JPEG vs. TIFF vs. RAW

Which format should you use in your photography?

Most DSLR cameras support the JPEG, TIFF, and RAW photo file formats. Beginner cameras typically only offer JPEG file formats. Some DSLR cameras shoot in JPEG and RAW simultaneously. While you won't find many cameras that offer TIFF photography, some advanced cameras include this image format.

JPEG vs TIFF vs RAW
JPEG RAW TIFF
Uses a compression format. Not compressed or processed. Compression format that doesn't lose info.
Saves storage space. Requires lots of storage space. Largest file sizes.
The most common format. Favored by professionals. More common in graphics publishing and medical imaging.

The most significant difference between the three formats is the amount of information each keeps. JPEG loses the most information during compression but takes up less space. RAW doesn't compress or process image data, which means files in this format are larger. TIFF is a compression format that doesn't lose information, and it's the largest of the three formats. The one you choose depends on what image information you want to keep, and if you're going to do the post-processing yourself.

JPEG

Advantages
  • Most common image format.

  • Takes up less space than RAW and TIFF.

  • Best for sharing on social media.

Disadvantages
  • Loses information during compression.

  • Editing images in JPEG sacrifices quality.

The Joint Photographic Experts Group image format uses lossy compression. This compression format removes pixels that the compression algorithm deems unimportant, thereby saving storage space. The compression takes place in areas where colors repeat, such as in a photo that shows a blue sky.

The firmware or software inside the camera computes the compression level when the camera saves the photo. This procedure saves space on the memory card. For this reason, JPEG is the most common image file format and is useful for displaying images on the web, sharing images, and transporting images to another location.

Despite JPEG's compression features, the removed pixels aren't usually noticed. Plus, you can control the amount of compression.

With JPEGs, the image layers are flattened. This means you can't undo old edits as you can with image file formats that store revisions in layers or that don't change the original file. What's more, editing the same JPEG several times continues to degrade its quality.

Most photographers work in JPEG the majority of the time since its the standard image format in digital cameras, especially inexpensive point and shoot cameras. Smartphone cameras also record in JPEG format most of the time. More advanced cameras, such as DSLRs, also shoot in JPEG. If you plan to share photos across social media, make use of JPEG because it's easier to send the smaller files.

RAW

Advantages
  • Close to film quality.

  • Doesn't compress or process the image before saving it.

  • Gives you more control when post-processing an image.

  • Starting to appear as an option in some smartphones.

Disadvantages
  • Requires lots of storage space.

  • Not compatible with some image editing and viewing software.

RAW is close to film quality and requires lots of storage space because the camera doesn't compress or process a RAW file. Some people refer to the RAW format as a digital negative because it doesn't change anything about the file when storing it.

Depending on your camera manufacturer, RAW may be called something else, such as NEF (Nikon) or DNG. These formats—and others like RW2, CR2, RAF, and CRW—are similar, even though each uses a different file extension.

Few beginner-level cameras allow RAW format file storage. However, some smartphone cameras are starting to offer RAW along with JPEG.

Many professionals and advanced photographers like RAW because they can edit an image without worrying about which elements the compression program will remove, such as with JPEG. For example, you can use image editing software to change the white balance of a photo shot in RAW, but only the metadata is altered, not the photo.

One disadvantage of shooting in RAW is the large amount of storage space required, which will fill a memory card quickly. Also, you can't open RAW files with some image editing and viewing software. While most standalone image editing programs can open RAW files, others that are widely used, like Microsoft Paint, can't.

For these reasons, photographers and editors will often shoot and edit in RAW format and export the image to a compressed format like JPEG.

TIFF

Advantages
  • Doesn't lose any information during compression.

  • Supported by various editing programs.

Disadvantages
  • Not widely available in DSLRs.

  • Uses the most storage space out of the three formats.

  • Files are too large for the web.

Tagged Image File Format is a compression format that doesn't lose information about the photo's data. It's a lossless file format. Files in this format are larger than JPEG and RAW files, and few cameras create images in TIFF.

TIFF is more of a standard format in graphics publishing and medical imaging than it is with digital photography. However, there are instances where professional photographers have a project that requires it.

Various programs support opening and editing TIFF files, but because these files are so large, they aren't used for web-based images and are usually converted to another format.

Which Should You Choose?

Unless you're a professional photographer who's going to make huge prints, a high-quality JPEG setting will meet your needs. TIFF and RAW are overkill unless you have a specific reason for shooting in those formats, such as the need for precise image editing.