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Digital image file types for photography, or image file extensions, are as varied as the format sizes for digital photography. There are excellent reasons for using any of the image file formats but there are differences in these image file types we need to be aware of for our digital photography.
Compressed or Uncompressed
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The biggest difference among most of the image file types is whether a file is compressed or not and how much it is compressed. Compressing an image file is removing certain bits of digital information in order to make the file smaller. Smaller files can be stored easily, sent easily, and read more quickly.
Files are compressed by removing digital information that may be redundant or that contain information needed by the image file formats being used. This can sometimes affect the overall quality of the image when viewed on a device or printed. But for viewing on some types of devices, it may not matter very much.
Image File Types for Photography
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Another thing to consider about image file types is how much market penetration they have. It doesn’t make sense to use image file formats that aren’t very popular since they won’t be able to be viewed on too many devices. Some of the digital image file types have been around for a long time and have a lot of manufacturers using them in their devices or their programs.
There are also many digital image file formats that are optimized for uses other than photography, such as extensions used for non-photographic purposes. While our programs and uses often overlap with graphic design, those image files have different rules of how they are used.
The image file types for photography that we’re most concerned with knowing their differences and how they may work for our photography are camera RAW, JPEG, TIFF, GIF, PNG, and PSD.
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For photographic purposes, camera RAW image file formats are the most versatile and hold the most information but they are not able to be as universally read by devices or programs as certain other types.
Camera RAW image file formats are generally exclusive to a camera brand and even those can vary from camera to camera within the brand. The RAW image file formats have to be decrypted in order to be read and used by programs and devices.
Image processing programs can be updated to be able to read RAW formats, but they need to be updated each time a camera brand introduces a new sensor or new camera. Since there are so many camera RAW image file formats, Adobe introduced a RAW format that several manufacturers have adopted called DNG that helps rectify that unwieldy situation.
Since camera RAW files hold all of the information provided by a camera’s imaging sensor, they are a preferred format for photographers wanting to get the most out of the image file. Especially so in regards to exposure and color information.
Editor's Tip: No matter the file type of your images, you need a high-quality, reliable memory card on which to store them. For me, that means using ProGrade memory cards. While you can find cheaper options, you really do get what you pay for. ProGrade cards are used by professionals throughout the photography industry for a reason - these cards are well-built, durable, and fast, and offer you the read/write speeds and storage space you need for photography projects of any kind. I trust ProGrade with my images - you should as well!
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)
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One of the most used image file formats is the JPEG file type. It is a compressed file format and can be read by almost every device that can show an image. It’s been around for decades and is simple to use and manipulate, though it can’t be as heavily manipulated as a camera RAW file can.
Since the JPEG files are compressed, they don’t have as much information that can be post processed. Since the JPEG image file format is so widely used, it has become one of the default image file types for devices, programs, and applications.
JPEGs can be heavily compressed or minimally compressed depending on desired use. The amount of compression will change how much resolution the file is capable of showing. A smaller file, greatly compressed, won’t look good enlarged but is easier to send and transport.
TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)
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The TIFF image file format can be uncompressed and retain almost all of the imaging information in a camera RAW file or it can be somewhat compressed but still very enlargeable.
TIFFs can be an intermediate stage between camera image file formats and an end result file format such as a JPEG to send to a client or a printer. TIFF files are usually quite large, so using them as an intermediate stage for a post processing workflow can use up a lot of computer memory.
Some high quality printing services can use TIFFs instead of JPEGs for very high quality prints but you may have to assign a specific color profile to the TIFF for the printer to be able to read it properly.
GIF (Graphics Interchange Format)
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A very compressed format, GIFs are great for small file animations and for creating a logo style of image with sharp lines separating color blocks. It’s a great format for texting and other messaging of images but it isn’t very useful for a lot of regular photographic applications.
PNG (Portable Network Graphics)
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Developed as an upgrade of the GIF format, PNG image file types are great for posting images on websites since they load quickly and are very clean image file types.
When comparing jpg vs png image file types, a major difference in why to choose one over the other is what the final use will be. PNG files can be seamlessly integrated into web applications but aren’t the best for making physical prints. Plus, there are few devices that can read a PNG whereas even a smart watch or a modern refrigerator can read a JPEG image file.
PSD (PhotoShop Document)
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A PSD is one of the image file extensions used by Adobe imaging programs to save files in order to work on them later or inside another compatible program. A PSD image file supports all of the extensions and controls used in PhotoShop and similar programs.
PSDs can only be seen on devices that have the ability to read PhotoShop computer directions embedded in the image file format. They are a useful format for post processing images in large batches as the instructions are standardized across the program's different tools and applications.
How to Save Images
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Saving images in the different image file types is simple for most devices and image file formats. In a camera, the main menu will have a list of what image file extensions the camera is capable of recording.
When using a computer program, the image file types it’s capable of using are usually in a drop down menu. Choose the proper image file extension for your end application, which can also include intermediary stages of post processing.
There are usually a few formats that could be used for any given application, so sometimes the proper image file formats are what you are most familiar with for your own style of photography and a workflow that makes sense to you.