Understanding all the Different Image File Formats

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file-formats

When you take a photograph, what is essentially happening is that the camera is capturing data, which creates a digital image. There are many different types of file formats, which can be retrieved and edited using a photo editing software. The most commonly used ones are:

  • JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)
  • TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)
  • RAW
  • DNG (Digital Negative Format)
  • PNG (Portable Network Graphics)
  • GIF (Graphics Interchange Format)
  • BMP (Bitmap)
  • PSD (Photoshop Document)

Choosing the right file format is important, and can be critical depending on the level of quality, and also the level of post-processing you intend to do. Here are the pros and cons of using each different image file format.

JPEG

This is probably the best known of all image file formats, and what the majority of digital cameras provide as a digital output from a camera. The thing that you should remember is that JPEG files are compressed quickly in the camera, and thus result in a loss of detail and quality. They are essentially set up to store as many images on the memory card as possible. Some cameras will have options for different quality levels of JPEG (e.g., low, medium, and high). This basically means that the better the quality that you require, the less compression the camera will perform on the original photograph.

Generally speaking JPEGs should be used:

  • When the photos are for personal use, for social media, albums, and small prints and not intended for large size prints
  • When you don’t intend to enhance or edit the photos much in post-production (e.g., using Photoshop)
  • For sharing images via email (without the intention of large size prints)

Benefits (pros)

  • Small file sizes means more can be stored on a memory card
  • Quicker file transfer times, due to smaller file size

Negatives (cons)

  • Loss of quality due to image compression
  • Less opportunity for image manipulation in photo editing software

TIFF

This is the most commonly used industry-standard file format, and is generally what print or publishers ask for. Even if the end file format required is a JPEG, the initial captured file would be TIFF. These file formats are usually uncompressed, and as a result offer the opportunity for extensive post-processing. Due to the fact that they are uncompressed, they are also much bigger files, so will take much more space both on your memory cards and also for storage on your computer. Some cameras offer TIFF as the highest image quality level in camera.

Benefits

  • Ability to manipulate photos extensively in photo editing software
  • Option to print at the highest quality and at much larger sizes

Negatives

  • Much bigger file sizes (more storage needed)
  • Longer transfer and loading times due to file size

RAW

RAW files are generally available on advanced compact cameras and DSLRs and quite simply put; it is the best option if you want to get the absolute best file from your camera – this is the option preferred by professional photographers. The problem with not using raw files is that your camera will make adjustments, which are permanently embedded into your photos.

Raw files are compressed using a process that retains all of the information originally captured. This means that adjustments such as white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness can all be altered in an image editing software, after the image has been taken. Photographing in raw format will require plenty of memory cards, not to mention considerable post-processing time. It will also require some basic knowledge of image editing software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, as files will have to be edited and converted before they can be used (to share online, print, send to friends, etc.).

Benefits

  • The best quality image file is captured
  • Extensive options in post-processing and image manipulation

Negatives

  • Time needed to convert and edit photos (you must edit raw files)
  • Bigger file sizes mean more storage needed and longer post-processing times

DNG (Digital Negative)

Just about every camera these days uses a different proprietary format to capture raw files. Even cameras from the same manufacturer will often use different formats, which means image editing software must to be able read files from all of these different cameras and formats. As a result, the challenge that photo editing software providers face, is how to manage and continuously provide updates for their software to be able to read all the different camera formats.

Enter the DNG. This file format, created by Adobe, is an attempt to create a standard raw file format across all manufacturers and cameras. This is offered as a main raw file format, or as an alternative to the manufacturer’s native raw format. One of the problems with keeping images in their original raw format is that in years to come you may be unable to access them, as they are specific to that camera and manufacturer. But using an Adobe DNG Convertor means you can also store your raw files as DNG files for maximum future security. This does add another step in the post-processing workflow, which means more time is required. However, using image-processing software, such as Lightroom, can help in converting large batches of files so that it doesn’t have to be done manually.

Benefits

  • Ability to use image processing software such as Lightroom and Photoshop
  • Possibly safer option long term, to guard against inability to open or access files in future

Negatives

  • Extra time needed to convert camera raw files to DNG (if your camera does not have the option to supply files in this format)

Understanding_File_Formats

PNG

Designed in the 90s as an improvement for GIF file format, PNG files are ideal for use on the internet. The strength of PNGs are that they are compressed in a lossless format, and so retain all the digital detail. But unlike other file formats, that quality doesn’t mean big file sizes, which are not useful on the internet where you need pages to be loaded quickly. The other benefit of PNG files are that they allow for partial (effects like drop shadows) or total transparency which is ideal for overlays or logos.

Benefits

  • Lossless compression means good image quality, which isn’t compromised when editing
  • The ability to maintain transparency, which is ideal for things like overlays or logos

Negatives

  • Quality will not be good enough for printing at any size

GIF

Like PNGs, GIF files are ideal for use on the internet. Lossless compression means image quality is not sacrificed, and like PNGs they also offer the ability to maintain transparency (but can’t support partial transparency) and also allow for animation. However, the limitation of GIF files are that they can only contain a maximum of 256 colours, and therefore are not the best choice for photos, but rather images with a limited colour palette.

Benefits

  • Small file sizes makes these ideal for use on the web
  • Files can contain animation

Negatives

  • Limited colours means it is not the best choice for photos
  • Does not support partial transparency like drop shadows

BMP

Another lossless file format, BMP was invented by Microsoft, initially for use on the Windows platform but is now recognized by programs on Macs as well. BMPs are large file sizes as colour data is saved in each individual pixel in the image without any compression. As a result this provides a high quality digital file, which is great for use in print, but not ideal for web usage.

 Benefits

  • Can be used for printing as images are saved in high quality format

Negatives

  • Large file sizes means a lot of storage is required

PSD

This file type is what Adobe Photoshop uses as a default to save data. The big advantage of PSD files are that it allows for manipulation on specific individual layers, rather than on the main image itself. This makes it absolutely essential for any sort of extensive manipulation of the original photograph – such as retouching. This gives far greater flexibility and the ability to fine tune an image as layers can be added, removed or edited at any time without any effect on the original photo (as long as all editing has been done on layers) or other layers. But remember that once a layered PSD file is flattened (this process essentially merges all of the layers) it can’t be undone, so make sure you save your file as a PSD file before flattening.

 Benefits

  • Ability to manipulate the image extensively on separate layers
  • Once the image is ready it can be re-saved as any other file format

Negatives

  • Layered files can be incredibly large in size due all of the additional data stored

These are the most common file types used. Professional photographers generally capture in raw format (even if the final file needed is JPEG), convert those files to DNG, then edit in photo editing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. But as you can see choosing the right file format to capture the original photo and subsequently save it as is imperative.

Do you use any other file formats? What image editing software do you use? Share your tips and comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Kav Dadfar is a professional travel and landscape photographer based in London. He spent his formative years working as an art director in the world of advertising but loved nothing more than photography and travelling. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images, Robert Harding World Imagery, Getty, Axiom Photographic, and Alamy and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Wanderlust travel magazine, American Express and many more. Follow his travels and imagery on Instagram and Facebook.

  • Arthur_P_Dent

    If you use Lightroom, converting to DNG is not an inconvenience in the workflow process. I find it goes quite quickly, whether it’s PEF or CR2.

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  • Kav Dadfar

    Absolutely. Using Lightroom makes converting files into any format easy.

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  • Ana

    Good article! One question though: doesn’t the TIFF format also support layers in Photoshop?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Ana, yes I believe that photoshop can save layers as TIFF files. I personally keep files as PSDs and a flattened version as TIFF. But different people will have different preferences.

  • Yes they are but the files are typically a lot larger than the same layered file as a PSD.

  • BlackRipleyDog

    As an interesting aside to this discussion, my system was infected by Cyrptowall 2 in late 2014. As advertised, it affected all file types on my system with the exception of TIFFs. As luck would have it, I had saved a wedding to TIFFs just prior to the infection and I was still able to produce an album for the bride. Unfortunately, I lost all video before I could work with them in post.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Thanks for sharing. It’s worth knowing.

  • Julius Titak

    DNG: I’ve done some reading recently about file formats, but are you basically saying that in time other file formats may not be readable on computers for editing; for instance, the Raw file? (I do use Photoshop.) I read about the DNG converter by following your link, but I am still a bit confused by the DNG/Raw file issue. Sounds as if a more extensive article needs to be written about this to clarify what is possibly going to happen with file formats in the future. One more thing: Is the PSD format lossless format? I think it is, but please clarify. Thank you!

  • Roberto

    Actually, RAW files are not editable. Programs like LightRoom or Photoshop can read this file and apply color correction and apply filters. LR stores a separate file that says what changes were applied to it (color correction, crop info, etc.). On photoshop, if you add changes you need to store that file in another format, usually PSD. PSD is lossless format, I think that the only format that looses quality is JPG inherently. BMP files are almost never used except for small images like icons due to them being too large, and they really offer no advantages for photos over tiff or psd, which offer some compression.

  • Roberto

    TIFF supports layers, but I don’t know if it supports layers like brightness or other layers that modify the image instead of having actaul bitmaps.

  • Julius Titak

    Roberto, RAW files are editable in Camera RAW. I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been in my initial post. For instance, will the RAW file go away to where it will no longer be read and editable in Camera RAW? My guess is probably not, but that is the point of my post. Should I convert my RAW files to DNG files? I just started editing and saving some of my files in Photoshop as TIFF files, but still do some editing as a PSD. Once done I save them as a flattened TIFF file, and then convert some of them to jpg’s for use on the internet. My prints are now sent out to my printer in California as TIFF files. I appreciate your input, and I hope this clarifies my initial post.

  • Roberto

    What I meant is that you cannot load a RAW file, edit it and save it in RAW format. In LR you save another file that has which changes you applied to. If the user needs to do more changes to the file (for example in Photoshop), the user needs to then save that file in another format, like TIFF or PSD.

  • Julius Titak

    Roberto, I figured we both understood each other…we just needed to clarify our intentions and meanings. Again, thank you for your input. I’d like to hear from Kav or Darlene on this.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi guys, apologies I have been on a shoot for the last few weeks. Julius, in theory if you are using a Camera RAW which supports your RAW files that should be fine. Generally speaking if you are using one of the big manufactures then they will probably always have something that allows you to edit or convert your files. But obviously one can’t envision what will happen in the future. As an example I recently started using one of my old cameras (Canon 5D MK II) to my surprise I was unable to import any photos into any Adobe product. Having done some research I found that the issue was due to the fact that I updated my Mac operating system. So I needed up having to download a software from Canon to allow me to import on to the computer for me to then import into LR. The point is that there are obviously a lot of other factors.

    So to answer your question of if it will mean you will not be able to access your RAW files, probably not for the foreseeable future and it will be likely that you will be able to find a piece of software to get around the issue. However if you want to be extra safe invest in a big HD (they’re are not that expensive) or cloud back-up storage and save your files as DNG. I’ve always imported into LR which converts the file into DNG.

    Hope this helps.

    Kav

  • Julius Titak

    Thank you Kav for your response…hope your trip produced some great results!

  • Julius Titak

    Kav, could you possibly discuss the differences between editing in the psd & tiff formats? Is there any differences, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of editing in both formats?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Julius, PSD files are basically layered files which is what photoshop uses. You can do the same on TIFFs but the files are sizes are generally bigger. Anything which requires layers I work on photoshop, then I save as PSD with the layers intact. If I’m sending to clients I save a copy of the file flattened and in whatever format is required. Kav

  • Julius Titak

    Kav, I’ve done editing with both PSD and TIFF’s, and I agree that only difference seems to be a larger file size. Apparently, there is no other difference or advantage that you or I are aware of. Very informative article…thank you!

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