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JPEG: Joint Photographic Experts Group

Updated on January 3, 2017

What is a JPEG?

JPEG (or JPG) stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. It's pronounced "jay-peg". The file extension is .jpg, or sometimes .jpeg

In computing a JPEG, pronounced JAY-peg, is a commonly used method of compression for photographic images. The degree of compression can be adjusted, allowing a selectable tradeoff between storage size and image quality. JPEG typically achieves 10:1 compression with little perceptible loss in image quality.

Image credit: By Me

JPEG compression is used in a number of image file formats. JPEG/Exif is the most common image format used by digital cameras and other photographic image capture devices; along with JPEG/JFIF, it is the most common format for storing and transmitting photographic images on the World Wide Web. These format variations are often not distinguished, and are simply called JPEG.

Created in 1986, it took until 1994 before they had issued and were granted an image standard. The officially code is '10918-1'. Experts believe JPEG is best at reproducing photos, and realistic images, and is suited to continual edits. Rearch has indicated JPEG is currently the most popular form of image compression used on the World Wide Web.

What is JPEG?

JPEG is designed for compressing either full-color or gray-scale images of natural, real-world scenes. It works well on photographs, naturalistic artwork, and similar material; not so well on lettering, simple cartoons, or line drawings. JPEG handles only still images, but there is a related standard called MPEG for motion pictures.

JPEG is "lossy," meaning that the decompressed image isn't quite the same as the one you started with. (There are lossless image compression algorithms, but JPEG achieves much greater compression than is possible with lossless methods.) JPEG is designed to exploit known limitations of the human eye, notably the fact that small color changes are perceived less accurately than small changes in brightness. Thus, JPEG is intended for compressing images that will be looked at by humans. If you plan to machine-analyze your images, the small errors introduced by JPEG may be a problem for you, even if they are invisible to the eye.

A useful property of JPEG is that the degree of lossiness can be varied by adjusting compression parameters. This means that the image maker can trade off file size against output image quality. You can make *extremely* small files if you don't mind poor quality; this is useful for applications such as indexing image archives. Conversely, if you aren't happy with the output quality at the default compression setting, you can jack up the quality until you are satisfied, and accept lesser compression.

Another important aspect of JPEG is that decoders can trade off decoding speed against image quality, by using fast but inaccurate approximations to the required calculations. Some viewers obtain remarkable speedups in this way.

Why use JPEG?

There are two good reasons: to make your image files smaller, and to store 24-bit-per-pixel color data instead of 8-bit-per-pixel data.

Making image files smaller is a win for transmitting files across networks and for archiving libraries of images. Being able to compress a 2 Mbyte full-color file down to, say, 100 Kbytes makes a big difference in disk space and transmission time! And JPEG can easily provide 20:1 compression of full-color data. If you are comparing GIF and JPEG, the size ratio is usually more like 4:1.

Now, it takes longer to decode and view a JPEG image than to view an image of a simpler format such as GIF. Thus using JPEG is essentially a time/space tradeoff: you give up some time in order to store or transmit an image more cheaply. But it's worth noting that when network transmission is involved, the time savings from transferring a shorter file can be greater than the time needed to decompress the file. The second fundamental advantage of JPEG is that it stores full color information: 24 bits/pixel (16 million colors). GIF, the other image format widely used on the net, can only store 8 bits/pixel (256 or fewer colors). GIF is reasonably well matched to inexpensive computer displays --- most run-of-the-mill PCs can't display more than 256 distinct colors at once. But full-color hardware is getting cheaper all the time, and JPEG photos look *much* better than GIFs on such hardware. Within a couple of years, GIF will probably seem as obsolete as black-and-white MacPaint format does today. Furthermore,JPEG is far more useful than GIF for exchanging images among people with widely varying display hardware, because it avoids prejudging how many colors to use. Hence JPEG is considerably more appropriate than GIF for use as a Usenet and World Wide Web standard photo format.

A lot of people are scared off by the term "lossy compression". But when it comes to representing real-world scenes, *no* digital image format can retain all the information that impinges on your eyeball. By comparison with the real-world scene, JPEG loses far less information than GIF. The real disadvantage of lossy compression is that if you repeatedly compress and decompress an image, you lose a little more quality each time. This is a serious objection for some applications but matters not at all for many others.

When should I use JPEG...

...and when should I stick with GIF?

JPEG is not going to displace GIF entirely; for some types of images, GIF is superior in image quality, file size, or both. One of the first things to learn about JPEG is which kinds of images to apply it to.

Generally speaking, JPEG is superior to GIF for storing full-color or gray-scale images of "realistic" scenes; that means scanned photographs, continuous-tone artwork, and similar material. Any smooth variation in color, such as occurs in highlighted or shaded areas, will be represented more faithfully and in less space by JPEG than by GIF.

GIF does significantly better on images with only a few distinct colors, such as line drawings and simple cartoons. Not only is GIF lossless for such images, but it often compresses them more than JPEG can. For example, large areas of pixels that are all *exactly* the same color are compressed very efficiently indeed by GIF. JPEG can't squeeze such data as much as GIF does without introducing visible defects. (One implication of this is that large single-color borders are quite cheap in GIF files, while they are best avoided in JPEG files.)

Computer-drawn images, such as ray-traced scenes, usually fall between photographs and cartoons in terms of complexity. The more complex and subtly rendered the image, the more likely that JPEG will do well on it. The same goes for semi-realistic artwork (fantasy drawings and such). But icons that use only a few colors are handled better by GIF.

JPEG has a hard time with very sharp edges: a row of pure-black pixels adjacent to a row of pure-white pixels, for example. Sharp edges tend to come out blurred unless you use a very high quality setting. Edges this sharp are rare in scanned photographs, but are fairly common in GIF files: consider borders, overlaid text, etc. The blurriness is particularly objectionable with text that's only a few pixels high. If you have a GIF with a lot of small-size overlaid text, don't JPEG it. (If you want to attach descriptive text to a JPEG image, put it in as a comment rather than trying to overlay it on the image. Most recent JPEG software can deal with textual comments in a JPEG file, although older viewers may just ignore the comments.)

Plain black-and-white (two level) images should never be converted to JPEG; they violate all of the conditions given above. You need at least about 16 gray levels before JPEG is useful for gray-scale images. It should also be noted that GIF is lossless for gray-scale images of up to 256 levels, while JPEG is not.

If you have a large library of GIF images, you may want to save space by converting the GIFs to JPEG. This is trickier than it may seem --- even when the GIFs contain photographic images, they are actually very poor source material for JPEG, because the images have been color-reduced. Non-photographic images should generally be left in GIF form. Good-quality photographic GIFs can often be converted with no visible quality loss, but only if you know what you are doing and you take the time to work on each image individually. Otherwise you're likely to lose a lot of image quality or waste a lot of disk space ... quite possibly both. Read sections 8 and 9 if you want to convert GIFs to JPEG.

JPEG is not as well suited for line drawings and other textual or iconic graphics, where the sharp contrasts between adjacent pixels cause noticeable artifacts. Such images are better saved in a lossless graphics format such as TIFF, GIF, PNG, or a raw image format.

JPEG is also not well suited to files that will undergo multiple edits, as some image quality will usually be lost each time the image is decompressed and recompressed, particularly if the image is cropped or shifted, or if encoding parameters are changed – see digital generation loss for details. To avoid this, an image that is being modified or may be modified in the future can be saved in a lossless format such as PNG, and a copy exported as JPEG for distribution.

As JPEG is a lossy compression method, which removes information from the image, it must not be used in astronomical or medical imaging or other purposes where the exact reproduction of the data is required. Lossless formats such as PNG must be used instead.

Do you find yourself using JPEGs more than GIFs?

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      jimmyworldstar 

      6 years ago

      I save my pictures as JPEG a lot more. These days PNGs are better especially because they have higher quality. The standard format I encounter is still JPEG and in any case I can keep the increased image quality compared to GIFs which are very lossy and best only for simple color or black and white images.

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