An Introduction to HEIF Photo Files for Photographers

This image, taken with an iPhone 8+ set to “Live” and running iOS 11, uses the “long exposure” feature available in the Photos app to blur the water.

With IOS 11, photographers were introduced to Apple’s new High Efficiency Image Format (HEIF), which replaces JPEG as the file format.  So why was this done, and what does this mean?  Will JPEG cease to be the leading file format for consumers and photographers alike?

JPEG as a file format was unveiled in 1992 and is not well suited to serve the evolving digital photography that takes place today.  HEIF can provide us with higher quality pictures that take significantly less storage space while also providing additional flexibility to accommodate many of the new technologies and capabilities that are becoming more commonplace today.  Below, we answer a number of questions that are raised by the introduction of this new format in iOS 11.

What is wrong with JPG and why would anyone want to replace it?

Let’s take a look at JPEG today.  First of all, it should be noted that the name came from the Joint Photographic Experts Group that developed the JPEG standard.  JPEG v1.02 was first published on September 1, 1992, and stood at that standard for nearly 20 years.  Creating a JPEG file means that a specific compression algorithm is applied to help reduce the file size to a smaller size which was especially important in the early days of digital photography.  (Let’s not forget that there was a time when a 1GB CF card was considered enormous and was very expensive).  It was also a time before we were all on the internet flinging files around and sharing on social media.

But times are now much different.  Apple estimates that over 1 trillion pictures are taken each year with iPhones.  We share our pictures on the internet through one or more of the many social media sites, through email, on private websites, etc.  Equally important, virtually every website we view has a plethora of pictures including news sites, retailer websites, and our own improvephotography.com.

So as we broadly use JPEG files, we are running into a variety of issues associated with the JPEG format.

  • The color depth limitations (8-bit) sometimes result in banding in certain situations, most often noted on skies.
  • The compressed file size, which was once considered efficient, seems to consume far too much space on cell phones when we are shooting bursts of everything that moves and also where space is at a premium. We also have larger camera sensors putting out ever-larger files.
  • Internet load speed is often negatively impacted by the size of the JPEG image files. Let’s take improvephotography.com as an example.  The average webpage on our site takes 1.4 seconds to load and 60% of that time is waiting for an image file to load.  Multiply that by the number of web pages you load each day and ask yourself how much time that is costing you.
  • To improve web page loading time, we downsize our files a lot for the web, and when we do that we don’t always get the best quality.

So there are reasons, many reasons, to employ today’s technology to improve on a format that was defined for a different time.

What is the HEIF format and how did it come about?

Contrary to popular opinion, it was not invented by Apple, and it isn’t that new.   The Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) was established in 1988 to set standards for audio and video compression and transmission. They developed the HEIF format and introduced it in 2013.

HEIF is a container for images encapsulated using the HEVC compression algorithms, which is also used for H.265 video coding.  It can contain bursts and short amounts of video (think of LIVE Photos on the iPhone).  It can better accommodate the advances that Apple is putting into its photographs and also has the advantage of being a smaller file.

So what are the advantages of HEIF vs JPEG?

There are several advantages to HEIF:

  • HEIF files are approximately one half of the size of JPEG files. When you consider limited space on iPhones, backups on home computers and in the cloud, not to mention the downloading of so many pictures from the web, the potential savings in terms of storage space and bandwidth are enormous.
  • HEIF files can record 16-bit color depth despite their smaller size. Truer colors and elimination of the banding associated with 8-bit photos is a nice bonus.
  • HEIF files can store depth data; i.e., camera to subject distance and camera to background distance. This information can be used (as it is by Apple) to create the shallow depth of field and the portrait effects that are available on its PLUS cameras (i.e., 7+ and 8+).
  • HEIF files support transparency. Let’s take a company logo, and McDonald’s is a great example.  If you had a JPEG of the Golden arches, the space under the arches would likely be white.  If you wanted to put that JPEG file in the corner of an image that was black, you’d have the golden arches on a white background.  With transparency, you can just use the golden arches and have space under the arches be transparent and let the background show through (this can also be accomplished with PNG files).
  • HEIF files can store the bursts and video e.g., Apple LIVE photos) being adopted today, most notably by Apple.
  • HEIF can replace animated GIFs.
  • For Apple, their i-devices (iPad, iPhone) have hardware support for HEVC, and since HEIF is really a still-image version of HEVC, images can be coded and decoded very fast with minimal impact on the processor or battery.

Is there any downside to the HEIF file format?

As with anything new, there are issues to consider.  Chief among the concerns is whether this standard will be adopted by others.  While Apple’s use of a then-struggling, Intel-designed USB standard in the 1998 iMac grew into one of the most ubiquitous standards that are still going strong today, their use of FireWire, while successful, was not as widely adopted.

Thunderbolt has been another promising technology that is really quite excellent, but now is being cast aside in favor of USB-C.  So we naturally ask if HEIF will be widely adopted or a short-lived Apple effort.

There are many reasons to believe HEIF will be successful.  Start with the aforementioned fact that over 1 trillion pictures are taken with iPhones each year.  This will result in momentum that is hard to ignore.  Add to that the fact that Google has been working for years to come up with a more efficient file format than JPEG.  If you think about all of the images that Google stores, that they search for with their image search engine, and that they serve up with search results, a file size reduction of HALF is significant.  Google and others that would benefit from the smaller file size (which is virtually everyone) can’t ignore the opportunity and potential.

On October 18, Adobe's New Features Summary for Photoshop CC announced support for HEIF, though this hasn't been too widely publicized.  No support for Lightroom has been announced that we have found, and we’re not aware of any other support beyond Apple.  That means that if you connect your iPhone to your computer and try to import your HEIF files into Lightroom, Lightroom won’t recognize the HEIF files (which have a .HEIC file extension) as picture files and won’t import them (and it also won’t tell you it didn’t import them since it doesn’t think they are image files).

It should also be noted that anyone wanting to support the format will need to license the technology.  Depending on the licensing fees, that could be a barrier.  So while the enormous base of iPhone users and the pictures they take provides a significant reason for other builders and users of image software to support the HEIF format, it will be some time before we know for sure.

How can I share my pictures with others if other platforms don't support the HEIF format?

Apple has done a great job of reducing the risk to using HEIF.  To begin with, when you go to share a picture from your i-device, the device will convert the picture to JPEG on the fly.  So shares via email, or to Facebook, Twitter, etc., will be as a JPEG file.

High Sierra (OS X 10.13), Apple’s latest operating system for the Mac, is also very aware of HEIF.  When your pictures go from your iPhone to your High Sierra Mac, it will transfer over as a HEIF.  From your Mac, when you bring up the share menu to transfer your pictures elsewhere (such as email), they will be shared as JPEG files and the JPEG conversion will occur seamlessly.

There is also the iMazing HEIC converter on the Mac App Store, and also available for Windows (version 7 or newer) at imazing.com.  This software will convert the Apple HEIF files (with the extension .HEIC) to either JPG or PNG.  You can drag and drop files or folders to a window to do the conversion. All versions of this software are FREE.

What if I don’t want to use HEIF files?

In Settings ->Camera -> Formats, you can choose between the HEIF format (High Efficiency) or JPEF (out Compatible)

iOS 11 has a setting (Settings->Camera->Formats) where you can check either “High Efficiency” (HEIF) or “Most Compatible” (JPEG).  My iPhone 8+ came with the default setting of High Efficiency.

So what format should I set my phone for?

Your choice in this matter is one of personal preference based on your risk tolerance.  If you want the lowest risk format, JPEG is your best bet.  If you want the benefits of HEIF, which are primarily that it will use a lot less space on your phone and on your computer (if you have a Mac), then HEIF is your best bet.

The risk isn’t really that great, in this case.  Given Apple’s on the fly conversion to JPEG when you go to share, I don’t imagine that the typical user will even notice that they are using a different format (but they might notice they can take more pictures without using up all of their free space).  If HEIF doesn’t work out in the long run, converting to JPEG is pretty easy, but of course could be tedious.

Many photographers, myself included, do store even their iPhone pictures in Lightroom. When I am on a photo adventure, I often take pictures with my Nikon D500 and my iPhone.  I then put all of them in Lightroom.  If I have my iPhone set to HEIF, I can’t simply import from the phone into Lightroom.  There is an intermediate step that needs to be taken.

As for me – I like the benefits, and I think the risk is moderated by the availability of the iMazing HEIC converter, and Apple’s on-the-fly conversion.  So I’ve taken the plunge.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Adobe published that Photoshop CC will support the HEIF file format on October 18.

 

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  3. HEIC and JPG are really both very productive picture groups, with JPG being lossy implying that it loses information and quality each time you compress. The fundamental distinction between them is that HEIC enables you to store a significantly higher quality picture in a smaller amount of space.

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