What Image Format is Best for My Photography?
Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)
Keywords: image, format, guide, camera, basics, guides, tips, raw, jpg, tiff
One of the most asked questions by new users of Nikon DSLR cameras is "Which image format should I use?" The three most common formats are JPEG, TIFF, or NEF (RAW).
Let’s look at each of these image quality formats and see which you might want to use regularly. We will discuss details you should know as a Nikon-using digital photographer.
Image Format Pros and Cons
There are many discussions in Internet camera forums on the subject of “Which is the best image format?” In order to decide which format you may frequently use, why not examine the pros and cons of each? This section is designed to do just that. We’ll examine the pros and cons of the three formats available in many Nikon DSLRs, NEF (RAW), JPEG, and TIFF. If your camera only supports NEF (RAW) and JPEG, please skip the TIFF information, or read it for later in case you upgrade to a Nikon that supports TIFF.
Let’s consider which of these formats might become your favorite and the benefits each might bring to your photography.
Nikon DSLRs have three JPEG modes. Each of the modes affects the final quality of the image. Let’s look at each mode in detail:
- JPEG fine (Compression approximately 4:1)
- JPEG normal (Compression approximately 8:1)
- JPEG basic (Compression approximately 16:1)
Each of the JPEG modes provides a certain level of “lossy” image compression. Lossy means that JPEG throws away image data. The human eye compensates for small color changes quite well so the JPEG compression algorithm works great for viewing by humans. A useful thing about JPEG is that one can vary the file size of the image (via compression) without affecting quality too badly.
JPEG fine (or Fine Quality JPEG) uses a 4:1 compression ratio so there is a large difference in the file size, with it being as small as 25% of the original size. In this mode an image can be compressed down to as little as 8 or 10 megabytes, without significant loss of visual image quality. If you decide to shoot in JPEG, this mode will give you the best quality JPEG your camera can produce.
JPEG normal (or Normal Quality JPEG) uses an 8:1 compression ratio. This makes the image file about 4 or 5 megabytes. The image quality is still very acceptable in this mode, so if you are just shooting at a party for an average 4x6 printed image size, this mode will allow you to make lots of images. An 8-gigabyte card will hold over 2000 JPEG normal image files.
- JPEG basic (or Basic Quality JPEG) uses a 16:1 compression ratio, so the image file size drops to about 1 or 2 megabytes. Remember, these are full size files. If one is shooting for the web, or just wants to document an area well, this mode has sufficient quality. My camera can store several thousand JPEG basic files on my 8-gigabyte SD card.
JPEG Format Features
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is used by individuals who want excellent image quality, but have little time or interest in later post-processing or converting images to another format. They want to use the image immediately when it comes out of the camera, with no major adjustments.
The JPEG format applies whatever camera settings you have chosen to the image when it is taken. It comes out of the camera ready to use, as long as you have exposed it properly and have all the other settings set in the best way for the image.
Since JPEG is a “lossy” format, one cannot modify and save it more than a time or two before ruining the image from compression losses. However, since there is no post-processing required later, this format allows much quicker usage of the image. A person shooting a large quantity of images, or who doesn’t have the time to convert RAW images, will usually use JPEG. That encompasses a lot of photographers.
While a nature photographer might want to use RAW, since he has more time for processing images and wringing the last drop of quality out of them, an event or journalist photographer may not have the time or interest in processing images, so he’ll use JPEG.
Here are the pros and cons of using JPEG mode:
- Maximum number of images on camera card and later in computer hard drive storage.
- Fastest writes from camera memory buffer to memory card storage.
- Absolute compatibility with everything and everybody in imaging.
- Uses the industry printing standard of 8-bits.
- High-quality first use images.
- No special software needed to use the image right out of the camera. (No post-processing)
- Immediate use on websites with minimal processing.
- Easy transfer across Internet, and as e-mail attachments.
- JPEG is a "lossy" format, which means that it permanently throws away image data from compression algorithm losses as you select higher levels of compression (fine, normal, basic).
- You cannot use JPEG to manipulate an image more than once or twice before it degrades to an unusable state. Every time you modify and resave a JPEG image it loses more data.
Combined NEF and JPEG shooting (two images at once)
Some shooters use a clever storage mode whereby the camera takes two images at the same time. NEF (RAW) + JPEG basic is what it’s called (or RAW+B). The camera makes a RAW (NEF) file and a JPEG file each time you press the shutter button. My camera’s storage drops significantly since it’s storing a NEF and a JPEG file at the same time for each picture taken.
You can use the RAW file to store all the image data, and later to post-process it into a masterpiece, or you can just use the JPEG file immediately, and later work on the RAW file for high-quality purposes.
There’s no need to go into any detail about these modes other than what we’ve already discussed. The images from the NEF (RAW) + JPEG basic mode has the same features as their individual modes. In other words, the NEF (RAW) file works in a NEF + JPEG just like a NEF (RAW) file if you were using the standalone NEF (RAW) mode. The JPEG in a NEF + JPEG mode works just like a standalone JPEG shot without a NEF (RAW) file.
The TIFF mode is probably the least used image quality mode on Nikon DSLRs, since it drops storage capacity on the cameras memory cards drastically. Plus, it slows the image writes to the memory card. Most of the lower cost Nikon DSLRs don't even support the TIFF format.
Personally, I would rather shoot in NEF (RAW) mode, since I can get almost double the number of images (at 12-bit color depth) on my CF card, and they are 12 or 14-bits instead of the camera TIFF 8-bits.
However, since the TIFF mode creates images that do not have to be post-processed later (but easily can be if desired) some people will use TIFF mode for initial shooting. TIFF is not a lossy compressed mode, although there is a conversion from 12 or 14-bit to 8-bit initially. The image loses 4 or 6 bits during the conversion so there is color data loss, but it is not enough to make a big difference in the image.
Use TIFF mode if you do not want the "lossy" compression of a JPEG and you'd rather not adjust the images later in your computer.
TIFF Format Features
Finally, let's consider the TIFF format. It is used by those who want to be able to work with their images over and over without throwing away data from compression, like JPEG does.
You can shoot in TIFF if your camera supports it and you'll get excellent 8-bit images. When you shoot TIFF the camera does not compress the image. It does apply the camera settings to the image file immediately. Since the camera shoots natively in 12-bit or 14-bit, there is some initial data loss in using the TIFF format since some data is thrown away when converting down to 8-bit TIFF. The primary problem with TIFF files is that they are huge and will slow your camera down while it saves those large TIFF files.
Here are the pros and cons of the TIFF format:
- Very high image quality.
- Excellent compatibility with the publishing industry.
- Is considered a "lossless" format, since the image normally uses no compression, and loses no more data than the initial conversion from 12 or 14-bits to 8-bits in the camera's software.
- Can modify and resave the images an endless number of times without throwing away image data.
- Does not require software post-processing during or after download from camera, so the image is immediately usable.
- Very large files in camera memory, so your ability to take a lot of images requires very large CF storage cards.
- Must have larger hard drives on your computer to store these huge image files.
- In-camera image processing is slower, so you will be limited in the number of fast pictures you can take.
- Unless you have a high-speed Internet connection, don't even consider sending one of these monsters across the Internet. Even then, you may find you are constrained by your ISP’s file-size limitations.
NEF (RAW) – Nikon Electronic Format Features
I am a NEF (RAW) photographer about 98% of the time. I think of a RAW file like I thought of my slides and negatives a few years ago. It’s my original image file that must be saved and protected.
It is important that you understand something very different about NEF (RAW) files. They’re not really images — yet. Basically, a RAW file is composed of black-and-white sensor data and camera setting information markers. The RAW file is saved in a form that must be converted to another image type to be used in print or web.
When you take a picture in RAW the camera records the image data from the sensor, and stores markers for how the camera’s color, sharpening, contrast, saturation, etc. are set, but does not apply the camera setting information to the image permanently. In your computer’s post-processing software, the image will appear on screen using the settings you initially set in your camera. However, they are only applied in a temporary manner for your computer viewing pleasure.
If you don’t like the white balance you selected at the time you took the picture, simply apply a new white balance and the image will be just as if you had used the new white balance setting when you first took the picture. If you had low sharpening set in-camera and change it to higher sharpening in-computer, then the image will look just like it would have looked had you used higher in-camera sharpening when you took the image. You can change sharpening levels in the Picture control you have selected.
This is quite powerful! Virtually no camera settings are applied to a RAW file in a permanent way. That means you can change the image to completely different settings and the image will be just as if you had used the new settings when you first took the picture. This allows a lot of flexibility later. If you shot the image initially using the Standard Picture Control, and now want to use the Vivid Picture Control, all you have to do is change the image to the Vivid Picture Control before the final conversion, and it will be as if you used the Vivid Picture Control when you first took the picture. Complete flexibility!
NEF (RAW) is generally used by individuals concerned with maximum image quality and who have time to convert the image in the computer after taking it with the camera. A conversion to JPEG sets image markers permanently, while a conversion to TIFF sets the markers, but allows you to modify the image later. Unfortunately, TIFF format has very large file sizes.
Here are the pros and cons for NEF (RAW) format:
NEF (RAW) Positives
- Allows the manipulation of image data to achieve the highest quality image available from the camera.
- All original detail stays in the image for future processing needs.
- No conversions, sharpening, sizing, or color rebalancing will be performed by the camera. Your images are untouched and pure!
- Can convert to any of the other image formats by using your computer's much more powerful processor instead of the camera processor.
- You have much more control over the final look of the image, since you, not the camera are making decisions as to the final appearance of the image.
- 12-bit or 14-bit format for maximum image color data.
NEF (RAW) Negatives
- Not compatible with the publishing industry, except by conversion to another format.
- Requires post-processing by special proprietary software as provided by the camera manufacturer or third-party software programmers.
- Larger file sizes (so you must have large storage media).
- No accepted industry standard RAW format. Each camera manufacturer has its own proprietary format. Adobe® has a RAW format called DNG (Digital Negative) that might become an industry standard. We'll see!
- Industry standard for printing is 8-bit files, not 12-bit files.
Final Image Format Thoughts
Which format do I prefer? Why, RAW, of course! But, it does require a bit of a commitment to shoot in this format. The camera is simply an image capturing device, and you are the image manipulator. You decide the final format, compression ratios, sizes, color balances, picture controls, etc. In RAW mode, you have the absolute best image your camera can produce. It is not modified by the camera, and is ready for your personal touch. No camera processing allowed!
If you get nothing else from this section, remember this... by letting your camera process the images in ANY way, it is modifying or throwing away image data. There is only a finite amount of data for each image that can be stored on your camera, and later on the computer. With JPEG mode, your camera is optimizing the image according to the assumptions recorded in its memory. Data is being thrown away permanently, in varying amounts.
If you want to keep virtually all the image data that was recorded in the image, you must store your originals in RAW format. Otherwise you’ll never again be able to access that original data to change how it looks. RAW format is the closest thing to a film negative or a transparency that your digital camera can make.
That’s important if you’d like to use the image later for modification. If you’re a photographer that’s concerned with maximum quality you should probably shoot and store your images in RAW format. Later, when you have the urge to make another JPEG or TIFF masterpiece out of the original RAW image file, you will have ALL of your original data intact for the highest quality.
If you’re concerned that the RAW format may change too much—over time—to be readable by future generations, then you might want to convert your images into TIFF, DNG, or JPEG files. TIFF is best if you want to modify them later. I often save a TIFF version of my best files just in case RAW changes too much in the future. I’m not overly concerned, though, since I can still open my 2002 NEF (RAW) files from my old Nikon D100 in Nikon Capture and View NX2. Why not do a little more research on this subject and decide which you like best.
Keep on capturing time…
Originally written on March 18, 2013
Last updated on August 25, 2016
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Jon Kirshner (jbk224) on July 4, 2013
Darrell, Informative and easy to follow. (As I have come to enjoy and expect from you!). Doesn't Nikon's Raw have an embedded Jpeg that can be separated during import with most pp software? If this is the case, what size/type is this jpeg? And if so, can't this be 'used' to view the in-camera settings and send out without pp? Thanks again. Jon
Kaya Corabatir (fotokaya) on May 12, 2013
Darrell; The part about RAW format is the most eloquently written I have read. JPEG should not be underestimated though. One can modify it easily and within considerable range. Since acquiring my new D7100, I am saving RAW in one SD card, and JPEG in the other. I use the RAW files of only few of the pictures I have taken where I want to make a wider range of modifications or colour correction.
Robert Reinckens (breinckens) on May 7, 2013
Darrell Thanks for what has become my easy guide for image formats. Any suggestions for applications to use in processing RAW format?
Sarah Foster (scara36) on May 7, 2013
Excellent information and clarification. Since getting my D300, I shoot in Raw+F (RAW + JPG Fine) so that I can edit the ones I want with all the options available or just go with what I have. As just an amateur, I don't always know what I'm going to use the photos for, so that's another reason for doing both. I can post via web with the jpg and in doing that can discover that maybe I want to print some as well. With the RAW file, I can print a better picture. Anyway, again some really excellent explanations.
Kurt Pedersen (KurtP) on April 23, 2013
Thanks Darrel for this article. I am new to digital and just bought a D7000 at Christmas. I often feel overwhelmed with its capabilities. That is why easy to understand articles like yours help so much. I run two cards both 32 gigs. On the first I save in NEF and back up in JPEG. I haven't even begun to look at post production yet and would appreciate an article looking at the relative merits of the different software options.
User on April 5, 2013
I very much appreciate the article. Very informative. With my Nikon D3s, I find when downloading to Elements in an earlier version it will not convert to be viewed. Do I need PS Elements 11, PS CS5 or lightroom to directly download to or do I need to use NX to download to?
Lynn Dumbrille (cweede) on April 2, 2013
DCT Discrete Cosine Transform - probably spell math wrong also.
Lynn Dumbrille (cweede) on April 2, 2013
I liked this article. For those folks that can't sleep at night there is a concept math called DCT (Descrete Cosign Tranform) - that I know everyone will dive right into. It is part of a very complex math called Fourier Fast Transforms. It basically works like this - I will divide my picture up into 8x8 squares - look at the data points in each batch - and try to fit the points onto the closet formula I can make. Any points that are outside the curve are just gone. You can see these squares by blowing up your jpg picture to around 400%. You can see this right out of the camera. Now, let crop off 4 pixels on the left side of the photo. The software makes a new 8x8 square are averages it to a math curve again. You can see how the degradation takes place with subsequent averaging and throwing out data points that don't average. Something for you all to sleep on.
Robert Cannady (zooguy) on March 29, 2013
Image format is dictated by my clients requirements. The Marketing and Public Relations Dept. requires me to submit both RAW and JPEG versions of all images. They use the JPEGs for quick uploads to their facebook page and website. RAW images receive post-processing to ensure best presentation quality for print media. The jpeg version is acceptable for Web use but would likely not be considered for use on billboard displays. Image format choice often comes down to the end use of the images. Red Carpet shooters will shoot jpeg because those files are wirelessly transmitted back to editors who will upload to websites almost instantaneously. No time for post-processing large RAW files. A fashion shooter wouldn't think of shooting in jpeg, because their images typically see a lot of post-processing. For me personally, my cameras are always set to RAW. I want access to as much detail as my cameras and lenses can capture. Why settle for anything less? Great article, Darrell. Thank you! -Robert
Jane Shipp (MJSHIPP) on March 28, 2013
Great article and helped me understand the main difference between shooting RAW and JPEG! I would like to see someone address the question another person posed regarding DNG. I shoot RAW and Lightroom 4 refers to it as DNG. Is it the same thing? Thanks!
Emory Hall (ehall) on March 25, 2013
Thank you for this great dead on education piece.
User on March 25, 2013
Charles Waggoner (charleswagoner)------- don't use software, do all your processing in the fields. I do only one processing after taking a picture. Resizing it. That is what I have done for this web, too. There was some loss in the colour as well, but it is still usable for viewing.
User on March 25, 2013
2013-03-21 06:42:56 posted by Harry Bell (photochem) If I open a jpeg, modify and save it, I lose image data. If I open a jpeg, view it (no modification) but do save it, will I lose image data? No, just tried it and there was no data lost at all. You can check it by clicking on photos and looking at information, seek out kb(MB) size. If it matches, your software makes no changes at all...
User on March 24, 2013
Can I add a couple of comments (I guess that's a rhetorical question)? First, if you are going to spend so much money on a camera, why not take full advantage of its capabilities, i.e., by saving in RAW? Second, if you anticipate needing to crop your photos, RAW will allow more than jpg. Third, if you are out in the wilderness and realize you didn't bring enough memory (like I've been known to do), switching to jpg will let you bring home the pictures you couldn't have saved otherwise - the lesser quality is not important in that situation.
Mike Welde (MikeW2ck) on March 22, 2013
I shoot sports and never shoot in RAW.
User on March 21, 2013
You don't mention anything about the DNG files that DxO or LR4 are able to create and their benefit or otherwise. Could you please comment. THanks. It's good to know that RAW has been around since 1972? according to one of your commenters.
Harry Bell (photochem) on March 21, 2013
If I open a jpeg, modify and save it, I lose image data. If I open a jpeg, view it (no modification) but do save it, will I lose image data?
Cal Towle (noneco) on March 20, 2013
I bought a D300 in 2008 and took a course with Mike Hagen to find out how to use all of the buttons to make images instead of taking snaps and learned about why RAW. S 5 years later I’m still exploring which RAW converter: Adobe (Lightroom, Photoshop), ACDSee, Raw Therapee, CNX2, Capture One, Photo Ninja, or . . . I am impressed by Capture One but very annoyed by how it takes control of my file structure. Currently, I’m using Photo Ninja. Can anyone direct me to an article the compares RAW converters at an analytical level verses opinion? Darrell, do you need anything to do in your oh so limited spare time? Thanks for another well written article. Cal
User on March 20, 2013
been a primary RAW shooter for at least 6 years when i got my D90. workflow using ViewNX for initial review, then Capture NX2. i rarely convert to JPEG, but use TIFF regularly to allow use of Color Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro as standalone programs.
User on March 20, 2013
sometimes we forget some of the basics - albeit I never stopped shooting JPEG+RAW. I'll keep buying faster and faster cards to help keep up with larger and larger file sizes. This was nice little refresher.
Edward Jarrold (Uncle Dubi) on March 20, 2013
Hi Darrell, thanks for this. It comes exactly in time for my needs. Perhaps you will find time to comment on my original problem. I've been shooting in RAW for most of my digital life. Recently I changed from the D7000 to a D800. Great results on both, last week I started shooting both Raw and jpg together and downloading both alongside each other in Aperture. Both images come out well at the beginning but in the split second before the loading ends the raw image goes dark, very dark! The Raw images have very full shodows and some vignette. Aperture allows me to add 2 ev stops but that isn't enough. I add another in the camera, still not enough. The jpgs are washed out. I've been testing for several days without any real improvement. Today I cut out the jpgs and only exposed in Raw - TOTALLY DIFFERENT - great images as always before. I went back and exposed only in jpg, again very good images. The Fine are about half the size of the Raw. I'm happy/ relieved at last - I'm photographing my son's wedding at the beginning of April and was thinking to only take the D7000. I'm happy/ relieved but do you have any explanation for me? Ted
Conny Eriksson (Mindmeld) on March 20, 2013
User on March 20, 2013
Excellent and of great interest to those trying to understand image formats, especially newbies. I've used RAW exclusively for 5 years now and recently started revisiting old images knowing they are in their original state. Lightroom 4 is in my view the best processor for those who take RAW allowing the flexibility for those who wish to export as JPG, TIFF or DNG. Thanks again Darrell.
Sarbach Patrick (sarbachtrick) on March 20, 2013
Thank you for this guidance which is very simple and clear to understand. I do shoot my most pictures in RAW format. But what I am looking for is what kind of program is the best to post processing a RAW format image. I normally use Lightroom 3 or in special cases Aperture.... but I ever wonder how to get the best near image of RAW format when converted in Tiff or Jpeg... are there any suggestions?
User on March 19, 2013
Thank you very much Darrell. I have been shooting RAW for two years now with my D200 and recently acquired a D300 which has TIFF ability. You have given great guidance here. I use Lightroom4 for my processing. If I ever shoot in JPEG I feel stymied not being able to process more. Thank you for this guidance.
Peter Geran (gearsau) on March 19, 2013
I only shoot Raw as well. I was a jpeg shooter until a few years ago, and discovered RAW. I don't even bother shoot Raw & Jpeg.. Just Raw. I use NX2 as well
Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on March 19, 2013
Darrell answers an important issue here, especially for newcomers to the Nikon DSLR world. I do a fairly large amount of work for a local weekly newspaper and have tried to convince them to shoot RAW if for no other reason than the possibilities represented by several post-processing softwares, to make their photography better. But unfortunately, like we have seen for years -- people just want to know "what button do I push to get the results I want right now?" I plsn to share this item with all of them. Thanks, Darrell!
User on March 19, 2013
It's nice to hear a description that honestly outlines the benefits of the different file formats without stating that one is always superior. One more point, although I typically shoot raw, some camera features like HDR and extended dynamic range are only available in jpeg. I do use those sometimes.
User on March 18, 2013
Very interesting and informative. I'm new to RAW and have ben shooting in both RAW and JPEG but haven't settled on what processing software is the best, simplest and quickest to use. Any suggestions?
User on March 11, 2013
Very informative and easily understood. I feel inspired to try the RAW format!
Richard D. Powers (Rpowers) on March 12, 2012
Thank you so much for this concise easy to understand description of the "available" file formats... Go RAW!!