The Basics of Color Depth: What It Is and Why It Matters

Color depth is the number of bits representing the color of a single pixel in a digital image. Greater color depth means more colors, making an image more vivid and accurate. The number of colors is often known as bits per pixel (bpp).

Processing higher color depth requires more memory and computational power. Several standard color depths include 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit. The proper color depth depends on specific needs and uses.

Color Depth in Image and Video Quality

The Basics of Color Depth: What It Is and Why It Matters

High color bit depth improves an image’s quality. High bit depth means more shades of the primary colors and results in better precision and smooth color transitions. The ideal color depth depends on the data storage on the device and the internet bandwidth.

Images with high color depth need more space and bandwidth and often require compression. High bitrate (amount of information per second) devices also have high color depth.

A 10-bit and 12-bit recording allows more accurate video mapping and better image quality, but these file formats need more space.

How to Evaluate Color Depth in Images, Videos, and Displays

Color depth or pixel depth ranges from one bit to 48 bits. The higher the bit number, the more color a pixel has. A pixel with a bit depth of one displays two color shades–black and white.

Many devices offer standard bit depths:

  • 1 bit- 21 = 2 shades (black and white)
  • 2 bits- 22 = 4 shades (shades of gray)
  • 8 bits- 28 = 256 shades
  • 10 bits- 210 = 1024 shades
  • 12 bits- 212 = 4096 shades
  • 24 bits- 224 = 16,777,216 shades

Color Depth in Different Color Spaces (e.g., Rgb, Cmyk)

Color digital images consist of pixels combining three primary colors (red, green, and blue). They are also known as color channels. The bits per color channel (bpc) is the number of bits used to store information for each color channel. But, the bits per pixel (bpp) is the sum of bits at all channels.

For instance, an 8-bit contains 28 bits per pixel, translating to 28*3 bits per channel. So, there are 16,777,216 colors in an 8-bit RGB system. Sixteen million distinct colors are more than the human eye can see and are also called “true color.”

The colors produce photorealistic images and videos. 8-bit RGB systems apply to digital photography, computer graphics, and video production. The CMYK color space contains four channels, cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black).

While an RGB image is a 24-bit (8 bits x 3 channels), a CMYK image is a 32-bit (8 bits x 4 channels).

Difference Between 8-Bit, 10-Bit, and 12-Bit Color Depth

8-bit color depth, or 24-bit color, uses 8 bits to represent each color channel (red, green, and blue). Such systems produce 16 million possible colors. An 8-bit system is standard for most consumer-grade displays and cameras.

10-bit color depth uses 10 bits per channel and 30 bits per pixel. It provides a total of 1.07 billion possible colors. The depth allows for more accurate color representation and smoother color gradients. 10-bit systems are standard in professional-grade displays and cameras.

12-bit color depth uses 12 bits per channel, resulting in 36 bits per pixel. It produces 68.7 billion possible colors. The system has the most accurate color representation and the smoothest color gradients. It’s used in high-end professional displays and cameras.

The number of bits used to represent each pixel’s color affects the colors a device can display. Higher color depth allows for more accurate and detailed color representation.

Pros and Cons of Different Color Depth Standards


  • Improved color accuracy: High color depths allow the display of more color shades and more accurate images.
  • Reduces color banding: Color banding occurs when each pixel has limited shades. Color depth prevents this undesirable effect. It also provides a smooth transition from one color to the next.
  • More vibrant and photorealistic images: Photographers and artists produce more realistic images using highlights and shadows. A display can use various colors to show shades of bright and dark areas in an image.
  • Better viewing experience: High color depth standards provide a better viewing experience in movies and video games. Cameras with high color depth produce lifelike colors and improved detail.


  • High Cost: Devices with higher color depth standards are more expensive than their counterparts. It can be a barrier for some users to invest in high-end equipment.
  • More Storage Requirements: Higher color depth standards need more storage space to store the image information. Sharing or displaying images across different devices or software programs could be challenging.

Applications of Color Depth

Color depth determines the number of colors in an image or video. It’s essential in digital printing, displays, video production, and more.

Digital Printing

Color depth determines the quality and accuracy of a printed image. Higher color depth printers display more colors, producing more accurate and realistic color reproduction.

For example, a photo featuring an 8-bit color depth has a maximum of 256 colors. An image with a 16-bit color depth displays up to 65,536 different colors.

Display Technologies

LCD, OLED, and CRT displays use color depth. Higher color depths are used in displays that require accurate and realistic color representation, such as professional-grade monitors. Many high-end monitors support color depths of 10 bits per channel, displaying over a billion colors.

Gaming Graphics

Color depth enhances the gaming experience by making the game world lifelike and immersive. 24-bit and 32-bit color depths allow display of over 16 million possible colors.

The ability to communicate more colors allows for smoother color gradients and transitions. It also helps create a more cohesive and believable game environment.


8-bit, 10-bit and 12-bit color depths are popular in video production. High color depth is essential when working with high dynamic range (HDR) video. HDR video uses various colors and brightness levels to produce photorealistic images.

A higher color depth preserves the accuracy and detail of colors. Higher color depth also prevents banding and color artifacts during image compression and editing.