Understanding Different Image File Types - JPG, PNG, TIFF, PSD, RAW

File formats

When taking a photograph, your camera essentially captures data and converts it to a digital image. Depending on the file format, the photograph can be retrieved and edited via photo editing software. There's an extensive list of image file types to use, and this list looks like JPG, PNG, TIFF, PSD, RAW (NEF –NIKON, CRW-Canon, and CR2-Canon RAW2).

It’s often difficult to tell the difference between these formats. But a closer look at each format will help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of image file formats and which formats to use for different applications. Choosing the right format is crucial, which is why you need to know the quality of the image for each image file format.

The list below outlines the most common file types and a brief description for each, including the use of each depending on quality and size. File formats that are too big tend to slow down the editing process. This guide will also delve into any special attributes each image format may have.

About JPG, JPEG (.jpeg, jpg)

JPG, JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Groups. It’s one of the most common file types across the web and what the majority of digital cameras provide as output. JPEGs are “lossy," meaning that their size has been compressed to a smaller size. While this may seem like an advantage, the image loses some of its details and quality. It’s for this reason that most JPG formats allow minimal image manipulation in photo editing software.

This attribute makes JPEGs ideal for websites to load fast or for projects that require printing at a high resolution. Also, small file sizes make it easier to store and transfer many images on a memory card. Some digital cameras may offer different JPEG quality levels (e.g., low, medium, and high. This allows you to decide the compression you need on the original photograph.

In case you are wondering why JPEG is the same format as JPG, the two extensions exist because .jpeg was cut to .jpg to accommodate the 3-character limit in Windows' earlier version. Today .jpg remains the standard on many image editing software.

About TIFF (.tif, .tiff)

tiff file image

TIFF stands for Tagged Image File Format. It is arguably the most common file format because most publishers and printers prefer it. Even if they end up converting the TIFF files to JPG, the initial capture format would be TIFF. The format is usually uncompressed, which offers more opportunity for post-processing.

The file type uses "lossless compression," which means the original image dates are maintained even after compression. As a result, images in this format are much bigger to take more space even on computer storages.

Most cameras offer TIFF as the highest quality format with a few options for compression. For its attributes, TIFF is commonly used to save photographs for high-quality prints. It's not advisable to use this format on the web as it takes forever to load.

Another advantage is the capability to support both CMYK and RGB color models with an impressive color depth of 32 bits per color component. TIFF files can save transparencies, masks, and layers, making them ideal for photograph printouts. On the downside, not many browsers do not support the TIFF image file type due to the massive storage it can take.

About PSD (.psd)

Photoshop file

This is the highest image level in Adobe Photoshop and the most commonly used by graphic designers. Coming from the most popular graphics editing software ever, the file type offers “layers” that make image editing much easier. In principle, the files are composed of raster graphics that allow manipulation on specific layers rather than editing the main image itself.

As a result, the PSD format is suitable when you need to do massive manipulation of the original image. It allows you to add, remove, or edit layer without interfering with the original photo. Be cautious with this format, however, because once a layered PSD file is flattened, the change cannot be undone. This is because the process merges all the layers.

PSD format is not suitable for collaborative work because layered files tend to be large due to the additional data stored. But this can be worked out because once the image is ready, it can be re-saved on other file formats.

About PNG (.png)

Also referred to as Portable Network Graphics, the file type was developed in the 90s to improve and replace the GIF file format. The advantage is that PNG uses lossless compression, allowing editing without losing detail and quality, but the resolution is low. The files can use up to 16 million colors, compared to the 256 limits for the GIF.

The internet prefers PNGs because you can save images with numerous colors on a transparent background. The images are small-sized but with much sharpness, making it ideal where you need pages to load fast while remaining attractive. Another benefit of PNG files is that they allow total transparency needed for things like logos or overlays.

About GIF (.gif)

Variously pronounced as “jif" or "gif," Graphics interchange Format (GIF) files are still widely used by web graphics for their portability. The 8-bit format has become so popular on the internet for small navigation and illustration where accuracy is required.

GIF files use a simple compression technique known as LZW compression that does not degrade the image quality. However, they can only be saved in not more than 256 colors, making poor format for photos. However, GIFs offer the option to dither, a process that mixes two pixels and suggests another color to use.

They are most common in animated form on places such as Tumblr pages and banner ads. GIFs allow single-bit transparency, meaning you can make one color transparent when creating your image. Single-bit transparency allows your web page color to show through the image.

GIFs can also be interlaced, a unique way of saving the graphic so that it loads faster. The format loads a blurry image first, then a low-detailed version, and then successive layers are added. As a result, the overall file size tends to increase, but the image will be placed on the viewer’s screen much quicker.

Simply put, it gives the impression of a speedier download. Fonts and edges tend to come out better in the GIF format that in JPG. Therefore, the file type is used for small graphic elements on-site, though PNG tend to do better in many applications.

About RAW

Just like the name suggests, these are the least processed image format on this list. Raw files undergo a unique compressing process that retains all the information as captured. Professional photographers prefer Raw file format as it allows further alterations such as saturation, contrast, white balance, exposure, and sharpness after the image has been taken.

Using this image type to capture photographs demands plenty of space and may require a lot of post-processing time. It also requires experience with at least one basic image editing software, specifically Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. This is because eventually, after editing, you'll want to package them into a raster or vector file type to be resized for various purposes.

Most SLR cameras can shoot in RAW, whether in CR2, CRW, PEF, or NEF. Here's a brief description of each raw file extension:

About CR2

This stands for Canon RAW 2 and is often found in canon digital cameras. They are based on the TIFF file type, which makes them inherently detailed and high quality and takes up lots of space. You should consider CR2 when you need raw images for professional photographs. Preserving the original can give you the exact moment captured by the camera.

About CRW

CRW is another image extension found in some older canon digital cameras that was superseded by the CR2 format. You can open CRW files on any Nikon camera and can convert them to other image formats. The files can take lots of space, meaning a local converting software is preferred to online converters.

About NEF

The long-form is Nikon Electric Format, a raw file type that was also created by Nikon. The benefit of NEF image files is you can carry out extensive editing without changing file types. Even so, editing this type requires a Nikon Device, Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.

What makes NEF so outstanding is it stores metadata alongside the image. This attribute makes it an excellent option for businesses that want to organize assets. Better yet, it can be converted to a different image format when you need to resize the image.

PEF: The long-form is Pentax Electronic Format, which refers to a raw image file that was developed by Pentax digital cameras.


When dealing with image files, there’s a whole bunch of file formats to choose from. At times you need the highest quality image, sacrificing hard disk space and bandwidth in the process. Other times you just want a small file that can load progressively to hold site visitors. And when you need to provide the best quality of prints to your customers you need to know which format is best for printing. Choosing the right file format to save your picture is imperative.


Posted in: Camera basics