February 16, 2009

JPEG, TIFF or RAW?

Anacortes Harbor Boats

Digital cameras can save your photos using one of three different file formats. All digital cameras can save photos as JPEG (pronounced "jay-peg") files. This file format is universal. You can view it on a computer screen, email it, add it to a web page, upload it to an online photo lab, or deliver it to your favorite photo store.

JPEG files are "compressed." This means that some color information is eliminated (lost) when the picture is saved in order to create a smaller file. A smaller file size takes up less room on your memory card or hard drive so you can save more photos.

You specify how much information is lost by the quality setting you select in the camera menu. Some cameras use words like Fine, Normal and Standard for quality choices. Others use three, two and one star or other symbol. The best quality is always the least compression, so pick the maximum number of stars or the finest quality.

TIFF (pronounced "tiff") files are not compressed. They contain all the information in the original photo. This means that the file size is much larger than even the best quality JPEG file, usually about three times bigger. You might think that this would mean the picture quality would be three times better, but that's not the case. Most of the time, you can't see the difference between a best quality JPEG version and a TIFF version of the same scene. So you are sacrificing storage space without gaining an improvement in the appearance of your image.

The boat image above when saved as a best quality JPEG file is 4.2 megabytes. The same photo saved as a TIFF file is 18 megabytes, more than four times the size!

I recommend that you don't use TIFF format for saving your digital photos in the camera. You might need to use TIFF format if you are sharing photos with someone who is adding them to a newsletter or other printed publication. But usually a JPEG file will work just as well.

RAW files are completely different from either TIFF or JPEG files. Both TIFF and JPEG pictures have been developed in your camera and are ready to view on your computer or print at a photo lab. RAW files have not been developed; they are "uncooked, unbaked, raw," like take-and-bake pizza. In most cases, you can neither see the RAW file on your computer screen nor print it until you have used special computer software (called a "raw converter") to develop the picture yourself. A RAW file is akin to a roll of undeveloped film which die-hard photographers would process in their own darkrooms. They couldn't see the picture until it had been developed.

So if you are just getting started with your digital camera, I recommend you ignore the TIFF and RAW quality settings and stick with the best quality JPEG file format. You will simplify your life and still get great photos!