At nearly 30 years old, the JPEG was created around the same time as the very first web page went live. But while web pages look nothing like that very first plain text web page, images are still toting around that .jpg extension like a fanny pack at Disney World.
While the JPEG is still well-loved and well-used, there’s a new image file format that’s claiming to become the next JPEG: HEIF. A format popularized when Apple introduced support in 2017, HEIF files are smaller than JPEGs, yet don’t sacrifice any image quality and, in some cases, can even offer slightly better quality. Many Apple devices, in fact, now default to capturing photos in HEIF instead of the more popular JPEG, and even stand-alone cameras are introducing support, like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.
While HEIF purports to be the next JPEG, there are still noticeable differences between the two — and one big reason why many won’t want to switch to the newer format just yet.
HEIF (or HEIC)
HEIF is a modern photo file type that’s inspired by JPEGs but designed to do 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 file type is also sometimes referred to as HEIC, or High-Efficiency Image Codec. Apple uses HEIC to store the HEIF photo as well as additional data like sounds or motion when recording a live photo.
It’s the “high-efficiency” in the name that’s the key differentiator in this newer photo format. A HEIF file takes up roughly half the space of a JPEG without reducing the quality of the actual image. While the image uses smarter, more modern compression algorithms, it’s only small on space, keeping just as many megapixels and details intact. If you choose to shoot in HEIF, your photos will take up less space on your camera roll, your hard drive, and your cloud storage.
In some cases, a HEIF file may actually have better image quality than a JPEG. That’s because these new files support 16-bit color. 16-bit refers to how many different colors the image can store. While the human eye can’t even differentiate between the trillions of colors available in 16-bit, more colors create more flexibility when editing the photo. An 8-bit photo could be over-edited to the point where the colors appear to have bands in them — a phenomenon photographers call, you guessed it, banding — while a 16-bit photo has more wiggle room. (Not every camera can capture 16 bit, and the HEIF will only capture the maximum bit depth that the camera allows.)
The format has one more perk when it comes to editing: The option to undo adjustments that are impossible to salvage with the JPEG format. The codec stores editing information within the file, allowing some types of edits to be undone later, even after saving. The HEIF can reverse a crop or rotation, as well as adjusting overlays.
Another feature of HEIF is that it supports transparency, like a PNG does. Transparencies are popular with logos and graphics, particularly in web design, where the background of the web page will still show through.
JPEG is the file type that needs no introduction. If you’ve taken a photo with a digital camera or shared a photo on Facebook, you’ve used a JPEG.
As familiar as JPEG is, you may not quite know the history and limitations. JPEGs have been around since the early 1990s. Things have changed since then — including how we handle image data — which is why HEIF files are able to be so much smaller.
Being old isn’t all bad, however. It’s tough to find a program that doesn’t support JPEG. If you have a JPEG, you can open it on nearly any application from almost any machine. From web browsers to word processors, the JPEG can go anywhere.
JPEG images are lossy (not to be confused with lousy), which means that once they are compressed, you can’t make changes. You can’t go back and un-crop a JPEG photo. Each time you open the photo and make changes, the JPEG will also lose some of its original quality. For that reason, among professional photographers, JPEG is often the final file type, not the original. (For that, pros tend to shoot RAW photos.)
JPEGs are typically in 8-bit color, which is plenty of colors for viewing, but may not be enough colors to make significant edits without degrading the image quality.
JPEG versus HEIF: Which one is better?
If all of your devices and apps support HEIC, then choosing that format will save you some hard drive space and even offer more flexible editing. As cameras continue to ramp up the megapixels, storing images becomes difficult — HEIC can help ease some of that burden.
Of course, an image that 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 now support the smaller file size. Still others, however, aren’t fully compatible or require downloading plug-ins. If you want a file that you can email to a dozen people without any problems opening that file from any of the recipients, JPEG is still the clear winner — for now.