Raw versus HEIF


Today’s Question: Are HEIF/HEIC raw file types?

Tim’s Quick Answer: No, the HEIF/HEIF file type is not a raw capture format. It can be best described (at the risk of over-simplifying) as an improvement over the existing JPEG file type.

More Detail: Many photographers first came across the HEIC/HEIF image type with an update to the iOS operating systems for iPhones, which added support for this file format. You can opt to capture in JPEG for greater compatibility, or in HEIC for higher efficiency.

In this context, the primary advantage of HEIC/HEIF is that the file size will be about half that of a JPEG file with comparable image quality. The HEIC captures still employ lossy compression, meaning there is a degradation in image quality.

As with many other file formats, the particulars depend upon the specific implementation. For example, the HEIC/HEIF file type is capable of supporting 16-bit per channel bit depth, whereas the JPEG format only supports 8-bits per channel. However, on the iPhone the result will still be an 8-bit per channel image (at least with current models).

More to the point in terms of comparing to a raw capture, an HEIC/HEIF capture contains full pixel data for each pixel. In other words, the data gathered by the image sensor is processed in-camera to provide full pixel data. With a raw capture the actual information captured by the image sensor is recorded without processing (or with minimal processing), which can provide greater flexibility later in your workflow.

So, HEIC/HEIF is a great alternative to JPEG, and is increasingly supported by imaging software. However, there are still advantages to a raw capture when that option is available, in terms of potentially greater bit depth, greater dynamic range, and no image compression applied.