The most common digital image file format available today retains decent image quality and compression and is universally compatible. They’re used for photos and come graphics. Details like location, camera details, copyright can be embedded. JPEGs are best for everyday photos, websites, and online sharing.
HEIC / HEIF
This pretty new format is commonly found – but not as broadly compatible – on more recent iPhone and smartphone cameras. HEIC/HEIF is considered a better version of JPG. It efficiently compresses files to create smaller files without losing image quality.
HEIC/HEIF has built-in support for features like motion graphics. With this file format, a downside right now is that they’re not widely compatible, but that is changing. While you can convert HEIC to JPEG or restrict your smartphone camera from using it, HEIC is a bit limiting. (Here are our tips for converting HEIC to JPEG here.)
TIFF / TIF
TIFF files are typically significantly larger files than JPGs, making them good as master copies that remain on your computer. They offer the maximum image quality. However, they’re not the best file format for sharing or social media/website posting, given their size.
Since they accommodate metadata and layers, they’re a good option for photo editing. Some variants offer a way to share multi-page black, and white text scanned documents. 8-bit and 16-bit TIFF files are commonly used, but 16-bit TIFF files offer far more colors. Keep in mind that even with ZIP compression, TIFF files are huge, and you should never use LZW compression with 16-bit TIF files.
You’re more likely to see a PNG file today than a GIF. It’s the more common choice these days for web-friendly graphics and illustrations. They’re a small file size, which is why you’ll often see PNG for things like logos and other website graphics. Plus, they can retain transparent (alpha) backgrounds.
There’s no provision for text-based metadata. The most common are 8-bit and 24-bit PNGs, with 8-bit being the most used as it offers up to 256 colors. 24-bit PNGs contain most of the same features as an 8-bit PNG but have even more colors. PNGs, unlike GIFs, are not compatible with animation.
RAW files are designed to preserve all data captured by the sensor (camera or scanner). Because they capture all the data, they are much larger files than JPGs. They aren’t ideal for sharing without processing in specialized RAW processing apps.
They’re a great starting point if you need a lot of data, but you’ll need to process from there if you want to share the image. The other thing to note is that it’s not a standardized format. Every camera manufacturer has its own proprietary RAW version. Because they often sequester part of the data into proprietary segments, it can be tricky to work with RAW, and they are very diverse. For example, Canon’s RAW format is CRW, CR2, or CR3 and Nikon uses NEF or NRW as their RAW formats.
Sony uses ARW, SRF, or SR2, Fujifilm uses RAF. Adobe has developed its own RAW format known as DNG. Some RAW formats can be converted to DNG either by a standard conversion or by embedding the original RAW file inside the DNG container. However, some proprietary metadata could get lost in the conversion process.
While most medium and high-end cameras give you the option to save RAW files, not all cameras do. Most high-end cameras today also give you the option to use compression when saving a RAW file and how many bits. Note that the amount of RAW compression you get can vary significantly by individual format (camera). RAW files are best for when you need to capture maximum data to produce top image quality.