RAW, JPEG, TIFF – When & Why?

When & Why should you use RAW vs. TIFF vs. JPEG

What follows are my practices & opinions

Viewed from the perspective of an outdoor photographer

As the saying goes – Your mileage may vary

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The Last Dogwood

Great Smoky Mountains

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Background –

The question “Which file format should I use?” is often asked.

“It depends” may seem a cop-out – but it does

For example, it depends on the type of photography you do

Wedding & event shooters often process 1,000’s of files; all else being equal faster/smaller is better for their needs and they may prefer JPEG

Most outdoor photographers prefer RAW; it has the best potential to maximize image quality (and will never do any worse than the JPEG/TIFF alternative in terms of quality)

Equally important, it depends on how the file will be used

Print, monitor, projection are the main uses

The “why” follows below

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RAW vs. “the other two”

Without belaboring the “why” I will flat-out state –

For me image quality is Job #1.

RAW offers the best image quality potential

JPEG & TIFF may be its equal for some images (but not all)

RAW will never be worse than JPEG & TIFF

Therefore, I go with RAW always

Further the major camera brands embed a full JPEG within the RAW file

Modern computer operating systems can read this JPEG file without you having to explicitly run the RAW file through a RAW converter (read my post on CODECS)

Further, most image management programs (I use IMatch) will allow you to screen your downloads (looking for keepers) in RAW form without 1st converting from RAW (they use CODECS also)

Bottom line – I not only shoot RAW 100% of the time but, also, don’t bother with RAW+JPEG (it wastes space in the camera’s memory card, slows down read/writes, and fills the camera’s buffer quicker). As I noted above, one JPEG’s already there so why add a 2nd.

If you haven’t written me off as a mad-man by this point, read on as to where JPEG & TIFF fit into my workflow

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JPEG vs TIFF

At some point, the RAW file must be converted to a format that can be displayed. Here, I’ll consider only TIFF & JPEG.

First, for what it’s worth

Just as RAW image quality potential is superior to either JPEG or TIFF

TIFF’s IQ is always equal to or better (image dependent) JPEG’s

For most images JPEG, at highest quality, will match TIFF – but there’s always a but….

Second, by the same logic for why I always choose RAW over the other two – better IQ

I must always use TIFF – right?

Wrong!

I use TIFF only when –

1. I’m getting ready to print the file

and if I print it again months later I will do it over since in the intervening months I’ve become more skilled in processing, my processing software keeps getting better, my vision for this image may have changed, etc.

(I don’t print but 2-3 a month otherwise the workflow might change)

2. The image has lots of smooth gradations (like sky) that “band” (lose their smoothness) during processing (especially increasing contrast)

3. The rest of the time I use JPEG (and not the highest JPEG quality either)

Why do you use JPEG as described, Ed?

Storage space & time

The TIFF file is almost 10x as large as the highest quality JPEG and nearly 100x as large as my usual JPEG quality 8 (on PS’s 1-12 scale)

The TIFF would take as much storage space as 100 of my style of JPEG

Processing, storing, retrieving takes proportionally longer

The time your computer took to process 70MB vs 200-500KB is substantial

AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE if I’m just going to display it electronically???

Electronic display (monitor, internet, projector) issues

The typical display image is usually sized at 1024 pixels on its long side

Pretty small destination to warrant fussing over a 12MP+ capture file (and a 70MB TIFF file)

The detail, etc. you fussed over on the 70MB TIFF is long gone

Even worse, unless the target display is your monitor,

Only a small fraction of folks viewing your image will see what you wanted them to see

Their monitor calibration will differ from yours (ditto your agonized over precise colors) or

Their browser is NOT color managed and so colors (over the internet) they see are wrong

You are using your monitor, good so far, but projecting the images (fine if it’s your projector and you took the same care calibrating it as you did your monitor) – and now the colors, tones, highlights etc. are probably bad off the scale (and starting with a 70MB TIFF won’t have improved that)

Bottom line, unless you are preparing a file for printing almost nothing warrants paying the TIFF time/space price

NOTE – this is a personal opinion; you are entitled to yours

This is not a universal fact like the speed of light is 299792458 m/s

Even in prints, a high quality JPEG will usually match a TIFF.

Try it and see if you can see a difference

Knepley’s rule #2 – if something is invisible at normal viewing distances, then it is not there (for practical purposes; we’re photographers & not theoretical physicists), so don’t spend time & effort trying to fix a non-problem as there are better things to do

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