A New Era in Digital Photo File Formats Is Dawning

The JPEG image file format has had a good run. In 2018, we wondered how much longer the JPEG could survive. The answer, it turns out, is at least a few more years—if not more.

Today, while the JPEG is still a dominant format, it has serious competition from HEIF, a format developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). HEIF offers superior compression compared to a JPEG, while also supporting advanced features—high bit depth color, image stacking and the compilation of short video clips—that existing iterations of the JPEG format don’t.

Apple was the first to embrace HEIF when it introduced OS 11 in 2017, followed by Android-capable devices in 2018. Adoption by the two largest smartphone platforms—and, by extension, the largest camera makers in the world—quickly spurred adoption of the HEIF format on a host of peripheral devices, laptops, PCs and software.

In 2020, even traditional digital camera makers like Canon and Sony got in on the act, adding support for HEIF format stills. (Canon even let slip that it had “moved on” from JPEGs, before quickly walking back the comment.)

Like a well-planned family vacation, HEIF offers a little something for everyone. For smartphone vendors, its superior compression helps them squeeze more images onto memory-starved camera rolls. The ability to capture short bursts of motion, popularized by Apple’s “Live Photos,” puts new creative options into the hands of GIF enthusiasts everywhere.

For traditional camera manufacturers, HEIF’s support for higher bit-depth images brings better image quality without ballooning file sizes. It also makes it easier to capture images with a higher dynamic range. High dynamic range images are typically shot using in-camera modes that capture and blend multiple exposures at once, or through a manual process in post-processing software. Using a 10-bit HEIF file gives more casual snapshooters the ability to capture HDR-like images without the work.

While HEIF appears to have plenty of advantages and widespread adoption, the consortium behind the JPEG has not taken the advent of HEIF lying down. They’ve been working on an advanced successor—JPEG XL—that, in its creators’ words, “fills the specific needs for responsive web, wide colour gamut, and high dynamic range applications.”

While there are no cameras capturing JPEG XL images just yet, the format has its own set of unique advantages. For one, it supports progressive decoding so that images load faster on small displays. The baseline version of the format is intended to be available royalty-free, which the Joint Photographic Experts Group hopes will make it an economically attractive option for manufacturers and software providers.

Will one format prevail over the other? Probably not. Instead, we may see support for JPEG XL added to devices that typically support older JPEG formats. Apple, for instance, continues to make JPEG image capture an option on its phones, albeit not by default.

For a format with as long a history as the JPEG, even being the runner-up format is certainly better than being put out to pasture.