Move over JPEG, Here Comes HEIF!

One year ago, I posted here about a new image compression format called BPG, based on the HEVC video compression format. In that post, I told you why it will eventually replace JPEG as the most common image compression format for photos. Well, despite it’s comprehensive media coverage, and the fact that it was developed as open-source software by “super-programmer” Fabrice Bellard, the BPG format has not gained much ground in the last year. So today, I want to revise my prediction: I still think, as I wrote in the previous post, that JPEG is old, that a replacement should be based on the new HEVC video codec, and that it should not be backed by a single company (for example, JPEG-XR was backed mainly by Microsoft, and WebP was developed by Google).

In the past few months a new contender has emerged, which in my opinion has very good chances to take the image compression crown from JPEG after 25 years: It’s called HEIF (High Efficiency Image Format), and it is being developed by MPEG, the same standards body that was involved in the development of HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec), and all of the standard video compression technologies we are using today (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and H.264/AVC).

Flexible File Format

HEIF is based on the ISO Base Media Format, which we all know as MP4, the most common file format for video today. In principal, HEIF can store various types of images, but the main application of HEIF is to store images that have been compressed using the image tools of the HEVC video compression standard. By itself HEIF has some interesting features: It can store both single images and image sequences (photo bursts or video), it can store images and video that were captured simultaneously, and it can also store audio and text which are synchronized with the image sequences.

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Of particular interest to photographers is the ability of HEIF to support both lossy and lossless compression, so you can rest assured that the full quality of your captured photos will be preserved. But the most interesting feature for photographers, and one of the main advantages of HEIF over BPG, is the ability to store image editing operations. These operations, such as rotations, cropping, title and overlays result in “derived” images that are created from a base image. The base image and editing operations are stored separately in the file, and the derived image is created when the file is rendered for display. This gives photographers unprecedented freedom in applying non-destructive editing operations that can be stored in the image file and applied or removed at will.

Better than BPG?

Other advantages of HEIF over BPG are support for additional media types such as audio and text, support for “timed” image collections, and support for MPEG-7 metadata. So it’s quite clear that HEIF has the edge here. But does this mean HEIF will win over BPG (and JPEG)? Well, this is also a battle between two schools of thought: An open-source implementation that can be modified and extended at will, and develops rapidly (but can also be “forked” to create incompatible versions), vs. a format developed by a standards committee, where interoperability is guaranteed, but requires a strict and lengthy evaluation, approval and ratification process.
HEIF comes well-prepared to this battle, with an important element that will help it gain acceptance even before the final standard is ratified: An open-source JavaScript implementation of the HEIF file format reader, developed by Nokia. When combined with a JavaScript HEVC decoder such as libde265, this library adds HEIF support to any browser, without installing external software or plug-ins. So all you need to do in order to view HEIF photos and enjoy the faster load time and higher quality is to browse to a website. And by updating the JavaScript library, the website can stay on top of the latest standard revisions. Nokia is also offering an open source implementation of both the HEIF writer and reader in C, to enable easy creation of HEIF authoring tools, viewers and editors. Such wide open-source software support is bound to push the HEIF standard forward, and enable it to gain market share even before it is finalized.

But Will It Mini?

You bet! The same technology behind the JPEGmini image optimization software also powers our Beamr video optimization software, which supports both H.264 and HEVC. Beamr Video can reduce HEVC videos by 40%, so you can expect similar savings for the HEVC images inside HEIF files. But don’t fear, JPEG will stay with us for many years in the future, and you’ll always be able to reduce your JPEGs by up to 80% with JPEGmini, and never compromise quality.