Differences Between JPEG, TIFF, and RAW

Learn when to use each photo file format

Aerial photo of mountains
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

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 cameras do offer this precise image format.

With all of these options, how do you know which one to use? Is RAW better than TIFF? Is JPEG's lower quality worth it?

JPEG

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

The firmware or software inside the camera will compute the compression level at the time the camera saves the photo, so the reduced storage space occurs 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, it's usually not noticed that some pixels were removed. 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).

However, 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 DSLR cameras, 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

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, the RAW format 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, losslessly compressed formats, even though they use different file extensions.

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

Some professional and advanced photographers like RAW because they can perform their own editing on the photo without having to worry about which of its 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 to shooting in RAW is the large amount of storage space required, which will fill your memory card quickly. Another issue you might encounter with RAW is that you can't open it 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

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, but few cameras have the ability to create images in the TIFF format.

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 might have a project that requires the TIFF file format.

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 a compressed format.

How to Use JPEG, RAW, and TIFF

Unless you're a professional photographer who's going to make huge prints, a high-quality JPEG setting is probably going to meet your needs.

TIFF and RAW are overkill for many photographers unless you have a specific reason for shooting in those formats, such as the need for ultra-precise image editing.