8-bit vs 16-bit – What Color Depth You Should Use And Why It Matters

Feb 24, 2015

Conny Wallstrom

Conny Wallstrom is an experienced software developer, turned retoucher and turned photographer. Based in Sweden with focus on beauty, fashion & advertising. Creator of Retouch Toolkit software, a Photoshop add-on for professional retouchers.

8-bit vs 16-bit – What Color Depth You Should Use And Why It Matters

Feb 24, 2015

Conny Wallstrom

Conny Wallstrom is an experienced software developer, turned retoucher and turned photographer. Based in Sweden with focus on beauty, fashion & advertising. Creator of Retouch Toolkit software, a Photoshop add-on for professional retouchers.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

color-depth_01

When going into an edit process there is much confusion about what color depth should one use. Some pieces of knowledge are more relevant than others and some are not relevant at all. Either way, the selection of color depth in which you edit will have a huge impact on the final editing result.

The purpose of this article is to try and clear up the confusion about bit depth and give you advice on what bit depth to choose when you edit and output your images.

’Bit depth’ and ‘Bit size’

A ‘bit’ is a computer term for data storage. It can only contain two values, typically 0 or 1. 8-bit simply means the data chunk is 8 bits in total (or 2 to the power of 8, as each bit can be either ‘1’ or ‘0’). This allows for numeric values ranging from 0 to 255.

Similarly 16-bit means the data size is 16 bits in total. (or 2 to the power of 16) This allows for numeric values ranging from 0 to 65535.

Sidenote: Photoshop does not seem to be using the full range of those 16-bits. If you look at the built in information panel it allows you to swap to 16-bit view and it then shows 0-32768 values. Meaning it would in fact be 15-bits +1. For the purpose of this article this is not that big of a deal though, so I am going to show the difference to 16-bits to keep things simple.

To give you a general idea, a comparison 16 bits can contain 256 times more numerical values then 8 bits. If you were to put it on a graph, this is what it would look like:

bit-depth-bpc

Bits Per Pixel

Bits per channel are pretty easy to understand, it is the number of bit used to represent one of the color channels (Red, Green, Blue). But to complicate things the ‘bit depth’ setting when editing images, specifies the number of bits used for each color channel – bits per channel (BPC).

bit-depth-bpp

This means that the 8-bit setting (BPC) is in fact 24-bits per pixel (BPP). Meaning that each pixel can have values ranging from 0 to 16,777,215, representing about 16 million colors.

As the human eye can only discern about 10 million different colors, this sounds like a lot. But if you consider that a neutral (single color) gradient can only have 256 different values, you will quickly understand why similar tones in an 8-bit image can cause artifacts. Those artifacts are called posterization.

Similarly the 16-bit setting (BPC) would result in 48-bits per pixel (BPP). The available number of pixel values here is mind boggling (2^48). More than 16 million times more numerical values then the 8-bit setting. Again, this may seem like an overkill, but if you consider the neutral color gradient again, the maximum amount of tonal values is ‘only’ 65,536.

Note: Photoshop will often show a color value between 0 to 255 per channel regardless of what bit depth you edit in. This is purely to simplify things for the user. Behind the scenes it utilizes the full value range. So, pure green, for example, in 8-bit is {0,255,0} and in 16-bit it is {0,32768,0}.

Tonal Graduation

To get a smooth graduation between to tones, you need the space in between those tones to have enough width to hide the graduation. Like so:

bit-depth-smooth

If your colors are limited you are going to see a banding effect, like so:

bit-depth-banding

The lower the bit depth, and the closer the start and end tonal values are to each other, the bigger risk of getting banding. If we take this to extreme, imagine that if you only had a bit depth of one bit the gradient you have at your disposal is really limited: either black or white. If you have 2 bits, you can add 66% black and 33% black, but still it will not be a smooth transition.

An example:

If you want to go between tonal value 50 and 100, there are only 50 possible steps. If you stretch that out over a larger distance you are definitely going to see banding.

This is what would happen if we were working in 8 bit (BPC) setting – just 50 steps. Now let’s try that in 16 bit setting (BPC), now we have 6,400 steps and can render a much smoother image!

Tonal Range

When you look at a histogram of an image you are looking at its tonal range. At the far left the tonal value is 0 and at the far right the tonal value is 255, giving you a range of 8 bits. (As I explained earlier, this histogram actually represents a larger range in 16-bit mode; 0 to 32768)

bit-depth-histogram

The risk of editing in 8-bit is that you could lose information if you were to push and pull on your edits. Meaning if you go one direction with your color then decide to go back, you will risk losing some of the original data, and ending up with ‘gaps in the histogram’.

bit-depth-histogram1

If you get gaps such as the histogram above, then you don’t have a smooth tonal spread. Which in turn could lead to banding and unwanted color variations.

Limitations

Output Devices

Unfortunately most typical desktop displays only support 8 bits of color data per channel. This means that even if you chose to edit in 16-bit, the tonal values you see, are going to be limited by your computer and display.

Some professional grade displays have support for 10 bits of color data per channel. To use those, however, you must also make sure that your graphic card, cables, and operating system supports a deeper-than-8 color depth as well.

If you are a MAC user, unfortunately, there is  no support for deeper bit-depths in the operating system. As far as I know, there is nothing in Yosemite to indicate that this has changed.

Similarly to computer displays there are wide gamut printers that make use of the 16 bit data. But most printers do not. This is something you should be aware of as well, if you are planning to print in 16 bits range.

Size

The file size of a 16-bit image is twice the size of a 8-bit image. This affects processing speed, memory usage, and hard drive storage.

Conny’s tip: When you have layers as smart objects, Photoshop allows you to set a different bit depth for the individual objects than the one of the source document. This means you are allowed to mix bit depths inside the same document to some extent.

RAW Image Data

Camera sensors typically store data in 12 or 14 bits per channel. So logically speaking, as most of you already know, you are throwing away a good chunk of information when you convert your image to 8 bits per channel.

But this is not the whole truth, as the data size used does not mean the sensor can capture the whole range of those variances. In fact Dx0 Mark has the leading score for color depth listed just above 25 bits per pixel. If you remember from earlier a 8-bit image (bpc) has a color depth of 24 bits per pixel (bpp).

This is because the data captured in RAW files is not linear. Groups of values may sometimes be represented by a single number.

Of course RAW has a lot of other advantages as well, because it is the actual unprocessed data. So you are able to tweak all the develop settings yourself, and all those tweaks will result in even more fine-tuned result.

Dithering

To break up posterization, imaging software will often add something called ‘dither’. In the image below, there are three different methods of dithering. The first image (#1) is the original full color version. The second image (#2) is converted to 256 colors with dithering turned off. Images #3-5 are only 256 colors also – but with different methods of dithering applied.

bit-depth-dither

I chose only 256 colors to show the effect more clearly. But as you can see, a little bit of variation can go a long way in breaking up the abrupt changes of tone.

If you convert an 16-bit image to 8-bit inside Photoshop, it will automatically dither the graduations!

Conny’s note: You can further improve all your graduations by introducing some noise or texture yourself. I do this to some degree on all my images.

Settings

This is probably the part that you want to read, it shows how to incorporate all this theoretical information in your workflow. I am going to show the steps in the Adobe Suite, but other programs have similar controls.

Inside of Photoshop you can set bit depth when you create a new document. If you want to change bit depth on an already opened document you go to menu Image>Mode.

Quick Tip: You can easily tell what bit depth you are using by looking at the document title. It will say */8 or */16.

To access the setting when opening an image from Adobe Camera Raw, simply click on the blue link at the bottom of the window:

bit-depth-camera-raw

Inside of Adobe Lightroom, you can set bit depth under program preferences, or in export settings:

bit-depth-lightroom-pref

Should I always edit in 16 bits?

With all the topics of this article you could easily think that editing in 16-bit is always best, and it is definitely not. Very much like shooting in RAW is not always best. It depends on the situation.

  • 8-bit is best when you do minor editing, and computer resources is a concern.
  • 16-bit is best when you do major editing, on few images, and have the latest computer hardware.

If you still not sure what to chose, then answer these questions:

  • Does your computer run slow when you edit your images?
  • Are your hard drives full all the time?
  • Is the difference between your unedited and edited images minor?
  • Is your main output the web?
  • Do you edit a large number of images per day?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the questions above, you are most likely better off editing in 8-bit.

Still not sure?

  • Do you use the gradient tool when editing your images?
  • Do you paint with large soft brushes on your image?
  • Is your images of similar tonality and color?
  • Does your histogram display gaps in the tonal range?

If you answered ‘Yes’ now, you are actually making use of the extra bit depth, and should consider using the 16-bit color depth setting.

I personally would have liked to see Photoshop support for 10 or 12 bit. I feel 16-bit is overkill for most images.

Q&A

Q. My source image is in 8-bit. Should I convert it to 16-bit while editing it?
A. Probably not. The conversion will not help with your existing tonal graduations and color tones. Though if you are doing any editing that introduce new graduations, or very subtle color variations, you might benefit from converting.

Q. I edit in 16-bit and I still see posterization/banding on my screen?
A. This is most likely because of your display and/or color profiles. Check the section above on limitations.

Q. What about color space?
A. To put it simply, color space determines how the available tonal values are distributed. My quick recommendation is to use Adobe RGB for everything except when exporting for web. You need to convert to sRGB on web images or they will not display correctly for the vast majority of users.

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

Conny Wallstrom

Conny Wallstrom

Conny Wallstrom is an experienced software developer, turned retoucher and turned photographer. Based in Sweden with focus on beauty, fashion & advertising. Creator of Retouch Toolkit software, a Photoshop add-on for professional retouchers.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

37 responses to “8-bit vs 16-bit – What Color Depth You Should Use And Why It Matters”

  1. El Jev Avatar
    El Jev

    I’ve been wondering this for a long time
    I produce high quality panoramic tours for web and panoramic images for print
    These are High dynamic range (HDR) composites of large size raws,
    in sizes from 32 to 80 megapixels

    In the process, there is a lot of exporting and importing involved (about 4 to 5 times from *.CR2 to finalised virtual tour). For that reason I always keep my resaves in 16 bit TIFF format, but do I need to? Logic tells me yes, and i can clearly see the difference between a tour kept in TIFF and one where JPG was used all the time.

    Betweeen 16 and 8 bit TIFF i’m not so sure however….

    You’re welcome to check out my website at http://www.rondomrond.be :)

    1. Serkan Colak Avatar
      Serkan Colak

      10 bit display is available on macintoshes right now. Finally El Capitan allows you to do that. It has not been available for 8 years, since snow leopard! New Adobe photoshop versions on mac also supports it! But, do not forget you need to have 10bit support video card (such as nvdia quadro or amd fire pro), which only mac pro has it. or maybe equivalent hackintosh. And you need high color gamut monitor like EIZO.

  2. Steven Avatar
    Steven

    I didn’t know you could set Lightroom to always open a file in Photoshop using a selected colour space, that’s brilliant. Saves converting from ProPhoto(RGB) to my calibrated profile (almost) every time (because sometimes I forget :-( )

  3. Andrew Elias Avatar
    Andrew Elias

    I think it would be pretty obvious you’ve made a poor choice in bit depth the instant the image came on the screen.

  4. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    With a 8bit videocard (only 10bit videocards are the new professional models nvidia & amd) you could see 7bit color of the human eye (aprox. 10 milion colors, 8bit 16.7 milion colors, 10 bit 1.07 bilion colors… 16bit is useless just marketing)

  5. arz Avatar
    arz

    Hi ..thank you for text…. But i amconfused … You tell us that 16 bit format has 65536 color tone for each of green,red,blue…but in photoshop we see only 256 color tone for each rgb… Where are othere color tone? How i see those?

  6. Greg Miller Avatar
    Greg Miller

    Yes but…. The samples here aren’t a reasonable representation of the quality of your average 8 bit file. Only if a person is manipulating a very low contrast image to a higher contrast image would you ever see the obvious posterization that is apparent in the background gradient on the first image. This isn’t at all normal on properly exposed 8 bit image file. Keep in mind, a three channel 8 bit file still can have 16 million + colors. Plenty for most applications. This kind of artifacting is more likely to come with over compression than with a too low of bit depth. While I don’t entirely disagree with the article, some points are overstated IMO.

    1. Joe_Valley Avatar
      Joe_Valley

      Oh, sweet. Yes, things in context of other variables…compression…etc. Thanks Greg Miller. Very helpful comment.

      1. Greg Miller Avatar
        Greg Miller

        Thanks Joe. As I understand it, web colors are 24 bit color. Broken down that’s 8 bit’s per three color channels – RGB. Exactly the same as a Jpeg image. Correct me if I’m wrong…so in demonstrating with images the advantage of a 16 bit bit image over 8 bit, the author is having to do that by essentially showing an 8 bit per channel image to show how much better a 16 bit image looks. I do understand the reasons for working in 16 bit, but it’s not always completely necessary. 8 bit images can look great too.

    2. Rob Avatar
      Rob

      Properly exposed, yes, 8 bit is fine. However if you are trying to pull details out of the shadows or an under or overexposed area of the photo, the higher bit depth provides enough color information to let you do it without going into a multiple exposure HDR image.

      1. Greg Miller Avatar
        Greg Miller

        Agreed. I just feel the article is overstating the point. After All, the superior 16 bit samples here are in fact being shown in an 8 bit online environment.

        1. Rob Avatar
          Rob

          True, but I think the goal of the writer was to help people understand the difference in bit depth.

          I didn’t notice him explaining 32 bit (most displays and graphics cards are 32 bit). Where it is still 8 bit per color, but includes a transparency channel.

          What I hate is the new TV’s that claim High Dynamic Range (HDR), while most are still 8 bit displays with a 10 bit input. Only the premium TV sets are true 10 bit. Yet they are allowed to call it HDR. Such marketing hype. Same goes for overstating the refresh rates with buzzwords to hide the facts.

          1. Greg Miller Avatar
            Greg Miller

            yep…We’re on the same page. I just think that in the opener here for instance it’s written, “selection of color depth in which you edit will have a huge impact on the final editing result”…the word “will” should be “could”. I do a ton of film scanning at both 8 and 16 bit for clients and more often than not, you can see no practical difference at all. These differences shown in the article are more likely to come with repeated editing and resaving of a low bit depth file. haha..sorry if I’m being argumentative. :)

          2. Rob Avatar
            Rob

            So true. On scans I have yet to see a marked benefit unless I upscale resolution post processing. Most images you scan have limited dynamic range anyway (except perhaps the old Kodachrome slides). On RAW direct from the camera, the differences are more noticeable in the shadows.

      2. Dedek Hajes Avatar
        Dedek Hajes

        try to scan Fuji Velvia 50, I dare you :-P

        even the most hardcore, high-tech drum scanner fails :-D

        1. Greg Miller Avatar
          Greg Miller

          Do you mean at 8 bit? What do you consider a fail? Send me an image and I’ll do you a sample scan on our Creo iQsmart 3. Not sure if you’ll consider it a fail or not. Next week I have a friend from Phase One coming to stay with us for a week and he’ll be bringing his IQ3 100 megapixel back for us to try on our copy stand. If you can ship to Canada by then, I can include a sample from this system too using Phase Ones software for film capture if you wanted to see that.

          You can contact me at mail@filmrescue.com

  7. Dedek Hajes Avatar
    Dedek Hajes

    I have properly exposed images of mountains all the time and posterization kicks in all the time in sky ;-) Of course in JPEG.

    8b, sRGB, JPEG is standard for printing if properly exported from scans/RAW 16b+

  • Serkan Colak Avatar
    Serkan Colak

    10 bit display is available on macintoshes right now. Finally El Capitan allows you to do that. It has not been available for 8 years, since snow leopard! New Adobe photoshop versions on mac also supports it! But, do not forget you need to have 10bit support video card (such as nvdia quadro or amd fire pro), which only mac pro has it. or maybe equivalent hackintosh. And you need high color gamut monitor like EIZO. aaaa

  • John Vanderburg Avatar
    John Vanderburg

    According to the system information on my Mac, the pixel depth (which I understand to be the same as bit depth) for the display is 32-Bit Color (ARGB8888). This suggests to me that Macs do support higher bit depths. Am I looking in the wrong place? I’m curious because I’m just beginning to understand the 8-bit vs. 16-bit relationship, but in my experimentation, my results aren’t making sense. Specifically, I took an 8-bit JPG and 16-bit TIF of the same image, blurred them both to the same degree, and came up with the same posterization. I thought at first it might be my display, but upon closer look, it seems like it might not be.

    1. Alex_Atkin_UK Avatar
      Alex_Atkin_UK

      The pixel depth is what its generating internally in the frame buffer, it doesn’t indicate your display can output anything close to that.

      Your actual display can be anything from a poorly calibrated 6bit upwards, depending on how expensive it is. The only way to be sure the image is what you think it is would be to have a professional grade screen, calibrated to Adobe RGB, which is what professionals would normally use.

    2. Dedek Hajes Avatar
      Dedek Hajes

      my Apple MBP has got 30bits…your eyes can see barely 6bit so don’t worry about it ;-) It is for digital-imaging-tuners.

      if you have posterization, then your image has been poorly exposed. It usually happens to me if I have to compromise sky for shades…JPEG ends up with sky posterization

  • kesavan Avatar
    kesavan

    i have a 16 bit linear image for work.its not easy to find out some particles in some video software.whether its possible to covert into 10bit and work then i have to change
    to 16 bit?

  • amit kumar Avatar
    amit kumar

    If we take a 8 bit image ,what will be the depth of colour and pixel

  • Nyerguds Avatar
    Nyerguds

    This article could be more clear about the difference between bits per pixel and bits per colour component… “8-bit” and “16-bit” images are generally defined as having that amount of bits per PIXEL. Might be worth at least mentioning those to avoid confusion.

    The preview image doesn’t help; the supposed quality difference there looks more like paletted vs true colour. In fact the used format can’t show the intended difference since jpeg colour components are only 8-bit.

    1. Dedek Hajes Avatar
      Dedek Hajes

      what don’t you understand about “Bits per Pixel”. It is clearly written as BPC (Bits Per Channell) and BPP (Bits Per Pixel). Usually, bits per channel is used across the photo industry

      1. Nyerguds Avatar
        Nyerguds

        No, I understand that very well. But as the article specifically mentions, “most typical desktop displays only support 8 bits of color data per channel.” This means all images shown in the article that are supposed to show that 8 BPC is somehow worse than 16 BPC are completely faked.

        The grayscale fade with “banding” was deliberately reduced to only 69 colours, for a gradient of 55 to 127, which can perfectly be made as a smooth 72 colour without any visible banding. In contrast, the supposed “smooth” one isn’t 16 BPC grayscale either; it’s 8 BPC RGB with a noise effect that uses closely-related non-gray colours to reduce visible banding. Apply contrast to the image and this shows up immediately.

        The dithering part – completely out of the blue – starts talking about 256-colour images, without any introduction of what those even are or mean, and then suddenly ends up with talking about “converting 16-bit images to 8-bit images”, without specifying that in this context, this refers to 8 bit per pixel.

        Overall, the whole thing comes across as a deliberate attempt to convince people that 16 BPC is a huge improvement over 8 BPC, using completely faked image material.

  • Kristen Heitzmann Avatar
    Kristen Heitzmann

    Is 32 bits even usable? I see it in the choices and brought my photos in that way, but the tools don’t support it. Will it degrade my images for print if I go to 16?

    1. Clay Wheeler Avatar
      Clay Wheeler

      32 Bits color space usually only being used by high-end Photographer, and cameras that can do this usually more than $3000. Another people who use 32 Bits are Movie production. Currently there is no Printer in existence that can do 32 bits.

      16 Bits color used by most digital artist and photographer with somewhat decent Computer for editing. Most of High-End Printer and Paper that can print this always around $5000 and never being sold for personal user.
      14 Bits, 12 Bits, 10 Bits often used by BluRay movie Encoder. Video games developer often use these values for modern games. Several affordable Printers can perform 14 bits.

      8 Bits often used by most people for almost everything, from YouTube videos, Photoshop, Digital Drawing, Web developers, Live Streaming, Printing. However with current Network Bandwidth technology, 10 Bits is the maximum limit for online stuff like there are less than 1% of website in all of internet that use 10 Bits color, even YouTube is still in Trial stage to use 10 Bits.
      Because technically, it takes more CPU Powers to process all of Color information in 10 Bits and up.

    2. Dedek Hajes Avatar
      Dedek Hajes

      any printer can do barely 12bits so it is still overkill ;-) Even popular spitters crowd still don’t understand that whatever you print with exotic color profiles and high bit depths, you still can see about 8-10mil colors…sRGB cover 16.8M colors…I wonder if those guys feel as fools if they realize they have been had :-D

      I have recently interesting chat with guy who runs Photo Minilab in Vienna. I wanted max quality for my first photo book from my life in Scotland. So I prepared TIFF, 16b with ProPhoto RGB. Why not, my Canon 5Ds has 14b DAC so logically it is important right?

      As it turns out, local CEWE Fotoautomat develops hogher quality photos on real photo paper in just JPEG, 8b, sRGB at 200-300dpi ROFL. Guess what, one picture costs 0.89€ whereas “pro” lab charged me at least twice for dull, poorly developed photos. So much for high-tech world where Apple Retina brags about amazing numbers and my Apple LCD is great but forget to reproduce this beauty on photo paper ;-)

      Bottom line, do all your edits in highest quality right from your camera and export TIFF, 8b, sRGB images for printing…your photos will look better than any pseudo Fine-art printers because sRGB is standard at least 30 years and it is already overkill for human sight 8-10 vs 16.8M colors ;-)

    3. Digi5Studios Avatar
      Digi5Studios

      Thanks for marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author. I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later on, you have posted a trust worthy blog keep sharing,
      clipping path services provider company

  • Lorelei Avatar
    Lorelei

    I usually use photoshop for such photo editing. This is very convenient, because there are such cool free things like http://fixthephoto.com/free-photoshop-textures
    This makes it possible to do original and beautiful photo manipulation!

  • Charly McCracken Avatar
    Charly McCracken

    Great article Conny. Clear and concise with the ability for us to choose based on your “do you” questions. Thanks so much. I got it!

  • my one Avatar
    my one

    As a 3D developper which to work with? And also 100% and %99 srgb has any real difference? Because i ll purchase a monitor and i m stuck, i cant decide, afterall i m thinking also that not everyone has 10bit monitor so why working with a 10bit monitor.?

    1. Dedek Hajes Avatar
      Dedek Hajes

      stick to sRGB standard a your customers will be more happy than with theoretical figures. My Apple can do 30bits but no photo paper can reproduce that

  • thames taxi Avatar
    thames taxi

    I usually use photoshop for such photo editing. very valuable information. You want to take clipping path service provider company in USA.

  • Best Photo Editing Avatar
    Best Photo Editing

    Really lovely tips share with me. Thank you so much for good advice!!!
    Photo Retouching

  • clippingmaskphotoshop Avatar
    clippingmaskphotoshop

    Best information you shared here details, thanks