Graphics File Format Types and When to Use Each One

JPEG, TIFF, PSD, BMP, PICT, PNG, and GIF explained

woman looking at images on computer
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Are you confused about which graphics format to use when, or do you wonder what the difference actually is between JPEG, TIFF, PSD, BMP, PICT, and PNG?

Here are some general guidelines:

  • If the images are destined for the web or mobile, use JPEG, PNG, or GIF.
  • If the images are to appear in printed material, use TIFF.
  • If you want to keep a version that remains editable, choose your software's native file format such as PSD for Photoshop,

Here are brief descriptions of common graphics file formats, with links to follow for more information:

When to Use JPEG 

Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG or JPG) is best for photos when you need to keep the file size small and don't mind giving up some quality for a significant reduction in size. How does the file get smaller? JPEG is commonly regarded as being "lossy." In simple terms, when a JPEG file is created the compressor looks at the image, identifies areas of common color and uses them instead. The upshot is colors that are not regarded as common are "lost," thus the amount of color information in the image reduces which also reduces the file size.

When a JPG file is created you are usually asked to set a quality value such as the Photoshop Image options which have values from 0 to 12. Anything below 5 will most likely result in a rather pixelated image because a huge amount of information is being thrown out to reduce the file size. Anything between 8 and 12 is regarded as a best practice.

JPEG is not suitable for images with text, large blocks of color, or simple shapes because crisp lines will blur and colors can shift. Only JPEG offers the options of Baseline, Baseline Optimized, or Progressive.

  • Baseline (Standard) - This JPEG format is recognized by all web browsers.
  • Baseline Optimized - This JPEG format option provides optimized color and slightly better compression. It is supported by all modern browsers but was not supported by the very earliest of web browsers. It's your best choice for JPEG files today.
  • Progressive - Creates a JPEG file that displays gradually as it downloads, starting out blocky, and gradually getting clearer as it downloads. It doesn't make the image download any faster, but it can give the illusion of speed since the blocky image is loaded right away on a slow connection. With the majority of internet users on high-speed connections today, Progressive JPEG is rarely used.

When to Use TIFF

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) is good for any type of bitmap (pixel-based) images destined for print because this format uses CMYK color. TIFF produces large files thanks to a common resolution of 300 ppi with no quality loss. TIFF also preserves layers, alpha transparency, and other special features when saved from Photoshop. The type of extra information stored with TIFF files varies in different Photoshop versions, so consult Photoshop's help for more information.

When to Use PSD

PSD is Photoshop's native format. Use PSD when you need to preserve layers, transparency, adjustment layers, masks, clipping paths, layer styles, blending modes, vector text, and shapes, etc. Just keep in mind, these documents can only be opened in Photoshop though some image editors will open them.

When to Use BMP

Use BMP for any type of bitmap (pixel-based) images. BMPs are huge files, but there is no loss in quality. BMP has no real benefits over TIFF, except you can use it for Windows wallpaper. In fact, BMP is one of those image formats left over from the very early days of computer graphics and is rarely, if ever, used today. This explains why it is sometimes referred to as a "legacy format".

When to Use PICT

PICT is an old, Mac-only bitmap format used for Quickdraw rendering, Similar to BMP for Windows, PICT is not often used today.

When to Use PNG

Use PNG when you need smaller file sizes with no loss in quality. PNG files are usually smaller than TIFF images. PNG also supports alpha transparency (soft edges) and was developed to be a web graphics replacement for GIF. Note that if you want to retain full transparency, you will need to save your PNG file as PNG-24 and not PNG-8. PNG-8 is useful for reducing the file size of PNG files when you don't need transparency, but it has the same color palette limitations as GIF files.

The PNG format is also quite commonly used when creating images for iPhones and iPads. Just be aware photos don't render all that well the png format. The reason is png is a lossless format, meaning there is very little if any compression applied to a png image resulting in significantly larger files sizes than their .jpg cousins.

When to Use GIF

Use GIF for simple web graphics having limited- up to 256- colors. GIF files are always reduced to 256 unique colors or less and they make very small, fast-loading graphics for the web. GIF is great for web buttons, charts or diagrams, cartoon-like drawing, banners, and text headings. GIF is also used for small, compact web animations. GIF should rarely be used for photos though there is a resurgence of GIF images and GIF Animations thanks to the rise of mobile and social media.