You’ve probably heard about the ongoing debate between JPEG vs RAW files – but what about RAW vs TIFF? It’s not a common topic, but it’s just as important.
In this article, I’ll talk about the characteristics of these two file formats, and I’ll explain what makes each option great. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll know why and when to use TIFF and RAW.
Let’s get started!
TIFF format: overview
TIFF stands for Tagged Image File Format. It is an uncompressed file format for rasterized graphics. In photography, it’s normally used to save high-quality post-processed images.
Most people, including amateur photographers, aren’t familiar with TIFF files. Some even argue that the file format is obsolete and shouldn’t be used.
On the other hand, many professionals still believe it’s the best way to store your images – after you’ve finished editing and retouching.
RAW format: overview
RAW files contain unprocessed data from a photo. To use an analog comparison, it’s like having an undeveloped roll of film.
Most RAW file formats have proprietary names. That’s why you won’t find a file extension .RAW. Instead, you can find .NEF, .NRW, .CR2, .CR3, .ARW, .DNG, and many others.
All professional cameras and most prosumer cameras offer the ability to shoot in RAW. You can even find this feature on point-and-shoot cameras.
In fact, some smartphones have the option to shoot in RAW – and if your smartphone’s native camera app doesn’t support RAW shooting, you can always do it via a third-party app.
RAW vs TIFF: data and post-processing flexibility
RAW files are (almost always) produced by cameras. That’s because RAW files contain the unprocessed information the camera recorded at the time of capture.
This gives you the most flexibility when editing your images and retains details from the shadows and highlights. With a RAW file, nothing has been discarded, so you have all the data to work with (including additional highlight and shadow information).
That’s why it doesn’t make sense to convert other types of files (JPEGs or TIFFs) to RAW. Any unprocessed information will be gone, so even if you change the file type, you won’t get the extra data.
Most cameras don’t offer the option to shoot in TIFF; normally, TIFF files are created when you save a scanned image as a TIFF file, or you save/export a fully edited photo as a TIFF.
Note that TIFFs, like RAWs, are uncompressed. But they don’t retain the slew of data present in a RAW file. I would advise using TIFFs when you don’t want your image compressed, but you don’t need it to be widely editable. For example, if you want to send a high-quality file to a client or to the printer.
RAW vs TIFF: size
Since RAW files contain so much information, you might expect huge sizes compared to TIFFs. However, TIFF files are almost double the size of RAW files.
See, RAW files don’t have any color information, while TIFF files are already processed with data in three color channels: red, green, and blue.
This is one of the reasons why many people advocate against TIFF files in the RAW vs TIFF debate. They are heavier than RAW files but include less data.
This is also why it’s not practical to shoot directly in TIFF. You would fill up your memory cards extremely fast! It would also slow down the storage process and prevent your camera’s continuous shooting modes from working properly.
If you want to shoot a processed image, most cameras offer various JPEG options. The file will be compressed, but the size will definitely be smaller, even at the highest quality.
RAW vs TIFF: opening and processing files
TIFF is widely supported by most photo editing and photo organizer programs across all platforms. It’s one of the reasons TIFFs are so great for sharing images (plus, they’re lossless!).
RAW, on the other hand, is not as universally supported – although it’s becoming more and more common. As I mentioned before, each manufacturer has a different file extension for their RAW files, and in the same way, each manufacturer offers different RAW processing software for their files. Canon has Digital Photo Professional, which can open and edit CRW, CR2, and CR3 files. Nikon has ViewNX to open, browse, edit, and share files, and it also has NEF Codec to handle NEF files. Sony has RAW Driver, Panasonic has LUMIX RAW Codec, and so on.
If you have cameras from multiple brands and you want to process the RAW files from all of them using the same software, you’ll probably be okay; there are multiple programs that support the most common RAW formats on the market. Some of the most popular include Photoshop (through Adobe Camera Raw) and Lightroom. For non-Adobe users, there’s Luminar AI, Aurora HDR, ACDSee Photo Studio, Capture One, etc.
It’s also worth mentioning that Adobe developed an open-patent RAW file known as the DNG (Digital Negative). Many cameras and especially smartphones generate DNG files.
RAW vs TIFF files: final words
As you can see, both RAW and TIFF are valid formats with different qualities and purposes.
RAW files are the best way to store your images when you want the utmost flexibility for editing and post-production. However, sharing your RAW files probably isn’t a great idea; for one, they’re not easily viewable, plus people can do whatever they want with them, editing-wise. Normally, you’d want to keep control over the final outcome (when sending an image to a client, say).
TIFF files are a great way to save your images at the highest quality once you’ve developed them and you don’t plan to do any additional editing. Once you’ve saved a photo as a TIFF, you can open and re-save it as many times as you want without losing quality, plus you can share your TIFFs without worry.
I hope this article sheds some light on the RAW vs TIFF debate – and helps you determine the better file format for your workflow.
Now over to you:
Which do you prefer, RAW or TIFF files? Why? Which do you plan to use? And do you have any additional questions about RAWs and TIFFs? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
TIFF vs RAW FAQs
There isn’t one type of file that’s better than the other – they simply have different uses. If you’re going to do heavy editing, it’s better to shoot in RAW. But if you’re going to be sharing the file, then it’s a good idea to convert it to a TIFF.
The short answer is no, TIFF doesn’t compress your images and you don’t lose quality every time you open and re-save the file. However, TIFF files are processed, so you discard all the extra, unused information, unlike a RAW file that keeps all the data.
No. While TIFF is a lossless format, it only stores the processed image. That’s why it has less post-processing flexibility than a RAW file.
The best way to convert a RAW file is to open it in a photo editing program, process your image, then save or export it as a TIFF file. You can also use a file converter, but then you’ll lose control over the post-processing.
There are file converter programs and websites that allow you to upload TIFF files and save them as RAWs. It’s not very useful, though, as you can’t recover any of the RAW data from the shot.
To open a RAW file, you need a photo editor that supports RAW images. Universal choices include Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and RawTherapee.