iPhone photos and the different image formats

iPhone photos and the different image formats

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Here’s a story of how a lazy Saturday morning turned into a weekend of digging into Apple’s wonderland of the photo image formats.

Before our summer trip, I wanted to clean up the photos on my iPhone. I usually transfer the photos from my iPhone to my MacBook using the ImageCapture app, before organizing and storing them away on my Google Drive.

As I started the transfer from iPhone to Mac, I noticed my iPhone showed 993 photos. Once the transfer was completed my Macbook showed 1510 photos.

Where are these extra 500+ files coming from, I wondered?

Snapshot of 1510 photos saved to Macbook

I did some sleuthing and reading up. Here are a few things I learned.

Apple’s photo image formats:

Apple stores your photos in 4 different image formats. The file formats created depend on how you made and edited the photos on your iPhone.

  • .JPG file is the image format created for every photo you take with the iPhone.
  • .HEIC (High-Efficiency Image File) is the default image format on iPhone unless you have changed the settings.
  • .AAE format is created for every image file that you have edited with the Phone app.
  • Copy of the photo with the depth effect (blurred background), if the photo is taken in portrait mode.

For eg: if you have an image with the name IMG_1234 on your iPhone you may find additional files which match the file name but with different extensions: All these files are stored alongside your photos.

  1. IMG_1234.JPG,
  2. IMG_1234.HEIC,
  3. IMG_1234.AAE and
  4. IMG_E1234.JPG (for the portrait mode).

As I said, not every photo image is stored in all four formats. What file formats are used depends on how you have created the image, your camera settings and how the image was edited.

About the HEIC image format

What is the HEIC format?

  • HEIC is a container format that came from the MPEG initiative.
  • It allows multiple data streams to be embedded into a single file, along with metadata.
  • It is Apple’s version of raw file format that gives you more data to work with, like its location or camera settings.
  • HEIC is superior to JPG in that it supports 10-bit per channel color and HDR along with a more efficient lossy compression algorithm. That means that you can fit more images into the phone’s storage at a higher quality.
  • Modern dedicated cameras are also adopting HEIC.
  • HEIC is not proprietary to Apple.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • HEIC files are half the size of JPG so totally worth it to save on storage costs.
  • HEIC is a highly efficient image format that keeps the highest quality in the image while maintaining the file size as low as possible.
  • It provides extra goodies such as an Alpha channel for transparency, HDR videos, etc.
  • The Preview app can convert back to JPG. Most apps do the conversion automatically while importing too – like WhatsApp. There are free converters that change *.HEIC files to *.JPG.

Cons

  • The magnificence of the picture quality can be viewed only on a compatible screen.
  • It’s a great format for dynamic images but a terrible format for online images.
  • Photoshop doesn’t support HEIC yet.
  • It is a pain when you want to transfer the images to non-Apple devices.

Why I decided to move away from HEIC

All that being said, I decided to move away from HEIC. Here’s why:

My photos end up on a google drive for safekeeping. What if the file format is not supported in the future by Apple and they don’t support backward compatibility? I don’t want to lose my personal photos after say 10 years.

My husband and son are on Android devices, which means these files are not compatible on their devices. They won’t be able to view the images without converting. And god knows, what if I switch from the Apple ecosystem one day!

How to convert HEIC to JPG

  • You can convert HEIC files directly to JPGs(or PNG) in macOS Monterey.

How to set iPhone to avoid saving files in HEIC

To make sure you want your photos NOT to be saved as HEIC on your iPhone, on your iPhone, go to Settings > Camera > Formats > Most compatible.

iPhone setting to save files to JPG instead of HEIC

About the AAE image format 

What is the AAE format?

  • A .AAE file is an XML file with the edits that have been made to an existing photo on an Apple device using the Photos app.
  • The original photo can be retained without any changes and the edits can be undone at any time.
  • An AAE file can be deleted without erasing the actual photo, but you will lose all edits you have made to the file. The edit data is saved in an XML format that can be easily viewed in a text editor like Notepad.
  • This file extension is native to Apple devices.
  • The location of the AAE file is in the same folder as the original photo and follows the same naming format, but instead of .JPG at the end, it will have the .AAE file extension.
  • These files are not useful on Windows or Android devices.
  • Each of these files is tiny(less than 1KB) and takes up virtually no drive space.

What do you do with the AAE files?

Once you are finished with your edits on your iOS device, you can email or airdrop the finished photo to your Apple device. This will make sure you have the final edited version of the photo saved.

If you keep the AAE files in the same folder as the original photos, the Photos app will be able to read them. You will also be able to see the edits you made originally, in the Photos app.

If you plan to keep the photos on a platform that doesn’t support the Apple Photos app such as Google Drive, you don’t need to save the AAE files and it’s safe to delete them.

A quick tip to find the .AAE files

In the Finder go to View > Sort By > Kind. This makes it easy to find all the .AAE files and delete in one click.

How to avoid having AAE files?

Make edits in Lightroom or Snapseed instead of the Phone app on the iPhone. You can save the final image to your Camera Roll and share them. This, of course can create multiple versions of the same photo and take up the storage space.

Copy of the photo in the portrait mode

When you take an image in the Portrait mode, iPhone saves two photos – one photo with the depth effect applied, and another without it.

Apple saves the duplicate image with the letter E . For eg: if you have an image with name IMG_9065.JPG, you will find IMG_E9065.JPG which is the image with the blurred background. All these files are stored alongside your original photos.

I believe Apple removed the setting that prevents creating multiple images for the Portrait mode.

Comparing two photos side by side to show the blurred background effect and the image filename of the copy in Portrait mode.

What can you do with the multiple photo copies?

Here’s how I clean up the multiple photo copies using Abobe Bridge.

Open up the Adobe Bridge, go to View > Sort > By Date Created. This makes it easy to compare the multiple copies and choose which ones to keep and which ones to delete.

In spite of all the nuances I have to deal with, I wouldn’t trade my phone or laptop for any other brand. I can work around those small tech quirks.


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