent quality image could now be placed on a Web page. It had many advantages over other formats. It could displays a full pallette of colors, which automatically made it better than a GIF, and it could be compressed in steps controlled by the user, making it much smaller in size (kilobytes) than a TIFF.

WHY JPGs DOMINATED THE INTERNET AGE

In the early days of dial-up access, keeping a Web page as small as possible was paramount. An unwritten goal at that time was to keep each page under 100k.

To this day, a TIFF cannot be displayed natively on a Web page. The PNG file hadn’t yet been widely adopted, and that has left us with with the humble JPG.

Even with broadband speeds in wide use today, most images dispalyed are JPGs. Recently, the SVG has come into use, but for most people, it offers no real advantage over JPGs or PNGs.

Giving the JPG another boost was its wide adoption by the digital camera industry. In the early days of digital photography, the typical amount of in-camera memory was about 4 or 8 megabytes, while a large card was between 16MB and 32MB. It took several years for 256MB and 512MB cards to be affordable.

Space was at a premium, and although many cameras could shoot an uncompressed TIFF, most people shot JPGs, which could be stored quicker and with less space.

Let’s throw another variable into the argument: the smartphone. The JPG is the primary format for smartphones and for good reason. File sizes can be reasonably small, while image quality has become increasingly better. Most people who use smartphones share them on social media or with each other, and don’t spend a lot of time manipulating photos. For smartphone users, the JPG is the ideal format.

Many pros often shoot high-quality JPGs because the turnaround time is quick, which can be vital for news and sports photographers. No need for processing a RAW files, and a JPG will still be smaller in size than its RAW counterpart.

However, the JPG uses “lossy” compression, which means that as you to reduce the file size, the quality of the image suffers. In this discussion, file size doesn’t refer to the dimensions of the photo. It refers to the amount of space it consumes on your memory card or hard drive.

JPGs with moderate to heavy compression show what are known as “artefacts.” When compression occurs, an algorithm begins to remove unnecessary information (bytes) from the photo. The higher the compression, the greater the removal of vital image information.

Here are three examples of three JPGs with minimum, moderate and high compression.

Photo resized to 1,440 pixels.

The original photo is 6,000 pixels wide and is 4MB and was resized to 1,440 pixels (555KB).

Here are five photos that show varying levels of JPG compression:

No compression - 293KB. Compression factor 5 - 135KB Compression factor 25 - 40KB Compression factor 50 -28KB Compression factor 75 -24KB Compression factor 100 - 22KB

In the example above, there is little savings in file size after a compress factor of 25. 

Sometimes, the compression isn’t as graceful and can be quite ugly, which is something that we've all seen on a Web page, particularly when a portion of a JPG is enlarged greater than its original dimensions.

EXPLAINING HEIF

That brings us to HEIF – High Efficient Image File format. Apple announced this week that its iPhone, iPad and Macintosh computers will support this image format.

HEIF is a development of the Motion Picture Experts Group. In a recent article, CNET points out that not only is it not yet a standard, there isn’t even a commonly accepted pronunciation. Of course, that’s also true about the GIF format, which has been around since JPGs.

There is a very good explanation of it, as well as some examples, on Nokia’s site at http://nokiatech.github.io/heif/.

The promise of HEIF is that it should yield a higher quality image with a smaller file size. In other words, all of benefits of an uncompressed image with files that take up a fraction of the amount of space.

HEIF has both “lossy” and “lossless” compression, and it can store multiple images in a single file.

For digital photographer, this would be a huge benefit. Most cameras today have in-camera memory buffers and image processors to allow tens of images to be taken each second without have to pause to store that data.

HEIF VS. JPG

However, with JPG file sizes now exceeding 10MB per image, photographers have had to find ever-larger memory cards and hard drives. Reducing files sizes by 75% or more would offer a huge benefit to all photographers, including those who use smartphones with limited in-device storage.

The HEIF format also can be extended to videos, which are known for gobbling up storage.

As others have said and will soon explain, widespread adoption of HEIF by Apple won’t have an immediate impact on the photography market.

With consumer digital photography more than 20 years old, there probably are billions of JPGs stored on computer, memory cards and all kinds of storage devices. That doesn’t even take into consideration all of the websites and apps that use JPGs.

JPG FOREVER!

The JPG won’t be going away. Not now or ever.

CNET’s article also discusses the need for licensing. We sometimes forget that everything that is done with a computer uses some type of license from some company.

If there is a better way to efficiently store and display photos, the HEIF offers the most promise at this time. In order for this format to have a place in photography, it will need to be adopted by major camera and smartphone makers. Providing support also would require hardware and software to interpret and process an HEIF file.

Image editing packages also will need to support this format.

It's not a simple matter to implement a new "standard."

Adobe tried this with the PDF (Portable Document Format) and succeeded. Then it tried with its DNG RAW format for digital cameras, but few adopted it. Instead, camera makers stayed with their proprietary RAW formats, which have allowed them to make subtle changes with each generation of new cameras. The downside is that with each change to its RAW specifications, image editors have had to be patched and updated.

Getting the industry on board won’t be easy, but Apple’s adoption helps.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.