JPEG vs. HEIF: What is the Distinction and Which is Higher?

Almost 30 years old, the JPEG was created around the same time that the first website went online. But while web pages don't look like this very first text-only website, images still frolic around that .jpg extension like a belt bag in Disney World.

While the JPEG is still popular and popular, there is a new image file format that claims to be the next JPEG: HEIF. HEIF files are a format that became popular when Apple introduced support in 2017. They are smaller than JPEGs, but they don't affect image quality and in some cases even offer slightly better quality. Many Apple devices now capture photos in HEIF instead of the more popular JPEG by default, and even standalone cameras like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III have support.

While HEIF pretends to be the next JPEG, there are still noticeable differences between the two – and one big reason why many don't want to switch to the newer format just yet.

The Canon EOS-1D M Mark III supports HEIF in the camera.

HEIF (or HEIC)

HEIF is a modern type of photo file, inspired by JPEGs, but doing more with less space. HEIF, which stands for High-Efficiency Image Format, is similar in quality to a JPEG, but takes up less space. This type of file is sometimes referred to as HEIC or High-Efficiency Image Codec. Apple uses HEIC to store the HEIF photo as well as additional data such as sounds or movements when taking a live photo.

It's the "high efficiency" in the name that is the key differentiator in this newer photo format. A HEIF file takes up approximately half the space of a JPEG without affecting the quality of the actual image. While the image uses smarter, more modern compression algorithms, it is limited in space and retains just as many megapixels and detail. When you record in HEIF, your photos take up less space on your camera roll, hard drive, and cloud storage.

In some cases, a HEIF file may have better image quality than a JPEG. This is because these new files support 16-bit color. 16-bit refers to how many different colors the picture can store. While the human eye cannot even distinguish between the trillions of colors available in 16-bit, more colors create more flexibility in manipulating the photo. An 8-bit photo could be overworked to include bands in the colors – a phenomenon that, as you guessed it, photographers call streaking – while a 16-bit photo offers more leeway. (Not every camera can capture 16 bits, and the HEIF only captures the maximum bit depth that the camera allows.)

The format has another benefit when editing: the option to undo adjustments that the JPEG format cannot restore. The codec saves editing information in the file, so some types of changes can later be undone after saving. The HEIF can reverse a crop or rotation and adjust overlays.

Another feature of HEIF is that it supports transparency like a PNG does. Transparencies are popular in logos and graphics, especially in web design where the background of the web page is still visible.

Hillary K. Grigonis / Digital Trends

JPEG

JPEG is the file type that needs no introduction. If you took a photo with a digital camera or shared a photo on Facebook, you used a JPEG.

As familiar as JPEG is, you may not be sure of its exact history and limitations. JPEGs have been around since the early 1990s. Since then, things have changed – including how we handle image data – which is why HEIF files can be so much smaller.

However, being old isn't all bad. It is difficult to find a program that does not support JPEG. If you have a JPEG, you can open it in just about any application from almost any computer. From web browsers to word processors, the JPEG can be used anywhere.

JPEG images are lossy (not to be confused with bad). This means that once it is compressed, you will not be able to make any changes. You cannot crop back a JPEG photo. Every time you open the photo and make changes, the JPEG also loses some of its original quality. For this reason, JPEG is often the final file type, not the original, among professional photographers. (For this, professionals tend to take RAW photos.)

JPEGs are usually available in 8-bit color. These are many colors to display, but may not be enough colors to make significant changes without affecting image quality.

JPEG versus HEIF: which one is better?

If all of your devices and apps support HEIC, choosing this format will save you hard drive space and even provide more flexible editing. As cameras keep increasing megapixels, saving images becomes difficult – HEIC can help alleviate some of that burden.

Of course, an image you can't open is no good – and JPEG is still the most universal file format. Since Apple started using the HEIC format, a number of devices and applications have supported the smaller file size. However, others are not fully compatible or require plug-ins to be downloaded. If you want a file that you can email to a dozen people with no hassle, JPEG is still the clear winner for now.

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