JPEG vs. TIFF vs. RAW

Which format should you use in your photography?

JPEG, TIFF, and RAW are photo file formats that nearly all DSLR cameras support. Beginner cameras typically only offer JPEG file formats. Some DSLR cameras shoot in JPEG and RAW simultaneously. While you won't find a lot of cameras that offer TIFF photography, some advanced ones do offer this precise image format. With all of these options, how do you know which one to use? We break down the pros and cons.

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
Most common format Favored by professionals More common in graphics publishing and medical imaging

The biggest difference between the three formats is the amount of information they keep. JPEG loses the most information via compression but takes up a lot less space. RAW, as the name implies, doesn't compress or process an image's data at all, which means files in this format are a lot bigger. TIFF, meanwhile, is a compression format that doesn't lose information, and it's the largest of the three formats. Which one you choose depends largely on what image information you want to keep and whether or not you want to do the post-processing yourself.

A picture of a hiker on a small peak with larger mountains in the background.
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

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

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is a lossily compressed format, meaning it uses a compression format to remove some pixels 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 lot of blue sky.

The firmware or software inside the camera computes the compression level at the time the camera saves the photo, immediately saving 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 and quickly sharing/transporting.

Despite JPEG's compression features, the removed pixels are usually not noticed. Plus, you can control the amount of compression used on the image to produce a reasonably decent quality photo that takes up very little space (especially when compared to the other formats mentioned below).

With JPEGs, the image layers are flattened, meaning that 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 multiple times will continue to degrade its quality.

Since it's easy to overwrite the original JPEG and remove the ability to undo edits, it's advised to always retain a copy of the original image (i.e., save to a new copy or back up the original).

Most photographers still 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 the majority of the time. More advanced cameras, such as DSLRs, also shoot in JPEG a lot of the time. If you're planning to share photos across social media, making use of JPEG is smart 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/viewing software

RAW is close to film quality and requires lots of storage space since the camera doesn't compress or process a RAW file in any way. 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 all very similar, even though they use different file extensions.

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

Many professionals and advanced photographers like RAW because they can perform their own editing on an image without having to worry 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 actual photo.

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

For these reasons, photographers and editors will often shoot and edit in a RAW format and then 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

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

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

Various programs support opening and editing TIFF files, but because they're so large, they aren't used for web-based images and so 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 ultra-precise image editing.