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Apple's HEIF/HEIC photo files in iOS 11: What it HEIF and how to deal with it

Apple innovation is something more than just shiny metal and glass hardware, it’s in the software that runs it too. In this case, it’s the mobile operating system, iOS 11, which is packing a potentially tech-changing addition - HEIF.

HEIF, also known as HEIC, stands for High-Efficiency Image File Format and is a new way to store photos on iPhones. Yup, this means you won’t be using the old favourite JPEG anymore if you opt for this. As a result, you can save space on your device and despite the drop in file size, actually end up with better photos. So what’s the catch? It might not be compatible across devices. But Apple has kind of fixed this too.

Anything more you should know? Lots. Read on to find out everything you need to know about HEIF on iOS 11 and how it affects you.

What is HEIF?

This new High-Efficiency Image File Format is here to replace JPEG. And about time too, JPEG has been around for quarter of a century now. Since then gadgets have become so much more powerful. As a result phones can now compress and unpack data in more complex ways, allowing us to store more data in a smaller space, effectively.

As a result of this new coding and hardware, HEIF is able to take up half the room of a JPEG file. Despite being that much smaller than the classic storage format of choice it is also higher quality with more detail retained in the file.

HEIF actually stores more colours too. It can top out at an impressive 16 bits of colour where the humble JPEG can’t go beyond 8 bit colour. All that essentially means it’s better for HDR photos. Plus where you might have seen bands of colour lines before they’ll be gone now in favour of smooth blue skies, clear green fields and detailed night shots. Check out the comparison shot to see what we mean.

HEIF file capacity comparison

You probably already enjoy the video codec HEVC, that is used by most smart TVs and the likes of YouTube. HEIF is a similar thing, developed by the brains behind MPEG. The result is a super smart container file that can store multiple images, audio, depth information, image sequences, thumbnails and more. That makes it GIF and Live Photos friendly and also should mean lots more fun to be had with those iPhones packing depth sensing cameras.

Where does HEIF work and can I share it?

One reason HEIF is probably the future for phone photography, apart from those quality and storage wins, is because it’s Apple. The iPhone must be the most used cameraphone on the planet, so once Apple decides it’s using HEIF it’s likely everyone else will follow soon after.

Right now if you are using HEIF on your iPhone there is a downside. It won’t work on other devices. So if you share the file to a non-Apple phone or an older Apple device without iOS 11, it likely won’t be able to show off all that high-quality goodness.

The good news is that Apple will automatically convert HEIF files to compatible JPEG files on export. That means you can still seamlessly share your latest selfies with your mates and on social platforms. So why not use it? Clever move, Apple.

How to get HEIF on iPhone and how to turn off HEIF

If you don’t want to embrace the HEIF revolution, you have that option. When you upgrade to iOS 11 HEIF mode will be on and ready to go. To turn HEIF off you need to go into Settings then select Camera and then pick Formats. Within this screen, you’ll be given the options of “High Efficiency” and “Most Compatible”.

The second of the two will switch you back to JPEG while the first will give you all the benefits of HEIF and still convert to JPEG automatically when you export. So there’s really no need to turn off HEIF unless you have a specific need for JPEGs to be stored on your device.

Which Apple devices support HEIF?

The latest Apple kit is HEIF-friendly meaning the 2017 iPhones as well as their older siblings. Check out the complete support list here:

  • iPhone 5s, SE, 6, 6 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus, 7, and 7 Plus
  • iPad Mini 2, 3, and 4
  • iPad Air and iPad Air 2
  • iPad (fifth generation)
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (first and second generation)
  • iPad Pro 9.7-inch
  • iPad Pro 10.5-inch
  • iPod Touch (sixth generation)

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