Do HEIC Photos Really Look This Bad? – Update: They Look Bad in macOS Sierra

NOTE: After writing this article and examining the photos, I found what the difference is. My tests were done in Apple’s Photos app on macOS Sierra. While this supports HEIC, as you can see in the screenshots, it clearly has issues. Testing on the macOS High Sierra golden master release, the photos are of similar quality (though the colors are a bit different). So the issue isn’t HEIC as such. However, if you plan to not upgrade to High Sierra, then definitely don’t turn on the setting for HEIC photos. They’ll look like crap.

NOTE 2: I’ve found that some photos still look like crap even with High Sierra. I’m switching back to JPEG, and you should look at your photos and see whether you think HEIC is good enough.

Apple has introduced HEIC as a new format for storing photos. They’re supposed to look good at smaller file sizes. My first test shows they actually suck.

I have a 10.5″ iPad Pro, which supports HEIC, the new format that Apple is offering for photos. You activate it in Settings > Camera:

Camera settings

I took a few photos, and I’m appalled at the quality. Here are a couple of examples.

The first photo was of Rosalind the Cat. Here’s the photo (cropped so I don’t have to scale it down), exported from Apple Photos as a JPEG:

Here’s a 300% zoom of her face; I took a screenshot of the zoom in Acorn:

Zoom

The noise and artifacts are especially visible around the eyes.

I thought that perhaps the light was low, so I took two books, with which it’s easy to see whether the photos are crisp by looking at the text on their covers, and shot them next to a window. Here’s the overall photo shot in JPEG by my iPhone SE:

Example

And here are screenshots of the book on the right, zoomed in on the title. The JPEG is first, and the HEIC second. These are both from screenshots of the photos in the Photos app, zoomed in around the same amount.

Aside from the color difference – which could have something to do with the camera on the iPhone and the iPad – you can clearly see how fuzzy the titles are. I’ll do a tighter zoom now, JPEG then HEIC:

The difference here is striking. I was wondering if the camera in the iPad Pro was of lower quality (even though it’s the same 12 Mp resolution) than the iPhone SE, but this Macworld article says that the iPad Pro 9.7″ has the same camera as the iPhone 6s, so presumably the camera on the iPad Pro 10.5″ is no worse than that. I believe that the iPhone SE has the same camera too.

This format is new, and perhaps there’s something that is not optimized yet, either in iOS 11 or in the Photos app, but the HEIC photos I’ve taken for my tests are simply horrible.

16 thoughts on “Do HEIC Photos Really Look This Bad? – Update: They Look Bad in macOS Sierra

  1. That’s really bad. I’m not sure what artifacts I’m supposed to see with the cat’s image, but the book title is terrible.

    I don’t always agree with Kirk, but you have to respect someone who reads Barzun’s thoughts on William James. Barzun’s “Simple & Direct” was a major influence in my becoming a technical writer. (I’ve never finished “From Dawn to Decadence”.)

    • Barzun was a genius. I loved Simple and Direct (and I should read it again), and I very much liked From Dawn to Decadence. It’s one of those truly great books written by a polymath.

      As for the cat, look around the eyes. It might not show up well because I had to reduce the size of the image.

      Oh, and read the book on James, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s really good (I’ve been rereading it recently).

      • Anything that might help me understand the James boys is probably worth reading. (I can’t get read past the first few paragraphs in a Henry James novel.)

  2. That’s really bad. I’m not sure what artifacts I’m supposed to see with the cat’s image, but the book title is terrible.

    I don’t always agree with Kirk, but you have to respect someone who reads Barzun’s thoughts on William James. Barzun’s “Simple & Direct” was a major influence in my becoming a technical writer. (I’ve never finished “From Dawn to Decadence”.)

    • Barzun was a genius. I loved Simple and Direct (and I should read it again), and I very much liked From Dawn to Decadence. It’s one of those truly great books written by a polymath.

      As for the cat, look around the eyes. It might not show up well because I had to reduce the size of the image.

      Oh, and read the book on James, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s really good (I’ve been rereading it recently).

      • Anything that might help me understand the James boys is probably worth reading. (I can’t get read past the first few paragraphs in a Henry James novel.)

  3. Amazingly icky! I could easily spot the artifacts–remind of a very badly over-compressed JPG. How could this garbage make it past whatever passes for quality testing at Apple. And they have such shadowy and sketchy documentation that you need to, as you did, find out for yourself how lousy for yourself. I can’t help but wonder how many folks will discover this only after they find themselves with a bunch of lousy photos were made lousy just because of the way they were saved.

  4. Amazingly icky! I could easily spot the artifacts–remind of a very badly over-compressed JPG. How could this garbage make it past whatever passes for quality testing at Apple. And they have such shadowy and sketchy documentation that you need to, as you did, find out for yourself how lousy for yourself. I can’t help but wonder how many folks will discover this only after they find themselves with a bunch of lousy photos were made lousy just because of the way they were saved.

  5. Kirk, a thought. Those sample pix look a lot like files that were originally a higher resolution but which were downsampled to “screen resolution” e.g. 72ppi. I suspect you ruled that out, but, wow: Bad.

    • Yes, you can see the pixel size in the inspectors in the screenshots from Photos. So it’s not about resolution.

  6. Kirk, a thought. Those sample pix look a lot like files that were originally a higher resolution but which were downsampled to “screen resolution” e.g. 72ppi. I suspect you ruled that out, but, wow: Bad.

    • Yes, you can see the pixel size in the inspectors in the screenshots from Photos. So it’s not about resolution.

  7. Thanks for the heads up! I will be slow to upgrade to High Sierra, waiting for the gotchas to be found and eliminated, so I’ll definitely want to wait to enable HEIC.

  8. Thanks for the heads up! I will be slow to upgrade to High Sierra, waiting for the gotchas to be found and eliminated, so I’ll definitely want to wait to enable HEIC.

  9. Interesting. Looks to me almost like the iPhotos app, in this case, is using some thumbnail or other downsamples media of the image and failing to use the original source (or a higher resolution display version) when needed for more detail.

    Just did a few quick tests on my phone and found no material quality difference on device.

  10. Interesting. Looks to me almost like the iPhotos app, in this case, is using some thumbnail or other downsamples media of the image and failing to use the original source (or a higher resolution display version) when needed for more detail.

    Just did a few quick tests on my phone and found no material quality difference on device.

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