Laura Shoe's Lightroom (and Occasionally Photoshop) Blog for Digital Photographers

8 versus 16 bit — What Does It Really Mean?

In Uncategorized on August 9, 2011 at 8:00 am

(If viewing from blog home page, click on the post title to view the post larger.)

You may be shooting in raw rather than jpeg because you know that raw files contain more information and because they are unprocessed, giving you more flexibility.  But how do they contain more information?  Among other things, raw files are captured at a higher bit depth — depending on the camera, 12, 14 or 16 bit, compared to 8 bit for jpegs.   Whether 12, 14 or 16, these higher bit-depth files potentially contain much more information than 8 bit files.

What’s the big deal?   For each pixel in your image, the tonal value or brightness of the scene you are photographing  is stored in the image file on your memory card, along with the color.   Computer files store information in zeros and ones.  Bit depth refers to how many digits  the tonal information for each pixel is stored in.   Imagine if your camera used a bit-depth of one:  you would have one digit to store how dark each piece of the scene was, the only possible values would be 0 and 1, and the only two tones that could be represented are black and white:

Image From File with Bit Depth of One

This image of course has very little detail, since it contains no shades of gray.

If the file had a bit depth of two, there would be two digits, and the four values of 00, 01, 10, and 11 would be possible, so the image could have black, dark gray, light gray, and white:

Image from File with Bit Depth of 2

Notice that we have gained some detail, but that the image is still very choppy.  In the histogram for this image, below, we see huge gaps between the tones, confirming the choppiness or posterization.  (The histogram is a graph of the tones in an image, going from pure black on the left side to pure white on the right side.)

Histogram for File with Bit Depth of 2

Let’s jump to a file with a bit depth of 5, which allows 2 to the 5th, or 32 possible values from 00000 to 11111:

Image from File with Bit Depth of 5

We gain alot of detail, but there is still obvious posterization in the sky (click on the image to see it larger).  The histogram supports this:

Histogram for Image with Bit Depth of 5

Now let’s jump to 8, which allows 2 to the 8th, or 256 values, and is what a jpeg supports:

Image with Bit Depth of 8

Histogram of Image with Bit Depth of 8

This image shows the full detail of the scene with no visible posterization, even when viewed at full size, and the histogram looks much better.  (If you see any posterization, it is not real, but rather just the result of my blog save process.)  So why not stop here, with 8 bits and 256 tones?

The problem is that as soon as you start enhancing your image, you start compressing and expanding the tonal range.  This creates choppiness in the histogram and potentially, visible posterization in your image.  To show this, I took this 8 bit image into Photoshop, and added contrast and darkened it:

Darkened and Added Contrast to 8 Bit Image

Notice how this pulled apart the histogram:

Result of Working 8 Bit Image

The more heavy-handed your adjustments, the more and wider gaps you will end up with in your histogram, and the greater possibility that you will see posterization in your image.  256 tones is often not enough for the fine detail in the image to hold together.

12 bit files have over 4,000 tones, and 14 bit files have over 16,000.  This is vastly better, and with almost any work you could do to an image, it would hold together.  Here is the histogram from the 12 bit version of the above image, with the darkening and increased contrast:

Histogram from 12 Bit Version with Darkening and Contrast Boost

To have this additional “editing headroom”, you have to capture a high bit-depth image, i.e. a raw file, and you have to enhance it as a high-bit depth file.  It does no good to convert a raw file into 8 bit as you move into Photoshop to work it.  While you are working in Lightroom or Camera Raw, your work on your raw file is in 16 bit (standardized to accomodate 12, 14 and 16).  When you move a file from Lightroom or ACR to Photoshop, you need to ensure that the Photoshop file stays in 16 bit.  In Lightroom, go to Edit or Lightroom>Preferences>External Editing, and set your PSD or TIFF preference to 16 bit.  In ACR, click on the workflow options at the bottom of the screen and do the same.

Higher bit depth files also potentially have a much larger number of colors:  an 8-bit  jpeg can represent around 16 million colors, whereas a high bit-depth file can represent over 28 billion.  Perhaps we could make do with 16 million, but if your photography is important to you, why not start out and work with the best quality image possible?

The downside to higher bit-depth is larger image files — all else equal, a 16 bit image file is twice as big as an 8 bit image file.  But large memory cards and hard drives are so much cheaper these days than they used to be.

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  1. This is a good explanation. I hope I can remember all of this, the next time someone asks me about raw.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Rouse, Tawcan and Forrest Tanaka, Alyce Taylor. Alyce Taylor said: 8 versus 16 bit — What Does It Really Mean? RAW vs JPEG #photography […]

  3. […] This post was Twitted by Tawcan […]

  4. exactly what I was looking for. And now, here comes the consequence:
    does it worth upgrading for a camera that can save in 14bit Raw? (Like 40d or d300..)? I hope it does…

    • Hi Paul, sorry, I just noticed your question. I’m assuming you are asking if it is worth upgrading from 12-bit to 14-bit Raw. I don’t believe so — yes, you would be going from 4,096 tones to 16,384, but I don’t believe you would ever visually notice the difference. Both are just so much higher than a jpeg’s 8-bit 256 tones. Yes, more is better, but I would look to other camera features to justify the expense.

  5. Thank you. I feel your answer is pertinent and correct. I’ve already get used with marketing strategies. Al those fancy features don’t add to image quality so much… I still might choose a 40d for it’s sRAW capability….

    • Hi Paul, just to play devil’s advocate, why pay $1000+ for the ability to get smaller raw files? Why not capture the most information your camera is capable of, and when needed, export downsized jpegs/tiffs from Lightroom? Memory cards and hard drives are cheap these days, exporting (especially using templates) is very quick and easy.

  6. you think like an American… Because I’m NOT an American, and my computing (PC) systems it has also limited resources and I usually downsize all pictures to less than 1500px and so that small raw format is really a good thing. It takes the best of the image, not a lot of useless noisy pixels…
    *Anyway, Lightroom (a software stupidly written in a script language! not C++ or something…) is quite lazy when it comes to raw files, so reducing their size is an extremely good thing…

    • Lol, Paul … well since I am an American it is hard to refute that, but primarily I think like someone who wants the ability to do high quality (and occassonally large) prints. I definitely couldn’t do that with a 1500 pixel image, and I fear that I would LOVE something that I shot small, and not be able to print it to my satisfaction. But I agree, if you only need small images and you’re confident of that, no need to waste space and money.

  7. Paul, Thanks for that, I think I can see now how it works.
    The fog is lifting.


  8. Nice intro and explanation of this topic! I just shared on Twitter as well (@davidkammphoto, @thegreekcat).

    I essentially always shoot RAW and process in LR3 now. Love that combo.

  9. Very helpful. As so often, you have enabled me to understand an important concept for the first time. I’m so pleased to have found you!

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