File Formats for Digital Photography

In this post, I’m going to go over the most common file formats you are likely to use in your digital photography adventure. These explanations will be simple, as you can imagine the detailed technical information is beyond what most people need to know.

Computer Screen Shot - Save As Tab

So, here’s the fast and easy version of the top five file formats you will use:

1. RAW

There are many different types of raw files and most of them are created by camera manufacturers. Canon has CR2, Nikon has NEF, Sony has ARW—there is no standard version across the industry. If you are opening your files in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop it’s likely that a plug-in is included or available to read whatever raw format your camera produces. The advantage of shooting in a raw format is that you have increased flexibility in your post-processing. You can change the exposure, color temperature, brightness, contrast, and color saturation (among other things), without losing quality in your photograph. Raw formats also are able to store metadata, so you can look up the technical details of the photo, like your shutter speed, aperture, ISO rating and focal length. Raw files give you flexibility in editing but are very large files and you usually need editing software to view them.

2. DNG

Since raw file formats are all different and you typically need extra software or plug-ins to use them, Adobe has created a standard file format that, ideally, will stand the test of time and will be usable across platforms and software. It is not an industry standard yet, but still good to know about in case you want to archive all your photos in this format, and retain the flexibility of a raw file. If your camera manufacturer goes out of business and people stop supporting the raw files from that camera in new software versions then you’ll wish you had DNG files. I personally do not use these files because I’m confident that Canon will be in business for a while and converting my Canon raw files to DNG is not worth my time.


These files are everywhere and have been THE standard for image delivery and viewing for a long time. JPEGs are compressed files, meaning not every pixel is recorded but groups of pixels are recorded together, so the data needed to save an image is much smaller than a raw file. You can adjust the level of compression on a JPEG to make the file smaller, but at a certain point (of high compression) details are lost. Additionally, if you open a JPEG and do some editing to it and then save it again, it will get compressed again, degrading the quality. Open and save a JPEG several times and you are going to see “compression artifacts”—which look like checkerboards or fuzziness near the edges of your subject. Saving JPEGs using low compression is a good compromise between file size and quality. JPEGs are the best file format for displaying your images on the internet.

Grainy Image of Man in Blue Tshirt


The industry standard for uncompressed files for delivery is TIFF. These files are very large because every pixel is recorded individually. Unlike JPEGs, you can save a TIFF multiple times without losing data or creating artifacts. I will create TIFFs if I think that I am going to work on the image again and will need to resave it or if I think my client will be working on the image and saving it in another format.

Clear Image of Man in Blue Tshirt

5. GIF

I don’t use GIFs often because they are not really meant for high-quality photos. They do really well with logos or other illustrated, solid-colored art. However, unlike JPEGs, GIFs are capable of moving like a flipbook, so I will use them occasionally to create low-quality motion pictures for use on the internet.

These are the formats that you will use most frequently. You might also enjoy this comparison of RAW vs JPEG photo files.

Are there any other formats you find valuable in your photography workflow?

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