The choices that photographers must make can seem almost limitless: exposure time, shutter speed, lens type, lighting…the options can pile up quickly, making simple choices about file formats just one more pain to cause worry.
If you are a novice digital photographer, then selecting which kind of digital file format to work with may seem insignificant. However, depending on what you want to do with the image, it can make all the difference. For example, if you’re sharing recent pics you’ve taken with your friends via social media, you’ve probably come across a notification popping up that tells you that your file is too large?
While there are many common file formats for digital images, the most widely used ones are JPEG, TIFF, RAW, and PNG file types. This quick and easy guide will get you up to speed on making your file format selection so you can enjoy, share, or sell them faster!
Receiving its name from the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the committee that created the standard, JPEG is a compressed digital image that trades off storage size for image quality. This is one of the most common digital image formats used worldwide, and while it received its name in 1992, the compression technique can be traced to 1972.
This format works best with images that have smooth variations of tone and colour. Therefore, a JPEG would not be ideal for any images that you anticipate having sharp contrast between lines, as adjacent pixels may become noticeable.
The compression method is typically “lossy,” which means that original information from the image is not retained and cannot be restored. This may affect image quality, and even though there is a “lossless” alternative to retain original image information, it is not typically supported in most products.
Due to its compression algorithm technique, JPEGs are perfectly suited for mass image production and storage, often coinciding with online publication. To meet storage limitations in various online publications, social media, and sharing applications, JPEGs enjoys a significantly reduced file size in comparison to other file formats. This means you can upload more photos without hitting your storage limit and they will transfer much faster.
Graphic artists throughout the publishing industry will likely use this file format the most. TIFF stands for Tagged Image File Format (or sometimes just shortened to TIF if you exclude the Format part). Lots of standard office equipment support this file format, such as copiers and scanners. It’s also the standard for many page layout applications.
Prior to the mid-1980s, the vendors that sold the previously noted equipment almost all had their own proprietary formats for scanning image files. TIFF was developed originally as a binary image format to get the vendors to agree to a common file format. Eventually, the binary option was no longer needed, as hardware grew more powerful, and grayscale and then colour images were supported.
The TIFF file format is great for retaining tags unique to each file. For example, data designating the header size, compression, arrangement, and more help define each individual file’s geometry. It can even house lossy and lossless compressed images.
Because of this capability, TIFF is a great format that offers extensive post-processing and is often the highest definition images in comparison to other formats, even when printed. However, due to the size of TIFF files, they are typically much larger and take up more storage space, also resulting in longer transfer times.
The Portable Network Graphics (PNG for short, or “ping” if you’re one of the cool kids) format was originally developed to be a non-patented replacement for GIF files. The concept was to have a file format ideal for sending images online, but not to necessarily be professional quality.
The file is encoded in a compressed lossless format, which in other formats usually means a larger file size. However, a PNG keeps the file size small while allowing for partial and even total transparency of the image. This is accomplished by using “chunks,” which basically break up the image coding into critical or ancillary pieces, the latter of which can be ignored if not understood by a program.
A PNG will upload quickly, making page loads faster when viewing online. Internet surfers will get antsy if your images take a long time to load, therefore making PNG a preferred file format for people building webpages. The downside is that the overall quality is not very high when printing a PNG image.
RAW file formats are named literally; they are image files that are not processed at all and cannot and shouldn’t be printed without being edited first. In fact, because of the very nature of RAW file formatting, there are hundreds of various RAW formats from different manufacturers and none of them can be used as a manipulatable image until they are run through a RAW converter such as a post-processing software.
While that may seem discouraging, RAW format is the preferred option for professional photographers. Your camera will automatically embed permanent adjustments to your image (for example if you are using JPEG format) unless you select the RAW file format.
When you take a RAW image, you capture every scrap of information that your camera can collect. Elements like saturation, sharpness, contrast, white balance and more can all be adjusted manually afterwards using editing software, giving you greater control over your image. This is the reason that professional photographers use this file format. Because it gives the flexibility in image manipulation and quality that other file formats do not.
The drawbacks of using RAW images is that since you are adjusting yourself instead of letting the camera do it for you, you’ll need a lot more time to get the image just the way you like it. Additionally, the files are also much larger, therefore taking up a vast amount of space both at home and when on memory cards when taking photos. Naturally, the file sizes also mean transfer times will be much longer.
Whilst there are other file formats out there, these are the main ones that you will need to consider. To be blunt, if your camera can take photos in RAW format then you really shouldn’t be using any other type. RAW files give the very best image possible and the bigger file size is a small price to pay. You can always save your RAW files also JPEGs (most modern cameras offer this dual saving method). Needless to say, this will take up more memory card space. So there you have it, a brief guide to different file formats.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.