How and when to choose between HEIF/HEVC & JPG/MOV camera formats in iOS 11

How and when to choose between HEIF/HEVC & JPG/MOV camera formats in iOS 11
September 24 08:42 2017

iOS 11 introduced support for modern HEIF and HEVC codecs developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (not Apple’s proprietary formats) that keep high-resolution photos and videos taken with iPhone and iPad from eating up all your available storage.

HEIF photos and HEVC videos take up half the space without sacrificing image quality.

Here’s what the acronyms stand for:

  • HEIF— High Efficiency Image File Format
  • HEVC—High Efficiency Video Coding

Being able to take more photos and shoot longer 4K videos before your iPhone or iPad fills up is going to make owners of lower-capacity devices very happy.

HEIF/HEVC file formats

HEVC, also know as H.265, is a codec for both images and videos. HEIF is a file format for images encoded with HEVC.

  • HEIF images—Saved with the .heic extension.
  • HEVC videos—Saved with the .mov extension, like regular iPhone videos, but compressed using the much more efficient H.265 codec.

We felt it important to clarify the distinction though we’ll call them just “codecs” in order to make this tutorial easier to follow and understand.

Now let’s get to the meat of the matter.

HEIV/HEVC requirements

While even baseline iOS 11 devices can display HEIF images and standard 1080p HEVC clips, watching 4K HEVC video stutter-free is contingent upon hardware-assisted decoding of the Apple A9 chip or newer (iPhone 6s and up, all iPad Pros and 2017 9.7-inch iPad).

Using Photos on my iPod touch to play a 4K HEVC video led nowhere. All I could do was stare at the spinning wheel as its A8 chip struggled to decode the file.

To take HEIF images and HEVC videos, you’ll need at least Apple’s A10 Fusion chip (2017 iPad Pros and any iPhone from iPhone 7 onward). On supported hardware, iOS 11’s Camera app defaults to HEIF/HEVC capture.

Selecting camera capture format in iOS 11

You can toggle between HEIF/HEVC and good ol’ JPG/MOV(H.264) in Settings → Camera.

Hit a new Formats subsection, then choose your preferred camera capture format:

  • High Efficiency—Encode photos/videos you take using the HEIF/HEVC codec.
  • Most Compatible—Always use JPG for images and MOV for videos.

NOTE: If you don’t see this section, your device doesn’t support capturing in HEIF/HEVC.

If you’re tempted to hit “Most Compatible” there and be done with it, don’t.

Going with “High Efficiency” gets you half smaller videos/photos without losing quality.

Here’s a little experiment that illustrates the storage savings provided by these codecs.

File size shootout: HEIF/HEVC vs JPG/MOV

Having set the iOS capture format to HEIF/HEVC, I took eight images with my iPhone 7 Plus and a one-minute 4K video at 60FPS. I exported everything to my Mac via a USB cable and macOS’s Image Capture app.

Then I told iOS to convert the originals into JPG/MOV files during export. Comparing the “before” and “after” file sizes in Image Capture revealed a startling difference.

Photos/videos taken with my iPhone 7 Plus in standard MOV/JPG formats.

The same captures made using HEVC/HEIF. Note the significant difference in file size!

If that wasn’t enough to sell you on the storage-saving benefits afforded by these codecs, that’s because you’re probably thinking, “I’d rather turn the whole thing off because what about HEIF/HEVC sharing with Windows and folks with slower hardware?” right?

Don’t worry—Apple has thought of that, too.

Choosing media export format in iOS 11

You can set iOS to always share your HEIF/HEVC items in the original format or, if necessary, convert them to the more compatible JPG/MOV formats.

Go to Settings → Photos and make that choice below the Transfer to Mac or PC heading:

  • Automatic—Automatically transfer photos and videos in a compatible format.
  • Keep Originals—Always transfer photos and videos in the format they were taken in originally, without checking for compatibility.

Choosing “Automatic” ensures you’ll be able to reap all the benefits provided by HEIF/HEVC capture without ever worrying about compatibility.

Because it “just works,” the Automatic setting should be always enabled.

Here’s how it works.

How “Automatic” works

When an HEIF/HEVC item needs sharing, iOS first checks a target device, app or service for its capabilities. If it determines that the destination doesn’t support HEIF/HEVC, the items are converted into JPG/MOV on the fly.

The HEIF/HEVC → JPG/MOV conversion happens in the background, with no action required on the user’s part. The original HEIF/HEVCs in the Photos app are never touched and any transcoded files get discarded upon sharing to save space.

TUTORIAL: How and where to share faster with AirDrop

Some examples of how ”Automatic” setting works in typical sharing scenarios.

  • Sharing with Mail—Selecting HEIF images in Photos, then choosing Mail from the share menu prompts iOS to attach JPGs because there’s no way it could tell from an email address alone if your recipient’s device is HEIF-compatible.
  • Sharing with AirDrop—Use AirDrop to beam a 4K HEVC video over to an older device like a iPhone 5s and it goes through without conversion because a) AirDrop can poll devices for compatibility; and b) iOS 11 devices with a chip older than A9 fall back to software HEIF/HEVC decoding.

Again, it just works.

Why you should choose “Automatic”, for now

The “Automatic” setting applies to many things, among them.

  • iOS → Mac/PC transfers—Great for transferring media to computers that lack HEIF/HEVC support, like Windows 10 (first apps with HEIF/HEVC support are on the way) or older Macs (HEIF/HEVC requires macOS High Sierra).
  • Share sheet—Any time you use iOS’s multi-purpose Share sheet iOS polls a chosen target for compatibility and, if necessary, converts HEIF/HEVCs into JPG/MOVs on the fly.
  • Apps—Apple gave developers APIs to support HEIF/HEVC. If your favorite app does HEIF/HEVC, you may think about toggling “Keep Originals” on (i.e. Dropbox for iOS as of version 64.2 supports previewing HEIF/HEVC files in the app). But until all the apps you depend on adopt HEIF/HEVC natively, you’re recommended to go with the “Automatic” setting to save yourself from compatibility issues.

So now you see why going with the “Automatic” option is the best course of action.

Photos, videos, Live Photos, panoramas, depth of filed images and pretty much anything you can take in the stock Camera app will take half the storage and you won’t have to think about compatibility when opening those files in other apps or sharing them with non-Apple devices.

Wrapping it all up

Summing up, Apple went all in with HEIF/HEVC in iOS 11, tvOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. These codecs will be with us for years to come and have a lot going for them, like non-destructive cropping and rotation, support for 4K/8K/3D videos and more.

Stay tuned to iDownloadBlog as we’ll be diving deeper into these media formats and discussing what they mean to you and how they help future-proof Apple’s platforms.

BOTTOM LINE: HEIF and HEVC keep file sizes low without degrading image quality.

Your HEIF images and HEVC videos sync with iCloud faster, support non-destructive manipulations in Photos and, ultimately, free up storage space so you can shoot even more photos and videos or fill your devices with more apps and content you care about.

Are you sold now?

Need help? Ask iDB!

If you like this how-to, pass it along to your support folks and leave a comment below.

Got stuck? Not sure how to do certain things on your Apple device? Let us know via help@iDownloadBlog.com and a future tutorial might provide a solution.

Submit your how-to suggestions via tips@iDownloadBlog.com.

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