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7 facts about JPG, RAW and TIFF file formats

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A question that I am sometime asked is “Do you shoot in JPG or RAW format?” followed with a “What is a TIFF image?”.

I personally only shoot in RAW format on my DSLR camera. It happened that in a commercial assignment the customer asked me both RAW and JPG files. Luckily my camera (Nikon D600) has two memory slots and it can save simultaneously the two formats on the two memory cards. This is another way to go.

On my mobile and the point&shoot camera I use JPG. I use them mainly for photos of family and friends. I will still keep them in my computer however I am not going to make any post-processing

Here are few facts that may help to decide for one or the other format.

Levels of brightness

JPG is a 8-bit file which stores up to 256 levels of brightness. RAW is a 12-bit file, which stores up to 4096 levels of intensity. These are typically the two formats you are offered to save on a camera. What a difference!! In case you do some post processing, like HDR, raw format is the way to go, no question about.

Otherwise, just use JPG, easier. But remember once you have saved in JPG, you lost over 3800 levels of intensity that you could use in future, maybe in two years time, when you decide to start doing some post-processing, even things as easy as White Balance. As a long term solution I always suggest to go for RAW.

File compression

The JPG file is stored in compressed format and you will loose information. Just think about the over 3800 levels of intensity lost as a start, than lots of details, and …… The positive side is that your file may be a fifth in size compared to RAW.

So, if you have a small memory card or you are travelling and you don’t have too much memory left, than switch to JPG. My suggestion is just to upgrade to a bigger memory, nowadays it is so cheap, compared with the information you loose when shooting JPG.

Photo printing

Photos are made to be printed. Of course not all of them, only the nicest ones. Each end of the year organise a book with all the photos that you like, as in the old days when you were printing the photos once back from a holiday. Here is another fact, the printing industry works mostly on 8 bits.

Blurb, one of the best for printing books, uses either JPG or PNG, both 8-bits. So, again, if you shot and print, no post-processing, you may just be happy to use only the JPG format. Does printing at 16-bits make a difference? If you can find a place that prints 16-bits, give a try, and let me know what you think.

Your camera rules when shooting in JPG

When shooting we all pay most of our time, rightly enough, to the composition. There are however other technical decision to take as White Balance, Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness etc. If shooting in RAW you may be able to change them later in post production, if not happy with them.

Unfortunately when shooting in JPG you have a limited range of manoeuvrability. However you cannot make miracles, if the photo is either not in focus or not sharp, there is just no way to improve it. Read The importance of focusing: how to have it right and 6 suggestions for a sharp landscape photo for an in-depth analysis.

Displaying RAW files

You cannot view RAW files straight on your computer. You need to install a driver for that. However if you use Lightroom, Adobe Bridge or Photoshop, they all include the driver by default, usually.

If the camera is a new model, you may have to download the driver from the camera maker.

The annoying thing, in case you have a brand new camera, is that you may have to upgrade most of your software, therefore budget always some spare money for that.

Another way to go is to install the free DNG Converter from Adobe. This is a lossless raw image format which is recognised by any Adobe product.

The TIFF format

Here it is a new format, to make things even more confused, TIFF. This format is available as 8-bit or 16-bit. Once you have the RAW file and you want to process it, than the most natural thing is to convert it to TIFF 16-bit.

It will be a bigger container than needed, but no other solutions (12-bit TIFF does not exit!!). You can save it as TIFF 8-bits but you will loose some info of course. However, TIFF does a lossless compression, as opposite to JPG.

RAW files and Adobe Lightroom

The most famous software for photo archiving is probably Adobe Lightroom. This package includes also some post-production functionalities which, in full honesty, cover the needs of most amateur photographers.

The feature I love of this software is that it does not save my RAW files in any other format when I start working on the photos, it just saves the changes I do on the photo.

I this way I do not have any duplicated images. This is especially important nowadays with cameras shooting up to 50M saving on new Hard Disks purchase.


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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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