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What is better 8-bit or 12-bit?

Digital imaging relies on converting light into numerical values that can be stored, processed, and displayed by computers. The number of bits used to represent each pixel determines the amount of color and brightness information that can be captured. While 8-bit has been the standard for many years, 12-bit is becoming more common in high-end photography and videography. This article will examine the differences between 8-bit and 12-bit and help you decide which is better for your needs.

How Bits Work

A bit is the smallest unit of digital information, representing either a 1 or 0. More bits allow for more numeric values – for example:

  • 1-bit color = Black or white (2 values)
  • 8-bit color = 256 possible values (2^8)
  • 10-bit color = 1024 possible values (2^10)
  • 12-bit color = 4096 possible values (2^12)

When talking about color depth, the bits refer to the amount of tonal information available per color channel (red, green, and blue). An 8-bit image has 256 possible tonal values for each channel. Combine all three channels and 8-bit color offers 16.7 million possible colors.

Advantages of 12-bit

When shooting in 12-bit, the camera sensor captures a wider range of light and color data. Here are some of the key advantages this provides:

More Dynamic Range

12-bit color has 4x as many tonal values as 8-bit, allowing better representation of subtle gradients and transitions between light and dark areas. This wider dynamic range allows retaining detail in highlights and shadows when post-processing.

Finer Color Transitions

With thousands more color values available, 12-bit captures finer transitions between colors. This helps avoid banding or posterization artifacts (abrupt changes between tones) in images.

More Flexible Adjustments

The increased color information provides more headroom for post-production adjustments to exposure, white balance, and color. Pushing adjustments further is less likely to create artifacts or degrade image quality.

Improved Chroma Subsampling

12-bit allows improved chroma subsampling ratios like 4:2:2 rather than 4:2:0. This retains more accurate color details, avoiding fringing and moire effects.

Disadvantages of 12-bit

While 12-bit offers many advantages, there are some tradeoffs to consider as well:

Larger File Sizes

12-bit RAW files are about 1.5-2x larger than 8-bit files. This takes up more storage space and requires more processing power when editing.

Color Depth Relative File Size
8-bit 1x
10-bit 1.3x
12-bit 1.5-2x

Slower Continuous Shooting

The larger file sizes also mean slower burst shooting speeds. Shooting 12-bit RAW, a camera may capture 10-15 frames per second. With 8-bit, it can capture 20+ fps.

Requires More Space and Computing Power

Working with 12-bit files requires having more storage space and more powerful editing computers. Older or lower-end systems may struggle with the large file sizes.

Not Always Supported

Some older cameras and software programs do not support 12-bit files. Be sure your workflow is capable of handling them before shooting in 12-bit.

8-bit vs 12-bit Image Comparison

Here is a visual example comparing an image shot in 8-bit and 12-bit RAW. Notice how the 12-bit version retains finer details in the highlights and shadows:

Image credit: PictureFlow / Shutterstock

Use Cases for 12-bit

While 12-bit offers higher quality, not everyone needs it. Here are some use cases where shooting in 12-bit makes the most sense:

Landscape & Outdoor Photography

The wide dynamic range is advantageous for retaining details in skies, water, and other high-contrast outdoor scenes.

Portraits with Studio Lighting

Studio strobes output a wide range of light. 12-bit helps photograph faces without losing detail in highlights or shadows.

HDR Photography

Merging multiple exposures for high dynamic range requires images with as much tonal information as possible. 12-bit provides this.


Greater color depth and chroma subsampling benefits video quality, especially for grading flexibility in post-production.

Commercial Product Photography

E-commerce imagery depends on color accuracy and fine details. 12-bit improves quality for discerning commercial clients.

When is 8-bit Enough?

For many situations, 8-bit color still provides pleasing, high-quality results. It offers a good compromise between image quality and smaller files. Consider using 8-bit when:

Shooting for Web or Small Prints

Images meant for online use or 4×6 prints do not benefit as much from the increased color depth.

Taking Casual Snapshots

Everyday documentary-style shots for social media or family albums don’t require 12-bit quality.

Processing Speed is Critical

Sports, action, or fast-paced shoots where you need to work quickly and deliver images fast after shooting.

Using Lower-End Equipment

If your camera, computer, or software is older and slower, it may not handle 12-bit files well.

Can You Tell the Difference?

When examining most images individually, the differences between 8-bit and 12-bit color are subtle. Side-by-side comparisons reveal finer tonality and detail in the 12-bit versions. But for many practical purposes, 8-bit provides excellent image quality already.

The advantages of 12-bit become most apparent when pushing exposure adjustments to extremes. Having that extra color data headroom allows you to recover lost highlights or lift deep shadows more effectively.

8-bit vs 12-bit – Which Should You Use?

Here are some final recommendations on when to use each color depth:

  • Use 12-bit for critical commercial or fine art photography when you need to capture the highest image quality possible.
  • Use 12-bit for flexibility if you intend to heavily process or manipulate the images later.
  • Use 8-bit if you need smaller files for quick delivery or ease of editing.
  • Use 8-bit if your workflow is geared more for web usage or smaller prints vs large gallery wraps.
  • Try both 8-bit and 12-bit, compare results, and choose which fits your specific needs best.


Today’s best cameras provide both 8-bit and 12-bit color options. While 8-bit has been sufficient for most applications until now, 12-bit is becoming a more viable choice as equipment and software evolve to handle the larger files efficiently. For photographers who need to capture the full dynamic range and color detail a scene offers, the advantages of 12-bit are worth the increase in file size and processing requirements. Evaluate your own workflow needs and try both modes to determine which color depth fits your style of shooting best.