Bit Depth in Plain English

I had an amazing question from a reader this week. She asked about using Lightroom’s ‘edit in Photoshop’ tool. If you don’t know about how to do this, check out that video here. What she was wondering was about the bit depth difference between Lightroom and Photoshop Elements. You see, Lightroom edits in 16 bit but Elements can only handle 8 bit. So if you want to use Lightroom’s ‘edit in Photoshop’ function to open your image in Elements, there will be a problem with the big depth. But first, let’s talk about what bit depth is.

About Bit Depth //

Ok so I’m going to explain this as basically as possible. We all know about pixels, right? Little dots that make up your image. Each pixel has color information within it. Bits are units of color information which represent mathematical patterns. For example, a 1 bit image can either be 1 or 0 – black or white. A pixel with 8 bit depth has a greater depth of color information to display. Naturally, a 16 bit image has even more color information within each bit. You can get higher than 16 bits, as well – for example, 48 bits.

How does this affect your image? The greater the bit depth, the greater the colors, tones and details. But mainly, this has to do with colors. Think of it this way: 8 bits can hold a gallon’s worth of color and 16 bits can hold more than one million gallons.

This is a great plain English video I found on YouTube showing some great visual explanations for RAW vs JPEG, color space and bit depth.

And this is my video showing how to work with 16 bit images.

From Lightroom to Elements //

So back to my reader’s question: what to do when you move from a 16 bit Lightroom image to Elements which will convert your image to 8 bit? This is an excellent visualization of what happens in that case:

Image on the left edited in 8bit, Image on the right in 16bit.Image courtesy of Juan Trujillo Tarradas

So what options do you have? When opening from Lightroom to Elements with the ‘edit it’ function, I don’t think there are options for running the image in 16bit. However, when opening a raw file in Elements, you can open in 16bit as in this video I found on YouTube. However, not all of the editing options are available in Elements when working in 16bit. So I’m not too sure what the point is.

further reading //

This is a brilliant post from Cambridge Color about bit depth. There’s a great visualization to show you the difference between 8, 16 and 24 bit depth.

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  • Mike Nelson Pedde

    Hi Elizabeth: Here’s another post that covers the topic from a slightly different perspective:


  • fsc

    THAT’s what those lines are on my photos!  Thank you!

  • Leahartmanphoto

    So what would be the best option then? Exporting from LR as a JPEG and then opening in PSE? 

  • Biomech

    I’m guessing this is a limitation on PSE?

    I use Lightroom – edit in PhotoShop CS4 as a TIFF. That way you get the lossless file type* and can change from 8bit to 16 or 32bit
    *Everytime you read/write a JPEG (open/save) you lose information and ultimately quality. With formats like TIFF you won’t.

  • Texan Mama

    Thanks Elizabeth. awesome info! I’m sharing this with our fellow CM-ers!

  • mtcoz

    Thanks Elizabeth, I’ve taken a few shots recently where this graduation of colours in the sky is very uneven. Happened when I exported from LR into CS6. Thanks Elizabeth, once again you’ve been a wealth of information.
    Thanks Mark

  • Adrienne

    Hmm, the link to the Big Swing post doesn’t appear to be working.