The folks over at the Independent JPEG Group who have the job of maintaining all things technical behind the JPEG file format have added some much needed support to the oft-maligned aging file-type. With the release of version 9 of the jpeg software libraries comes 12-bit color support and optional loss-less compression; after all it wouldn’t do much good to have 12-bit color if you lose so much color-fidelity in the compression process. For the true geek in all of us, the new libraries are available for download should you want to try your hand at implementing them into your workflow. Be warned though, that unless you have some serious skills, implementing them in existing software will be a challenge. Open source fans on Linux and MacOS have the best shot at implementation at this time. You can grab the codec files from http://www.infai.org/jpeg/.
12-bit support should be a welcome addition for raw file shooters as the new standard will allow for full color fidelity in embedded JPEG previews and in-camera JPEG stand-alone files. This new wider-gamut support could result in JPEG being adopted as a viable workflow option for the serious pro. Adoption of the new standard will likely take some time in the commercial arena as the big software players and the camera manufacturers wait to see if the social-media buzz will add credence to the spend required for implementation. It’s my prediction that the early adopters will be open-source software and firmware authors – in part because their mind-set is usually quality instead of cost, and in part because their hands are not tied by corporate bankers, investors and bean-counters. It’s not uncommon for open-source software users to get some of the goods long before commercial adoption – as an example, Adobe’s content aware fill had been years-old news to GIMP users by the time Photoshop users heard about it. Frequency separation processes, de-blurring/de-motion tools and boutique sharpening algorithms could make this list as well as a good part of those were developed in scientific and educational circles and released as open-source, often years prior to commercial adoption. The new JPEG features could mean an short increase in digital camera sales as new models using the technology will appeal to a portion of the market. Users of major manufacturer legacy equipment might be out of luck unless you are willing to used a hacked version of the firmware, and assuming your jpeg codec is not hardware embedded in way that cannot be bypassed. Canon camera users will find the most mature firmware hacks over at Magic Lantern and CHDK. Nikon buffs can find a handful of hacks online, but none of them appear as mature and feature rich. A place to start looking if you are a Nikon fan might be the fledgling community over at Nikon Hacker. If factory firmware is your only cup-of-tea, then Canon owners might still have hope, as Canon has shown greater interest in supporting legacy equipment with feature upgrades. Nikon users will very likely be out of luck as the major manufacturer tends to release only bug-fixes for their firmware. As a Nikon shooter myself, I envy the attention Canon gives to the best-interest of their users. In the end, users of cameras that support raw, but do not support firmware updates should still be able to rely on software-based raw file conversion to get full JPEG9a support when it’s available.
Now the bad news
It appears that images created using the new codec will not decode properly on software that is using the older versions. This suggests that full implementation of the new JPEG codec into your workflow is likely to require new software in that one would not normally associate such as graphic design/layout apps, browser updates, thumbnail preview generators, operating system patches, even updates to your smartphone will be in the mix. My advice, don’t rush to adoption unless you have a very solid and critical reason to do so. Attempting to share a new version file with a client who has not fully adopted the software to handle it might lead to ugliness. I could find nothing in the new release that cannot be achieved using a different file format for most needs. For many years the Tiff format has fully supported the larger bit-depths and loss-less LZW compression. PNGs loss-less compression is already web-compatible and enjoys full browser support. Is the new JPEG version a potential game changer? Perhaps in a few circles. Those circles however will likely touch most any user of digital imaging; just not right away. When adoption is complete, the changes will be more of convenience than of consequence, but it’s nice to see the old JPEG standard get another face-lift to keep it current.