For decades, one of the biggest debates in digital photography was RAW vs JPEG – but in recent years, much of the conversation has shifted to JPEG vs HEIC. While understanding these two image formats isn’t as essential as mastering the basics like aperture, shutter, and ISO, it’s important to know how your photos are being stored and shared so you can get the most out of them.
Both JPEG and HEIC are great options and each one has its benefits and drawbacks. At the end of the day, what really matters is choosing an option that is right for you. In this article, I delve into the advantages and disadvantages of these two formats, and I explain who should pick JPEG and who should pick HEIC.
Let’s dive right in!
JPEG format: overview
I remember a world without the JPEG format, and it was not good. When I was a kid in the early days of the internet and connected computing, bandwidth was a precious commodity. Modems were slow and hard drives were measured in megabytes, not gigabytes. Downloading or uploading a few pictures meant waiting anywhere from minutes to hours, and that was on a good day. Formats such as GIF and BMP dominated the nascent networked landscape, but the former was limited to 256 colors and the latter took up far too much storage space. These troublesome limitations made GIF, BMP, and other image formats frustrating and cumbersome even as the internet took hold in households across the world.
JPEG, an image format created by the Joint Picture Experts Group in the early 1990s, was designed to give the best of both worlds. Images saved as JPEGs could store significantly more color data than their outdated counterparts while simultaneously taking up less storage space. It was a win-win, and it was exactly what the world needed as image sharing exploded during the decade of grunge music, ripped jeans, and dial-up internet.
JPEG has since become the dominant image format across the entire digital-picture landscape, and all cameras, from mirrorless to DSLR to mobile, are able to create JPEG files.
One of the most useful characteristics of the JPEG, and a key reason this format exploded in popularity, is the flexibility it gives people when creating images. You, the user, get to specify whether you want to prioritize image quality or file size. Most cameras let you select the level of compression you want to apply to your JPEG files; this is what affects their visual fidelity as well as their file size. Image editing software allows you to do the same, and even to this day, JPEG remains an excellent choice for photographers who want to balance visual quality with reasonable file sizes – as well as folks who want images that are easy to email, share on social media, and send to friends in a group text.
However, while JPEG excels at offering a great balance between image quality and storage space, it lacks many capabilities that are important to modern digital photography. JPEG files throw out lots of useful color data to shrink the file size, which means you have very little flexibility when adjusting colors, bringing details out from the shadows, or creating shots with a high dynamic range. Additionally, JPEG files are 8-bit, which means each pixel can contain 256 tonal values for each of the three primary colors of light (red/green/blue). That was plenty back in the 1990s, but modern digital cameras capture so much information that 8-bit color often just doesn’t cut it anymore.
As cameras, especially smartphones, become increasingly capable, and with even casual photographers demanding better quality and expanded editing freedom, a new image format was needed to address these shortcomings: HEIC, which I explore in the next section.
• One of the most widely used image formats in the world
• Easy to share and edit JPEG files due to the format’s incredible popularity
• Good mix of size and quality
• 8-bit color format can be limiting for modern photographers
• Compression can leave unpleasant artifacts
• Nearly unusable for video recording
HEIC format: overview
HEIC, or High-Efficiency Image Container, was developed in 2015. HEIC was designed to meet the needs of modern digital photographers while also taking into consideration the small file sizes that remain essential for posting and sharing.
HEIC utilizes a compression algorithm that, much like JPEG, allows pictures to be small in size but also ensures the files include enough color information for in-depth editing. HEIC also supports features like transparency and storing more than one image in a single file. JPEG, while useful, simply cannot accommodate modern options like these because they didn’t exist when JPEG was invented.
HEIC is a 10-bit image format. Therefore, each pixel can contain 1024 values of each red/green/blue color. That’s a dramatic increase over JPEG’s 256 color values per channel, and it allows HEIC images to capture rich color detail and sharpness that are impossible with JPEG images. Most mobile phone cameras use complex computing techniques to make everyday shots look amazing, and HEIC handles these kinds of photos with aplomb. Plus, because a single HEIC file can contain multiple images, the format can also be used for video – a medium that is increasingly popular among modern photographers and even casual shooters.
HEIC’s popularity rose dramatically when Apple set it as the default image format on its September 2017 iPhones (such as the iPhone 8 and iPhone X). While users could opt to save pictures using the traditional JPEG format, most did not – which meant that millions of people around the world were suddenly using the new HEIC format without even realizing it.
Other manufacturers soon followed suit, and HEIC is now supported by the most widely used operating systems on mobile phones and computers; it’s also supported by many DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
• Much smaller file sizes compared to JPEG
• 10-bit color format allows for much richer images with greater detail
• A single HEIC file can contain multiple images, which is great for video shooters
• Not nearly as popular as JPEG
• Many older DSLR and mirrorless cameras don’t support HEIC
• Not all image-editing software works with HEIC files
JPEG vs HEIC: post-processing flexibility
While HEIC has many significant advantages over its older counterpart, don’t discount JPEG just yet. If you’re the type of photographer who prefers a hands-on approach to editing and post-processing, there are still a lot of good reasons to use JPEG.
Almost all modern image-editing software works with HEIC files, but legacy software – such as older versions of Photoshop and some computers running older operating systems – don’t support them. You are more likely to encounter situations where, due to the software you are using or even your computer’s operating system, you are unable to work with HEIC files, whereas JPEG files pose no problems at all.
Fortunately, these issues will become increasingly uncommon as software gets updated and more people upgrade to newer computers. And the fact that HEIC supports transparency gives this format a significant advantage over JPEG in many post-processing situations.
Because of this, there isn’t a clear winner in terms of which format is best for post-processing flexibility; it all depends on your unique needs, the software you use, and your goals as a photo editor. Both formats are good, but JPEG excels with older software and computers, while HEIC is great for image editors who live on the cutting edge of technology.
JPEG vs HEIC: file size
When it comes to file size, HEIC beats out JPEG quite handily. The compression algorithms used to create HEIC files are able to pack more color data in a smaller-sized file in nearly every situation, which means that for photographers who prioritize file size, HEIC is almost always going to be the better option.
HEIC even offers a Lossless option, which reduces file size without any reduction in quality whatsoever. JPEG does not allow for this at all; JPEG images, even those saved at 100% quality, utilize a degree of lossy compression.
JPEG vs HEIC: sharing
One of the most important benefits that JPEG has over HEIC is that it’s simply more popular – massively more popular, in fact. If you shoot in JPEG and share your picture over text or email, or you post it to a social network, it’ll work just fine. It doesn’t matter what device anyone is using, what software they’ve installed, or what internet browser your friends and family use. JPEG works great, and it works everywhere. Even websites that require you to upload files for a warranty claim or proof of purchase will accept JPEG as a valid format, but they’ll rarely accept HEIC.
HEIC, by contrast, is so new that you can never be quite sure that your photos will be viewable when you share them. The list of websites, apps, and social networks that allow HEIC is growing rapidly, but it just can’t compete with the sheer dominance of JPEG in the photo-sharing landscape.
Even Apple, which uses HEIC by default on iPhones, acknowledges the format’s compatibility limitations. You have two options for taking photos: HEIC (High Efficiency) or JPEG (Most Compatible.) As HEIC grows in popularity, this particular point will become less relevant – but for now, if you want your images to be shareable with the widest number of people across the most possible platforms, JPEG still wins.
JPEG vs HEIC: metadata
This might not matter to casual shooters, but for photographers who want to push their images to the limit, HEIC has the edge in terms of extra information storage. Both formats can store EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data such as exposure, camera model, time, date, and even GPS location.
However, HEIC is capable of storing additional metadata such as a depth map, which can be used by software like Lightroom to apply masks based on how close or far away certain parts of the picture are. These extra metadata options might not be useful for many people, but for professionals, hobbyists, and those who just want to explore more editing options, HEIC metadata is simply better than what JPEG can offer.
JPEG vs HEIC: verdict
While both JPEG and HEIC are perfectly fine file formats, HEIC is the clear winner for forward-thinking photographers who want the most out of their cameras and image-editing software. JPEG was an incredible option for decades, but it has been eclipsed by HEIC in almost every way.
Of course, JPEG is by no means unusable and continues to be the default option for many cameras and mobile phones, but HEIC offers more features with less storage space. While not as widely adopted as JPEG, HEIC will almost certainly become universal, and for people who want to make use of its advanced options right now, HEIC is an outstanding choice.
JPEG vs HEIC FAQ
JPEG files can be converted to HEIC with many modern software programs such as Photoshop and Luminar. While the resulting HEIC file will be smaller in size, you can’t add metadata like a depth map by simply converting from JPEG.
Any application that can open HEIC files can export them as JPEG. This is a great option for people who want to shoot in HEIC but occasionally need to share files with people whose computers don’t support HEIC.
All DSLR and mirrorless cameras have options to select the file type and quality. Traditionally, the options have been limited to JPEG and RAW, but HEIC is now a standard option on many cameras. You will need to look in your camera’s image-quality or image-format menu options or refer to the manufacturer’s website. You can also do an online search for “[Your Camera Model] HEIC,” which should give you the information you need.
If your mobile phone supports HEIC, that’s generally preferred over JPEG. Most social media apps now support HEIC, and the increase in image quality that HEIC offers over JPEG will help make your images stand out and get noticed. Some social media filters even work with HEIC metadata like depth maps to help you get more creative with your edits.
Eventually, HEIC will likely be replaced with other image formats, but that’s no reason not to embrace it now. No one knows what format will eventually take over from HEIC and it could be years, even decades, before that happens. Until then, the advantages that HEIC offers over JPEG will become increasingly important, especially as more people start to use HEIC instead of JPEG.