What's The Best Image Format? Analyzed And Explained
When you deal with a picture, or a photo, or even an emoji, you’ll need to select the best format of the image. The simplest example is you and your camera. You may have a standalone digital camera, either a compact or a professional one, an action camera, or just a smartphone or a tablet. What’s the best format to save, store, and share your pictures?
Let’s review different image file types. No Wiki stuff like when and where it was developed, what algorithms it is powered by, and so on. We’ll only take the essentials: what this format is good for, what’s its other side, and what you pay for its pros.
Well, if you download an image from the Internet, chances are it’s saved as .JPG or .JPEG file. And if you download it like this, someone must have uploaded this file as JPEG? Right. The format is known for its adjustable compression level. Compared to the original, its size can be a hundred times smaller, and the image will still be clearly seen.
The difference gets noticeable when you zoom in. The compression algorithms just remove many pixels and replace it by derivatives of other pixels. The higher the compression, the less is the size, and the more clearly seen it is when scaled.
But it’s not the most common case when we have to look at .JPG as close as the photographer from Antonioni’s Blowup did. If you just need to publish the picture on your Facebook page to make them all see you travelling, working out, or just posing at the mirror, JPG will do.
What’s the difference between .JPG and .JPEG types? In fact, there’s none. In old OS file extension had to be no longer than three letters, so “JPEG” shrunk and lost a letter. Later the full extension became popular too. Just don’t confuse them when you share a link to an image: that’s where it matters.
This one is considered the most exact graphic file. It offers a solid pixel for any point of the image. Not interpolated or derived from its neighbors, each pixel is given as precisely as can be. .BMP files are easy to open, and they’re supported by all platforms.
Their other side is their other size. Compared to .JPG, they are big. Not enormous (leave this term for .TIFF), but they are dozen time bigger or even more. So, of course, if you need just post something to your blog or social media, you better select .JPEG compression. But if the slightest detail on your picture needs to be seen (maybe for further examination or just to keep it scalable), then keep it in .BMP.
And remember that if you compress your image to any lossy format, the details lost can’t be recovered. So preserve the original bitmap, if you need the image in full detail.
TIFF (Tagged Image)
What you must have noticed first (if you have ever seen a .TIFF file) is its size. It’s not just big: it’s enormous. At the opening, this file impresses with unbelievable details and colors. Any pixel is exactly where it’s supposed to be, with no interpolation and no compression.
In fact, it’s a container with metadata (like .MKV file is a container for video materials). It can contain a lossy file for quick preview and lossless bitmap file of the same image for fine processing. The lossless files may be compressed or uncompressed; it depends. The file can have its layers (like .PSD we’re to see). Anyway, the file can be processed without any quality loss.
You’ll need .TIFF when you want your picture printed with the highest quality possible, be it a magazine page, a billboard, a poster or anything like that. It provides the precision of bitmap with convenient options for processing.
PSD (Photoshop File)
What distinguishes it from other graphics file format types is its layered structure. This file is so sophisticated that it does have layers, and that’s what it’s for. A photo montage or a collage has its separate elements on dedicated layers. A processed photo can have layers with effects. That’s what provides the power of Photoshop.
When you send .PSD, it can be easily disassembled into separate layers and reassembled again. It’s like a song session from a studio, with a separate track for each instrument or effect, so you can remix or rearrange it.
This static file format has two pros that have made it popular among web designers. First, it’s very small. The compression provided by its algorithms is even harder than with JPEG. Second, it can have a transparent background due to the built-in alpha channel. Thus it can be located over any other background, and it will be seen without the background rectangle, just a picture of any shape.
When to use it? Depends on the situation. Overall quality of .PNG compression is better, and it supports lossless compression. Some think it’s better than .JPG for compressed images, and it’s popular, but not as popular as the former.
There is an animated version of .PNG known as .APNG, but it’s not nearly as popular as its main rival, the king of animated image format. Here it is below.
When we want to illustrate our text with some animated example, it can be a moving emoji, a scene from a movie or a news story, just abstract animation and so on. This animation should be easy to load and send, and we should be sure that the receiver will see it properly.
So here is .GIF. Developed back in 1987, it’s hasn’t become obsolete since. On the contrary: Internet with its growing bandwidth uncovered the true potential of this format. .GIF files can be very large, and its animation features make this format unprecedentedly suitable for custom emoji or moving illustrations embedded into web pages or messages. Unlike video formats, it contains no sounds; but the picture loads quickly and requires no action to start.
So, if you want your picture constantly moving and easily embedded, you need a .GIF.
Who likes it raw? Photographers do, and designers do. And your camera does. Even your smartphone does, though the final images you get are probably compressed to ubiquitous .JPG. But the original image caught by your camera lens and saved by its sensor is still RAW.
In fact, .RAW is not a unified file format. It’s an extension for (easy to guess) raw image from camera sensors, before any processing. Different vendors use different ways to save .RAW, so don’t get surprised if the .RAW files you got from your Canon are opened incorrectly in the official Nikon or Olympus application. There are even apps for saving .RAW data from smartphone cameras.
Do you need it? Probably if you did, you wouldn’t ask. But if you ever want to process some photos from your camera professionally, and you’re in need of the pros’ service, they’ll appreciate if you preserve the .RAW file.
Drawing the Line
In all that variety of image file types, we barely touched miscellaneous special tools for any kind of job you want the image for. But there is also a golden rule that keeps the balance. If you want your file to load fast, you lose in quality. The formats that provide the best quality and make processing easy are usually very large. New web formats may be superior to old ones in old aspects, but lose in popularity, and so they’re hard to introduce widely. Besides that, there are many specific formats for certain platforms, not so easily supported by others.
Digging a bit deeper will provide more info, but you’ll know then the specifics of your needs, be it web design, animation, high-quality printing or anything. Then you can explore the world of digital graphics in the direction you need.