Too much JPEG!

Having read lots about the JPEG algorithm of late in my investigations of image quality, and having written about it’s effects on image gradients in my last post, I though it would be good to include an entry about it in this blog.

Whilst I invite the more curious reader to delve into the nuances of the algorithm, which in closely related to the Fourier transform which I’ve written about previously, today I’ll be looking past the black box by testing the same key parameter as in the last post which the user has control over, the ‘quality‘ setting. One thing we will note, however, is that the JPEG algorithm operates on 8 x 8 discrete pixel windows, which is one of the more noticeable things when the algorithm is applied at lower quality settings.

Let’s have a look at the impact of varying the quality of a cropped portion (1000 x 1000 pixels) of an image:

The impact at the lower end of the JPG images is dramatic. As the quality is set to 1, 8 x 8 pixel blocks are essentially assigned the same value, and so the image will downgrade visibly. As we increase the quality parameter, this compression will start to disappear, but at quality 25 we can still see some degree of ‘blockiness’ due to the 8 x 8 pixel windows still varying to a large enough degree.

However, past around quality 50 the impact is much more subtle, and I tend not to be able to tell the difference for images cropped to this size. This elucidates the point: The JPG algorithm is amazing at the amount one can save, in terms of file size, in an image.

Let’s take a look at one more set of crops, this time the same image as above, but cropped to just 200 x 200 pixels:

The ‘blockiness’ is certainly evident at quality 50, and less subtle but notable at quality 75. I think the most astounding thing is the lack of perceptible difference between quality 92 and 100, given the file size difference. We can investigate where the difference lies using a comparison image (imagemagick’s compare function), where red pixels show different values. I will also include the difference image between the two cropped sections, which should offer some insight into the spatial distribution of pixel variations, if any exist:

So The mean variation between digital numbers for pixels in each 8 bit band is 1.5, but the file size saving is nearly 75%! The difference image shows that the digital number differences are concentrated in areas of high frequency information, such as along the cracks in the rock wall, areas which could be very important in delineating boundaries, for example.

While subtle, for work which involves photogrammetric precision these effects have not been so well documented – this is one thing I’m working towards within my PhD research. Oftentimes researchers will use JPEGs taken off the camera used, which can have custom filters applied prior to use, making reporting and replication more difficult. If we need to compare research done with different equipment under various lighting conditions on various days, this is one part of the research workflow which is crying out for standardization, as the effects, at least in the case of this one simple example, are clear.

For a visualization of a stack of every quality setting for the first set of crops, please visit this link to my website.




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