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JPEG, GIF, PNG, PSD, TIFF. KWIM?

by Erin Peloquin on September 29, 2009 · 15 comments

How on earth is one to choose from all the file format options when saving a file in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements? And what is the best choice for saving a photo for the internet or to be printed?

Here is a quick summary of the pros and cons of using the major formats.  At the end of this post, you will find a cheat sheet to download for printing or saving on your computer.

JPEG

JPEGs are great for posting pix to the web or sending them in email, especially if perfect quality isn’t an issue.   JPEGS support a full range of colors and can be compressed to small file sizes.  Make sure you save each file as a JPEG only once.  It should be the last step in your workflow.  Each time you save a JPEG, it compresses and the quality erodes just a little because the compression process discards data.

When saving a file as a JPEG, make sure you have an uncompressed file as a backup too – either the original that you downloaded from your camera, or a PSD, TIFF or Raw file.  When you save a file as a JPEG, choosing a higher quality results in larger file size, and choosing a lower quality results in more noise and JPEG artifacts.

GIF

GIFs are suitable for graphics with large areas of the same color with definite transitions between colors.  They are often used for logos and web headers, both because of their clear rendering of text and line art and because they support transparency.  This type of file is able to compress itself to fairly small sizes with no loss of data; however, the number of colors is limited to 256.

This low level of color support makes GIFs unsuitable for photos.  When you save an image with more than 256 colors as a GIF, dithering is the name of the process that shrinks it down to 256 colors.  A dithered image will look grainy or pixelated.

PNG

The PNG file format might end up being a better alternative than both JPEGs or GIFs, once all web browsers begin supporting it.  It supports a full range of color, although the file size is often bigger than the corresponding JPEG.  However, it also uses a lossless form of compression.  This would be an ideal choice for photographers trying to sell their works online who want to show every detail of an image.  It’s better for graphics than GIFs because there are more options regarding transparency.  Internet Explorer 6, however, does not read PNGs.

PSD

I save all images and graphics that I process in Photoshop or PSE as PSDs for two reasons.  First, I always have an uncompressed image to return to if I need to print an image of the highest possible quality.  Second, I always have my layers to return to if I need to make changes to my edits.  These files are big!  Whichever image editing software you use, it’s a good practice to save versions of your work in the native editing format.

TIFF

A universally understood file format that saves on a vast quantities of information about an image.  These files are huge.  They might be required by the absolute best photo printers (which I doubt most of us will ever encounter).  Some folks I know save all their files as TIFFs instead of PSDs.  And yes, TIFFs do retain your layers.

My File Format Strategy

I import photos from my camera as Raw files and run my initial edits in Lightroom.  If I am only printing the images, I keep them in the Raw format.  These images are often about 640 x 480, saved at medium to medium high compression.

If I import my photos in to Photoshop or PSE for further edits, I save them as PSDs.  And I save frequently while I’m working on them as my computer often crashes at inopportune moments.

Finally, if this is an image I want to share, as the last step I save as a JPEG.  If it’s going on my website, I make a copy that is perhaps 640 x 480 pixels and usually save it as a medium to medium high quality JPEG.  I use a lower quality for emailing images.

And, I always have my PSD file to go back to if I want to make further changes.

Cheat Sheet for Texas Chicks Peeps

Download this file if you’d like a handy cheat sheet to remind you of what type of file to use when.

File Format Cheat Sheet

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