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Image File Types: Common Formats in Digital Photography

Digital image files are an essential part of modern photography. Read on to learn what they are and when to use them

In the digital world, there is a seemingly endless number of file formats, all with different functions, applications, advantages, and disadvantages. By extension, the same is true for digital photography.

In modern photography, there are many different digital image file types that are either created in camera when the shutter release is pressed, or later in post-production when the image is being prepared for a specific purpose.

In this article, we list some of the most common image file types you will encounter as a photographer, explaining when to use them and why.

Lossless vs. Compressed

Before learning about individual file types, it’s important to understand the terms ‘lossless’ and ‘compressed’ (sometimes referred to as ‘lossy’). These terms describe the type of compression the file format uses.

Compression is the process of reducing an image file size to make it more manageable, thus saving storage space.

Compressed files permanently remove data from the image. This results in a smaller file size, but lower image quality.

Lossless files, on the other hand, retain image data. This results in a file size smaller than the original but larger than its compressed counterparts.

Image Files Created at Exposure

JPEG

Full name: Joint Photographic Experts Group
File extension: .jpg .jpeg .jfif .pjpeg .pjp
Color depth: 8-bit

What is a JPEG file?

The JPEG is named after the group that first standardized it in the early nineties. JPEG has been the most popular image file type for photographs during most of the past 30 years. It compresses image files to make them more manageable, but finds a great balance between file size and quality.

Why use a JPEG file?

By finding such an optimal balance, the JPEG is extremely versatile and may be used for both print and digital purposes. Many photographs found on the internet are JPEGs because their smaller file sizes enable faster loading speeds. However, JPEGs can also include enough detail to create high-quality photographic prints.

As such, JPEG has tended to be the default image file created by digital cameras since the advent of digital photography.

Things to consider

While JPEG has many benefits, it does compress images. This means much of the information recorded by the camera’s image sensor is discarded when the JPEG is created. Without valuable information such as resolution and color depth, JPEG files allow much less freedom to edit in post-production.

Humming bird hovering by flower low res example
Humming bird hovering by flower high res example

Low compression vs high compression | Photo 2022 © Karen Hutton | FUJIFILM X-H2 and FUJINON XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro, 1/2000 sec at F8, ISO 400

HEIF and HEIC

Full name: High Efficiency Image File Format
File extension: .heif .heic .heifs .heics
Color depth: Up to 16-bit

What is an HEIF file?

HEIF was introduced relatively recently as an alternative to the JPEG. It works in a similar way, compressing files to make them more manageable. So far, HEIF files have mostly been found on smartphones. However, the format is being adopted elsewhere and is now available on the newest generation of FUJIFILM X Series and GFX System cameras.

Why use an HEIF file?

A big reason to use the HEIF format is that it is more efficient at compressing image files than JPEG. This means you could store more HEIF images on your hard disk than JPEG images at the same quality.

An additional benefit of the HEIF format is that utilizing a larger color space improves the fidelity of the image. It can also store multiple images in one file. This is most commonly used on smartphones when making bursts of images or using HDR mode.

HEIC is a container format that makes it possible to add other media, such as audio files. This is most commonly used when creating live images on smartphones that include a short video lead in and a snippet of the ambient audio.

Things to consider

Like JPEG, HEIF compresses the image, so much of the information recorded by the sensor is permanently lost when the HEIF file is created. This means there is less freedom to edit HEIF files when compared to lossless image file formats.

It is also worth noting that, at the present time, HEIF is yet to enjoy widespread adoption. So in the short term you may encounter compatibility issues when trying to use HEIF files with web browsers, social media, or printers, for example.

RAW

Full name: Raw Image Format
File extension: Depends on camera manufacturer
Color depth: Between 14- and 16-bit

What is a RAW file?

A RAW file is so called because it contains the complete, untouched (or ‘raw’) digital image data from a camera’s sensor, with no compression or processing applied. Uncompressed RAW files can be created automatically inside your FUJIFILM camera when an exposure is made. It is also possible to create lossless RAW files in camera, which use a reversible algorithm to reduce file size with no loss of image data.

Each camera manufacturer has its own specific type of RAW file, so file extensions can vary. Fujifilm’s RAW files use .RAF as a file extension. There have been some attempts to standardize the RAW format, such as Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format. However, this has not seen industry-wide adoption.

Why use a RAW file?

Because RAW files contain the entire data readout from your camera sensor, they offer enormous amounts of detail and trillions of colors. Plus, they are lossless, so none of that information can be removed.

This makes it possible to perform a huge range of adjustments to the image, such as contrast, color, exposure and more, without losing any information in the process. Once edits have been made, it is possible to create a copy in your choice of file format at any size and quality that is within the limitations of the original.

Having so much control over how your images look and how they can be shared makes RAW files very popular with professional photographers.

Things to consider

The RAW format is not standardized, therefore RAW files need to be opened with special software and then converted to a widely accessible format such as JPEG in order to be shared and opened universally. In many cases, you will need to pay for this software, but it is available for free from some providers. One example is Capture One which offers a free Fujifilm-specific version available for download here.

While all that data has its benefits, it does mean much larger file sizes than JPEGs or HEIFs, so RAW files are less portable and take up more storage space. Also, the editing process takes time, so if you prefer to share your images immediately, straight out of camera, JPEG or HEIF may be a better choice.

Image of computer screen with image editing software

Image Files Created in Post-Production

TIFF

Full name: Tag Image File Format
File extension: .tiff or .tif
Color depth: Up to 16-bit

What is a TIFF file?

A TIFF file is a high-quality lossless file format that preserves maximum image data such as resolution and color depth. The TIFF format was originally created in the eighties for desktop publishing as a way to standardize the file formats used by desktop scanners. TIFF files have a history in print due to their high levels of quality.

It is possible to create TIFF files within a Fujifilm camera, but it has to be done after the exposure is made using in-camera RAW conversion. You can also convert HEIF files to either JPEG or TIFF files in camera.

Why use a TIFF file?

TIFF files contain almost as much data as RAW files, though they do not require specific software to be opened, so are much more accessible. This makes them ideal for printing and publishing purposes.

For this reason, many photographers like to save edited images as TIFF files. It is a great way to encapsulate their final, processed work without losing any of the quality. Once saved, the images can then be shared with printers, publishers, or graphic designers in a universally accessible file format.

Things to consider

TIFF files may offer a huge amount of quality, but they also have a file size to match. In fact, TIFFs can often be even larger than RAW files, but contain less information. This means they take up lots of storage space, can be difficult to share, and are not well-suited to online use due to slow loading speeds.

Image of someone holding up two photo prints to compare

PNG

Full name: Portable Network Graphics
File extension: .png
Color depth: Up to 16-bit

What is a PNG file?

PNG was originally created in the mid-nineties as an update to the older and lower-quality GIF format – but unlike GIFs, PNGs do not support animation. PNGs are specifically designed for web use and are therefore favored in certain applications for website development.

While the PNG file is not the most common file type for photographers, many of your images could ultimately adopt this format for their end use. So it’s useful to possess an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages.

Why use a PNG file?

PNG is a lossless file format that offers a wide range of colors – a reason in itself to use them. However, they have another characteristic that gives them a major advantage over other file formats. PNGs support transparency, making them great for web use.

While this is admittedly more useful for the display of graphics, as a photographer you may encounter a PNG file type when removing backgrounds from online profile pictures or making circular crops, for example.

Things to consider

Because PNGs are a lossless file type, file sizes can be large and unwieldy at higher resolutions. Additionally, they were designed predominantly for online use, so PNGs do not support CMYK color modes. This makes them unsuitable for printing purposes.

Bride sitting in summer meadow surrounded by long grass and wildflowers. Circular crop
Bride sitting insurer meadow surrounded by long grass and wildflowers. Rectangular crop

4:3 vs. circular crop | Photo 2023 © Alison Conklin

PSD

Full name: Photoshop Document
File extension: .psd

What is a PSD file?

A PSD file is the native format of Adobe’s Photoshop image editing software. While there are a number of image editing programs available, Photoshop is arguably the most common and best-known. As such, if you are a photographer, it is highly likely you will work with a PSD file at some point.

Why use a PSD file?

PSD files support multiple layers and objects, which means that once you open a photograph in Photoshop, it is possible to perform a much higher level of image manipulation than just editing highlights, shadows, and colors. With the ability to create multiple layers, you can combine more than one image into the same file, which is useful when creating star trails or focus bracketing, for example.

At the time of writing, the maximum file size possible with a PSD file is 30000×30000 pixels or 2GB, which offers a lot of freedom to work with a huge number of different images and elements at the same time, including text, graphics, and more.

This means that, while PSD files are useful for photographers, their application doesn’t stop there. They are also popular with graphic designers, visual artists, and a wide range of digital creatives.

Things to consider

PSD files can only be opened using Photoshop, which makes them inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t paid for the software.

Additionally, because they contain a lot of information, file sizes can be large, making them hard to share and store. This can cause issues when collaborating with others, so it is necessary to export PSD files to a more manageable format before sharing.

Horizon with silhouetted trees against night sky and star trails

Photo © Andy Noble

Conclusion

While there are countless formats in the digital world, knowledge of the above should provide you with everything you need to know about photography file types.

Understanding which file types are best suited to which applications can help ensure you are working in the most efficient and cost-effective way – both personally and professionally.

Learn more about photography by exploring the rest of our Fundamentals of Photography series, or browse all the content on Exposure Center for education, inspiration, and insight from the world of photography