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The Guide To File Formats: How You Should Save Your Images

file formats to use The Guide To File Formats: How You Should Save Your Images

Question: What file format should I save my images in after editing them in Photoshop or Elements?

Answer: What will you be doing with them? What access will you need later to layers?  How many times will you need to re-edit the photo?

If you are thinking, “that answer just asked more questions,” you are right.  There is no one correct answer on what file format you should use.  I always shoot RAW in camera.  I first do basic exposure and white balance adjustments in Lightroom, then export as a JPG, then edit in Photoshop.  Then, I save the file in both high resolution and often a web-sized version too.

Do you save as a PSD, TIFF, JPEG, PNG or something else?

For today’s conversation we are discussing a few of the most common file formats. We will not be covering Raw file formats like DNG and camera formats in an effort to keep this simple.

Here are a few of the most common file formats:

PSD: This is a format proprietary to Adobe, used for programs such as Photoshop, Elements, and exporting from Lightroom.

  • When to save this way: Use the Photoshop (PSD) format when you have a layered document where you’ll need access to individual layers at a later date. You may want to save this way with multiple retouching layers or if you are making collages and montages.
  • Benefits: Saving images this way retains all non-flattened adjustment layers, your masks, shapes, clipping paths, layer styles, and blending modes.
  • Downsides: The files can be very large, especially if there are a high number of layers. Since they are a proprietary format, they may not be opened easily by others, this format is not ideal for sharing.  You cannot use this format to post to the web and they are hard to email to others due to vast size. Some print labs have the ability to read these but many do not.

TIFF: This targeted file format has no loss in quality as long as you are not up-sizing.

  • When to save this way: If you plan to edit the image multiple times and do not wish to lose information each time you edit-save-open-edit-save.
  • Benefits: It retains layers if you specify and it is a loss-less file type.
  • Downsides: It saves an interpretation of what the sensor records in a bitmap so enlarging more than actual file size can cause jagged edges.  Additionally the file sizes are enormous, often 10x or greater than a JPEG file.

JPEG: The Joint Photographic Experts Group (referred to as JPEG or JPG) is the most common file type. It produces manageable, high-quality files that are easy to share and view without special software.

  • When to save this way: The JPEG file format is an excellent choice for photos once you are done editing, no longer need layered files, and are ready to print or share on the web.
  • Benefits: When saving as a JPEG, you choose your desired quality level, allowing you to save in higher or lower res, depending on the intended use (print or web). They are easy to email, upload to social networking sites or a blog, and to use for the majority of print sizes.
  • Downsides: The format compresses the image each time you open and save it, so you lose a small amount of information each full cycle of open-edit-save-open-edit-save. Though the loss does occur, I have never noticed any visible impact on anything I have printed. Also, all layers are flattened when you save this way, so you cannot re-edit specific layers unless you also save in an additional format.

PNG: The Portable Network Graphics format has a loss-less compression, created to replace GIF images.

  • When to save this way: You PNG if you are working on graphics and items that need a smaller size and transparency, usually but not always for web.
  • Benefits: The biggest perk to this file format is transparency.  When I save items for my blog, such as rounded corner frames, I do not want edges showing in white.  This file format prevents that when used correctly.
  • Downsides: When used on larger images, it can produce bigger file size than a JPEG.

We hope this information helps you choose the best file format for your intended purpose.  I alternate between three of them: PSD when I need to maintain and work more on layers, PNG for graphics and images that need transparency and JPEG for all print and most web images.  I personally never save as TIFF, as I have just not found the need.  But you may prefer it for your high resolution images.

We’d love to hear from you.  What formats do you use and when? Just comment below.

 The Guide To File Formats: How You Should Save Your Images

Jodi Friedman, MCP Actions

Jodi Friedman is the founder of MCP Actions. She designs popular Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets that make editing faster, easier and more fun.

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15 Comments

  1. 1

    I use the same three as you and for the same reasons. Still interesting to read this and confirm that I’m on the right track. Thanks!

  2. 2
    VickiD says:

    Jodi, I really like the way you laid out the options for the different file formats but think you missed a major benefit of TIFF. My preferred formats are TIFF and JPEG. I save as TIFFs because these can be opened and reworked in Adobe Camera Raw (I use PS CS6) and I like ACR’s method of reducing noise. Of course JPEGs are used for uploading and sharing. Since PSDs can’t be opened in ACR, I don’t bother with that format.

  3. 3
    Hezron says:

    I found the above article really informative,well,i don’t use the program much since am just getting into photo(editting)graphy but i always save in jpeg.
    Thanks to the article,am well informed to various formats n for that i salute u.

  4. 4

    The myth of just ‘saving’ has been around for awhile. However, when programmers were brought in for a study about 5 years ago, they delved into the fine data mass of the JPEG files and found the following out…you only re-compress the file if you save it as a new file, not if you just click ‘save’. If you open a file up, i.e. called “Apple” and hit save, it will save the data with the modified changes and there will be no compression or loss. You could hit save a million times and it would still be the same exact data as the original. But click ‘save as…’ and re-name the file to “Apple 2″ and you have compression and loss. Click ‘save’ and no compression. Now you take “Apple 2″ and ‘save as…’ “Apple 3″, you will have compression again. The compression ratio is 1:1.2 so you only get about 5 re-saves before you’ve lost enough quality to be noticeable. Also important to note, JPEGs does more than compress the file, it also loses color and contrast range. These numbers and ratios are examples for the sake of easy explanation, but lets say a picture has 100 colors and 100 contrast points. A RAW or TIFF file will record all 100 colors and 100 contrast points. However, when the picture is shot as a JPEG, the camera kind of does a little post-production and edits the image for you. The JPEG will only capture say 85 of the colors and 90 of the contrast points. Now the actual ratio and loss is variable depending on the picture and there is no set formula, but the essential summary is if you shoot in RAW or TIFF you are getting 100% of the data. If you shoot JPEG, you not only loose colors and contrast but then get a 1:1.2 compression. This is also true for if you take a RAW or TIFF file in post-production software and save as a JPEG, it will do the same color/contrast loss in addition to the compression of the conversion.

    • 4.1

      Great explanation – might be worth another guest blog article. If you are interested… let me know. “The myth of saving in the JPG file format.” Want to write it using the above as a beginning point with some illustrations?

  5. 5
    Jozef De Groof says:

    i use DNG ob a Pentax D20

  6. 6
    Tina says:

    I’ve got a question on saving jpeg. Unfortunately I’m not at home to read exactly what the screen reads, but when I’m ready to save my edited pictures in photoshop elements it asks me what quality or resolution I want (with a little slider bar). I always save for the highest quality it will go. But now that I do that it takes up more disk space. Am I just wasting space? I never enlarge more than an 8×10.

  7. 7

    There is also no loss if you copy and paste a file from one drive to another too, but your metadata will be altered. This comes into consideration if you want to ever prove ownership or enter a contest. Many contests now are requiring the original file as proof of metadata/ownership.

    So what’s the summary of how to shoot and save? Well first I’ll refer you to my entry on how to pick a shot so you’ll be familiar with the terms (http://mcpactions.com/blog/2012/09/26/keep-vs-delete/comment-page-1/#comment-135401)

    I like to teach that if you are shooting “documentation” shots, especially casual family or party shots, then shoot in JPEG and keep them as JPEGs. If there is any chance you are going to capture something “great”, then shoot in RAW. Then when you save the file, you have to save 3 copies: the original RAW file, the edited/layered file (TIFF, PSD, or PNG, your choice), and then a JPEG version of the edited file for more versatile uses. I personally go one step further and save a 60% compressed JPEG as well for use on the internet. This is so I can use it on websites, albums, etc. and not worry about someone stealing a full size copy. I never publish anything online that is full size, even people shots. Not only will it reduce the amount of space you take up on the site, but if there is ever a dispute, its simple, I have the only full size version. People say, “but it takes up so much hard drive room”. The problem with most photographers today is they don’t anticipate what they may want to do with their photos 5, 10 years from when they start taking photos. By the time you’ve learned that you want all those files, it’s been years of thousands of shots that you’ve taken and won’t be able to recover or convert if you skimp early. So yes, it does take up a lot of space, but quite honestly, hard drives are cheap when compared to the cost of wishing you had kept certain versions or the time it would take to now create all those versions en-mass. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on your equipment to capture and use images that will mean something to you for the rest of your life, $150 more to store another 50,000 files should be a no-brainer.

    Of course that brings up the issue of naming your files. Because the newer Windows (7,8) has changed their renaming algorithms, it opens up big potential for deleting the wrong files. It used to be when you selected 10 pics of different formats and then clicked ‘rename’, it would rename them 1-10 regardless of file type. But with W7,8, it now renames them according to their type. So if you shoot 3 JPEG, 3 MPEG, and 3 CR2, it now renames them to:
    1.jpg
    2.jpg
    1.mpg
    2.mpg
    1.cr2
    2.cr2
    But when you open them up in LR or Photoshop, those programs only look at the file name, not the type. How it reads certain ones is random so far and I don’t think anyone has figured out how it chooses yet, but if you wanted to delete 1.jpg, there is a very real possibility that you will also delete 1.mpg and 1.cr2 as well. I have switched to using a program called File Renamer – Basic. It is well worth the low cost of ensuring all my files are named accordingly. So now when I have 10 shots in different formats, it comes out:
    1.jpg
    2.jpg
    3.mpg
    4.mpg
    5.cr2
    6.cr2
    When I open them in LR, I know I’m seeing everything for what it is and not accidentally editing/deleting the wrong pic.

    Now, how do I name all these different files? I’ll get to why I do this at the end, but here is the workflow…So my wife, Ame, and I go on a trip to Africa in ’07 and ’09 and Costa Rica in ’11. Before I leave on the trip, I first create a title folder:
    -Africa 2007
    -Africa 2009
    -Costa Rica 2011
    In those folders, I put more folders for the different types of files (I’ll just use Africa ’07 for ease of explanation, but every title folder would look like this):
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Edited
    -Web
    Then I further add folders for us:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Ame
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Edited
    -Web
    In those folders I put new folders labeled according to the day, i.e. “Day 1 – Aug 3″:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Edited
    -Web
    Each day I download the cards and put all the files into the respective folders:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -100.jpg
    -101.jpg
    -102.mpg
    -103.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -104.jpg
    -105.jpg
    -106.mpg
    -107.cr2
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -100.jpg
    -101.jpg
    -102.mpg
    -103.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -104.jpg
    -105.jpg
    -106.mpg
    -107.cr2
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Edited
    -Web
    I then use the File Renamer program (often in the field) and rename as follows (I add a C for mine, A for Ame’s):
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – C.cr2
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – A.mpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – A.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – A.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Edited
    -Web
    At some point, sometimes in the field when I have time, I move all the movie files into the Videos folder:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – C.mpg (moved to videos)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – C.mpg (moved to videos)
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – C.cr2
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – A.mpg (moved to videos)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – A.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – A.mpg (moved to videos)
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – A.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – A.mpg
    -Edited
    -Web
    Then when I get home, I go through my “choose and delete phase” first (described in the article provided previously) and import a few days at a time (Note: in LR, I create a ‘collection’ named “Africa 2007”. This allows me to pull up all those images in LR if I ever need to see them all together or to do further editing:
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – C.jpg (deleted)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – C.cr2 (deleted)
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (2) – A.jpg (deleted)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – A.cr2 (deleted)
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – A.jpg (deleted)
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    So now the whole folder looks like this:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    -Edited
    -Web
    -Videos
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – A.mpg
    -Edited
    -Web
    When I’ve finished deleting, I pull up my entire collection and edit. When I’m done, I export to my edited folder and web folder. I do it all at the same time so it’s very quick to export as TIFF, RAW, JPEG, or web-JPEG. If it’s a different file type, I add a letter to the file to separate it out. Everything gets clumped together in the Edited folder. So now the final outcome should look like this:
    -Africa ‘07
    -Originals
    -Chris
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Ame
    -Day 1-Aug 3
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    -Edited
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1)b – A.tiff (tiff copy of the previous jpg file)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1)c – A.png (png copy of the previous jpg file)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1)b – C.tiff (tiff copy of the previous jpg file)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1)c – C.png (png copy of the previous jpg file)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.cr2
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4)b – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4)c – C.tiff
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1)b – A.tiff
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.cr2
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1)b – C.tiff
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Web (60% compressed)
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (4) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (4) – A.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (1) – C.jpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (2) – C.jpg
    -Videos
    -Day 1-Aug 3 (3) – C.mpg
    -Day 2-Aug 4 (3) – A.mpg
    -Edited
    -Web

    Now, why do I do it this way? First, if I ever want to look up a trip, the title folders are alphabetical. If I put the year first, then the Africa 2007 trip could be 20 folders away from the Africa 2011 trip. Putting the name first lines everything up alphabetically and is easier to find.

    Then when I want to find a pic, if I want the original I know where to find it, and edited one, simple, and a web sized one, easy. Since all the file names are the same, I know that Day 1-Aug 3 (1) – C is going to be the same pic regardless of what folder it is in or what file type. Searching through Ame’s pics and mine, they are all back-to-back based on Day, with Ame’s preceding mine, so it’s easy to separate finding mine over hers. If I want to find a pic I know I took at Chobe Park, I know that all the pics are categorized chronologically, so I can easily search through them in thumbnail display and find the days that were at Chobe. If I want a pic of an Elephant, I know I saw them in the early part of the trip and the end, so I again search by thumbnail the days near the beginning and end of the trip to find them. If I want to pull them up and do something more, like make a poster or calendar, I just go into LR and pull up the collection. I select the “alphabetical” filter and now I can again search by days to find the pic I want. The other by-product from all this, is when you want to backup something, you can just backup the new folder by copy and pasting the whole thing over to the backup drive.

    Although it seems like a lot of work, once you do it, it’s very simple and easy. Some people lump them altogether. But then they spend countless hours trying to find them or getting confused of which file they are dealing with. This workflow is not only easy to do in the field, but in the long run will minimize time spent filing and finding.

  8. 8

    So the formatting of the Blog entry makes it confusing, but I’ll submit this to Jodi for a Blog entry and then the formatting will show what I mean on the file naming.

  9. 9

    As someone with a really shady understanding of what file formats are good for what kinds of files and in what contexts, I really appreciated this. My default is just to use JPGs for everything!

  10. 10
    Tracy says:

    I took a class that recommended shooting in RAW > adjust in LR > export as TIFF if you plan to work in PS > when finished in PS, save as JPEG. The TIFF maintains much more color info that you may want to adjust in PS. When you are completely finished with editing, you save as JPEG to make the file the smallest size.

  11. 11
    crystal b says:

    I love the simplicity of the Noir Tote. Classic.

  12. 12

    Good advice. I normally use JPGs for everything too.

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