Color Depth and Image Quality: Everything You Need to Know

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color depth and image quality
Color depth and image quality are intertwined in a highly crucial way; image quality is as dependent on color bit depth as it would be on something as fundamental as color space.

The best monitors out there, no matter what type – whether they’re gaming monitors or ultrawide monitors – all present a total package that fires on all cylinders with great resolution, ideal response time, a comfortable screen size, and specific technicalities such as refresh rate, luminance or input lag and, the focus of this article, color depth.

Color Depth

Colors are represented on a screen through pixels. These pixels have a certain number of bits used in each pixel, and this value is referred to as the color depth.

This means that a higher color depth will result in more clear “increments” in tone and color, as well as an overall wider range of colors visible.

This will be detailed a bit more in the next section, but even without a visual example you can imagine that using 3 brushstrokes to represent a sunset would result in an abstract approximation of one with three distinct colors, but 300 would mean a seamless, realistic representation.

In color depth terms, this is the difference between, let’s say, 3-bit (which means 8 “tones” can be seen) and 8-bit (which comes out to 256!).

Color Depth And Bit Depth

Color depth is also known as bit depth, and it’s crucial to measure the quality of both images and video. More values and tones of color are perceived with more depth, meaning that the difference between two colors is more apparent while the transitions are smoother – hence, the depth of a bit of color.

Of course, a “bit” is not just a relative term, but a specific unit.

You might already know of a bit as being a part of a kilobyte and then so on to megabytes and gigabytes like, say, 5MB for a PDF file and 5GB for a USB flash drive. When we said 3-bit and 8-bit in the last section, it meant 2 raised to the power of 3, so 8 values, and then 2 raised to the power of 8, meaning 256 values.

When it comes to colors in images and videos, we already know that we think of them in terms of pixels (“picture elements”), but a single-pixel itself is made up of bits – 8 bits, to be precise, for black and white pixels. This is how we understand bit depth; the RGB color scheme comes from here, represented as 3 bytes per pixel – meaning 24 bits in total, or 1 byte each.

If it feels too technical or mathematical, don’t worry. All we need is the number of bits in each pixel to arrive at a calculate of bit depth if we need to determine that at all.

Ultimately, the higher that the color bit depth is, the more color tones that can be represented on screen and the more put together the image or video is, with no visible ‘blocks’ of pixels and such.

This raises the question: can color depth be changed?

Let’s find out.

Change Color Depth (Windows 10)

Knowing the importance of color depth might make many readers suddenly have an “aha!” moment. Is the cause of your problems poor color bit depth? We’re going to see what happens when we change it, using Windows 10 as an example.

It’s good form to make sure you’ve saved all your work and closed all open programs before continuing.

The first step is to access Control Panel by clicking Start and either click on a Control Panel tile that appears or typing it in the Search box next to Start. A much faster way, however, is to access the Control Panel via the Run dialog box by pressing the Windows and R keys simultaneously on your keyboard to launch, then typing in control and hitting Enter or OK.

If your Control Panel is displaying in categories, go to Appearance and Personalization or, when in icon view, click Display.

We now need to go to Display Adapter Properties. When we clicked Display, all we need to do is select the monitor we want to change the settings for and the link will be in front of us. With Appearance and Personalization, however, we’d need to click Display, then Change display settings, and then Advanced settings.

Once in the Adapter properties, click on and select List All Modes. From the options given to you, you can now choose not only color depth but resolution and refresh rate as well.

Usually, the optimum color depth will be the one that corresponds to your resolution and then has the highest value in the parentheses. Let’s say, for example, that your screen resolution is 1920 by 1200 or 1280 by 1024, and for these there is more than one option. Whatever the names – True Color or 256 Colors – that you’d have to choose between, choose the one with the highest bit number i.e. 32-bit.

End by clicking OK and closing the settings.

In almost all cases, going to a higher depth value immediately results in a richer palette of colors, easier on the eyes, and more striking in appearance.

In some displays, such as NVIDIA, the process is made much simpler – the NVIDIA Control Panel takes you to a Change Resolution landing from under the Display settings, from where a dropdown list lets you select the color depth of your choice.

Xbox One: Color Depth Change

In consoles, the process of changing the color depth is similar, but the relative importance of both are different.

When it comes to the Xbox One, it’s not just the console’s settings and signals that will affect our decision, but the TV as well as the game itself. For example, the standard used by the Xbox One X, HDR10, requires a 10-bit panel, but many displays might be able to support only 8-bit, even while the consoles can output at 8-bit, 10-bit and 12-bit.

For changing Xbox One’s color depth, open its Settings app. From there, under the Display & Sound tab, select Video Output, then Video Fidelity & Overscan, and then the options will allow you to select the Color Depth of your choice.

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