Conclusion: due to sensor noise you cannot see the difference between 12 and 14 bits, and neither will you see the difference between lossy and lossless RAW encoding. People have posted some experiments concerning this (for example see the D300 12-bit vs 14-bit comparison) but shooting a test chart in the dark is not totally convincing. The next job was correcting for the over-and-underexposure in Adobe Lightroom 3.4, and comparing results between 12-bit, 14-bit, lossy and lossless encoding. My conclusion is that even in this extreme example there is very little difference between either 12-bit and 14-bit or between uncompressed or compressed results. If one had to seek differences I would say that the colour reproduction is less degraded in the uncompressed and for the 14-bit RAW images.
Furthermore there seems to be effectively no difference in detail captured in any of these modes.
So I again conclude that THERE IS LITTLE OR NO PRACTICAL ADVANTAGE TO USING EITHER 14-BIT OR LOSSLESS RAW COMPRESSION. Compression concerns the highlights only and I assume it works the same way for the high-key scenes – white on white. Josh is physically right, not educationally… In full sun the sensor is biased with a different voltage as compared to darkness. Looking at the newly announced Nikon D800, I’m curious whether these results will be comparable with a 36MP sensor or whether there would be more of an advantage.
Just a short follow-up to say that the D800 has a pretty amazing sensor that seems to outperform the sensor of the D7000 on a per-pixel basis too! I’m looking all over the internet for information on this topic in regards to my newly received D800.
If you had to choose one of the two, I’d suggest switching to compressed (lossy) and keeping 14-bit. I currently own Sony Alpha A65, NEX-7 (both APS-C) and the Sony HX30V travel zoom category of P&S cameras.
I switched from 14-bit lossless to 12-bit compressed on my D7000 after reading this article, and thus far I’ve seen no real world difference when editing my NEFs. Usually the continuous shooting party-pooper is writing to the card once the buffer gets full. I expect that smaller raw files will make the buffer last longer before it is full, and once full will allow for a faster reduced shooting rate due to faster write-times.
I’ve seen an improvement in the buffer depth of my D7000 since changing to 12-bit compressed.
You’ve proven that a really really bad file looks the same whether 12 or 14 bit, lossy or not. I own a d7000 and recently was asked to help out the main photographer at a humoungous Indian wedding. If pressed to work on a large print, say 40 X 30″ I may try the 14bit lossless,but then the number of photos would not be large and of little consequece. I know it’s fun to theorize about 12 vs 14 bit, but you have to remember that it is 12 vs 14 bit per RGB channel. A question for you – how does all you’ve said so far relate to being able to export the same 12 and 14 bit files from Lightroom or Capture One as 16-bit TIFFS? Also remember that the usual alternative to 16 bit image processing is 8 bit, and you will be guaranteed to lose data when downcasting to 8 bit. My first question – what is the minimum bit level difference perceptible to man with perfect eyesight? What is the best presentation today – a brief show on most inefficient digital projectors or a print you can leave in your will? If you shot a scene with such a huge dynamic range it will result in locally overexposed and underexposed areas.

But these days Nikon cameras gives you even more options: 12-bit or 14-bit, and compressed or uncompressed RAW (NEF) files. To be exact: you can store 4 times as many shades of intensity in a given range, or if using the same step size you can cover a range of values 4 times as large. So then it seems logical that images obtained from 14-bit lossless RAW files should have a larger dynamic range and be more detailed and nuanced than images from 12-bit lossy RAW files.
The best and most rigorous explanation I found online is in this article from by Emil Martinec: Noise, Dynamic Range and Bit Depth in Digital SLRs. If maybe there is some advantage to be had from those extra bits in these extreme tests of dynamic range. Instead of washed-out regions caused by colour channel clipping we now see a lot of noise, since correcting the underexposure requires massive amplification of a region with very low signal. It seems like the 2-bit difference between 12 and 14 bit is mostly applied to shadow detail and especially colour information in the shadow regions. I beevlie this will give me a better opportunity to practice my skills , and once in a while my patience and expedience. I know memory is cheap and all, but this is more about how many cards I have to carry to a shoot. In my tests with the D7000 the bit depth was the only setting that seemed to have a marginally visible effect – in the colour accuracy of extreme shadow regions. I’ve been shooting my D7000 at 14-bit lossless, but I may change to 12-bit lossy in order to benefit from the smaller file sizes and the increased buffer depth. Wondering if there are advantages or disadvantages to any of these settings from any standpoint other than just the visual comparisons. At this point the shooting rate drops dramatically because It is limited by the file writing speed, and smaller files write faster. It seems as we progress in technology, that we are getting more and more burdened with additional tasks.
The only real thing that showed up was that in continous mode and at high speed shutter rates the 12 bit kept to the high rate while 14 bit slowed it down by a considerable amount. Especially on the older cameras like the D300s that probably has a slower image processor and data rates. This is more realistic to have in real life, and takes into account the 1-2 stop overhead of using RAW->JPG. I pushed it this far because this is exactly where one would see the biggest difference; on the boundary between detail and no detail.
I spent a small fortune, almost enough to buy a home to equip my darkroom, a large room, with all that was required. I am thinking of buying a D800 so file size is a concern and your investigation is good news.
If you want to recover those areas it will be the same process as in the examples I showed. But given how extreme my test example was and how subtle the effect, I would also call it a negligible difference.
There is a difference between underexposed sunny scene and shooting in pitch dark interiors or at night. The problem I foresaw was that in normal operation there would be no visible differences at all!
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the D7000 and D800 will behave similarly in this regard.
I had to go to quite extreme lengths (massive under-exposure followed by post-processing compensation) and pixel-peeping to notice any difference on my D7000 between 12 and 14 bits.
But in good conditions (Meaning you are using the right range of sensor) you will never over expose.

AFAIK all the major image processing in a digital camera (raw conversion, jpeg compression, etc) is done in hardware by the specialized image processing chips in the camera.
The overexposed scene contains some details (it is not completely white everywhere) so one should have seen advantages in the transition zone. We were able to even screen our shots while wedding was in proceess on huge screens provided. In audio processing, for example, pros also always use higher bit rates for intermediate processing, otherwise you may lose a little bit of quality at every step that ends up summing up to a large total loss.
I tried to buy everything Ansel used and did use a Reseller 23 C II with great lenses to do my printing. If you could afford it then you should answer that question yourself, as the worth is something personal. But what if you take a photo where the dynamic range is huge – say that in the same picture you have a bright sun as well as a coal cellar. Since the Nikon D7000 has a good dymanic range it is as likely as any APS-C DSLR to show the advantages (if any) of higher bit depth. Doesn’t matter if you do this with dim lighting or with severe underexposure in daylight. I would like to build on a solid foundation of skill and knowledge before taking on challenges I’m not well equipt for. If I were you I’d choose 12 bit compressed if that gave me a real advantage in workflow usability (more shots in the field) or would save me money (postpone upgrading my Drobo). This explains why it is almost instantaneous in-camera compared to how long it takes on a computer, even though the computer has much more general-purpose processing power.
However we see that the sensor’s noise generally prevents that from becoming obvious even in those extreme cases. This is especially severe if you compress or stretch tonal ranges – exactly what happens in the tone curve conversion from RAW to TIFF or JPEG.
Technology is beautiful in itself, but in the end the beauty of you photography is about the effect it has on the viewer. Finally, one does not willingly underexposes 6 stops… Although your test was technically correct, its conclusions are not good enough for real life situations of good photographic practice.
The plain fact is , after my confidence is up, I relish i the opportunity to prove my worth.
The D7000 uses more or less the same technology as the D800 so I expect the same for the D800.
Therefore I expect the time required for compression to be negliible compared to write times. What this all boils down to is that 12 vs 14 bit raw files will look almost the same on most monitors since monitors effectively down-sample them to 10 bits per channel.
Only difference I can think of would be the relative larger contribution of integration noise (or hot pixels) if you use a long exposure in dim light. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a Physicist was that is does not matter how easy a measurement is done, the interpretation of the numbers is an art in itself. These were projections on giant screens and not a calibrated moniter, yet I was happy for the huge number of shots avaiable in my memory bank of cards. But the number of photons impacting the sensor would be similar in both cases (underexposed daylight or longer exposure in a low light scene) so indentical principles will apply.

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