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8 bit, 12 bit, 14 bit, 16 bit What Does It Really Mean to

Digital Photographers?
092011

Aug

You may be photographing 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, digital photography 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.
So what is bit depth?

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


Lets 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 lets 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. 16
million may seem like enough, but again, with heavy editing, you can see color banding or
blotchiness in your photo. Your high-bit-depth photo with billions of potential colors will hold up much
better.
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.

Note: I have printed these histograms from Photoshop. Lightroom smooths out the histogram, so you
wont see these gaps nevertheless, the quality issue issues still exist.
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Posted by Laura Shoe at 8:00 am Add comments

70 Responses to 8 bit, 12 bit, 14 bit, 16 bit What Does It Really Mean to Digital Photographers?
1.

8 versus 16 bit What Does It Really Mean? Laura Shoe (Digital Daily Dose) Photo News Today: News
and Pixelosophy more than 33,000 posts says:
November 18, 2009 at 7:22 pm
[] and Read More: digitaldailydose.wordpress.com Technorati Tags: 8 bit,16 []

2.

Steve Buser says:


November 19, 2009 at 12:55 pm
This is a good explanation. I hope I can remember all of this, the next time someone asks me about raw.

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
November 19, 2009 at 1:59 pm
Thanks, Steve!

Reply
3.

Tweets that mention 8 versus 16 bit What Does It Really Mean? Digital Daily Dose -- Topsy.comsays:
November 19, 2009 at 2:08 pm
[] 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? http://is.gd/4YXV3 RAW vs JPEG #photography []

4.

Twitted by Tawcan says:


November 19, 2009 at 2:11 pm
[] This post was Twitted by Tawcan []

5.

Paul says:
August 20, 2010 at 4:50 am
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

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
September 11, 2010 at 10:13 pm
Hi Paul, sorry, I just noticed your question. Im assuming you are asking if it is worth upgrading from 12-bit to 14-bit Raw. I
dont believe so yes, you would be going from 4,096 tones to 16,384, but I dont believe you would ever visually notice

the difference. Both are just so much higher than a jpegs 8-bit 256 tones. Yes, more is better, but I would look to other
camera features to justify the expense.

Reply

Sharon Mallinson says:


February 5, 2013 at 12:09 am
Brilliantly explained. Never understood this before!

Reply

6.

Paul says:
September 12, 2010 at 5:06 am
Thank you. I feel your answer is pertinent and correct. Ive already get used with marketing strategies. Al those fancy features
dont add to image quality so much I still might choose a 40d for its sRAW capability.

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
September 13, 2010 at 11:52 pm
Hi Paul, just to play devils 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.

Reply

7.

Paul Pacurar says:

September 14, 2010 at 12:40 am


you think like an American Because Im 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

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
September 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm
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 couldnt 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 youre confident of that, no need to waste space and money.

Reply

8.

Vincent Doyle says:


October 27, 2010 at 11:57 am
Paul, Thanks for that, I think I can see now how it works.
The fog is lifting.

Vincent

Reply

9.

David says:

February 19, 2011 at 11:13 am


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.

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
February 20, 2011 at 1:30 am
Thank you, David!

Reply

10.

John Woodman (@jwripple) says:


August 9, 2011 at 9:13 am
Very helpful. As so often, you have enabled me to understand an important concept for the first time. Im so pleased to have
found you!

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
August 9, 2011 at 9:16 am
Thank you, John!

Reply

11.

Garry says:
October 26, 2011 at 6:48 am
Why is it then that some of my filters are greyed out when Im working on a 16bit image, but not an 8 bit image.
I use the pinch tool often and I cant access it on a 16 bit image so my only choice is 8 bit

Reply

o
Laura Shoe says:
October 26, 2011 at 7:01 am
Garry, because many Photoshop filters dont work with 16 bit files you have to first convert them to 8.

Reply

Nancy says:
October 28, 2011 at 7:23 am
If you convert a PS file to 8 bit, then does it degrade your image? is it permanent?

Thanks for this explanation about bits. Very clear, and helpful.

Reply

Laura Shoe says:


October 28, 2011 at 8:38 pm
Nancy, it doesnt directly degrade the image, but if you need to do a lot of enhancement afterwards, you may see
banding. Do the heavy duty work first, then if you need to convert it to 8-bit to use Photoshop filters, do so
afterwards.

Reply

12.

Pasupathi says:
December 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm
I want to know something, Im doing a project in that, I get 8bit hex values(00 to FF) of each pixel and process that then Ill have
12bit hex values (00 to FFF) that is I increase the bit depth. Now I want to show the compressed image, In VB.NET bitmap
accepts 8bit,24bit, etc. So I have to convert the 12 bit depth to 8 bit. This is my problem. How can I proceed?