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Do you know the differences between JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, and other image filetypes? Do you know when you should use one instead of the other? Or which is best for storing your photos? How about the difference between lossy and lossless compression? If the answer to any of these is “no,” you might be using the wrong image filetype! Here are the basics you need to know.

(If you don’t want to know the specifics, and just want to know which filetype you should use, skip to Which Image Filetype Should You Use? at the bottom.)

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

An important distinction that you’ll need to understand is lossy vs. lossless compression How Does File Compression Work? How Does File Compression Work? File compression is at the core of how the modern web works, one could argue, because it allows us to share files that would otherwise take too long to transfer. But how does it work? Read More . In lossless compression, the file size of an image is reduced, but the quality remains the same. This is true no matter how many times the file is decompressed and recompressed—the same amount of visual information will always be present, and the quality of the image remains stable.


Lossy compression, as you might expect, reduces the quality of the image, as information is lost every time you de- and recompress the file. The big advantage of lossy compression techniques, however, is that files can be made much smaller (you’ll see just how much smaller as we work our way through the filetypes).

The amount of detail that you need to retain in your image should determine whether you use a lossy or lossless compression format. For storing your photos, lossless will definitely be better, as you won’t lose information when you open them back up for editing. On the other hand, lossy has advantages for sending them via email or posting online.

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You get RAW files Budding Photographer? Here's Why You Should Be Shooting Raw Budding Photographer? Here's Why You Should Be Shooting Raw Every dSLR, prosumer and even some high-end compact cameras have the ability to save raw image files. This isn't just a higher quality of image, it's a gift from the photography gods. Read More  straight from your DSLR. The RAW file is exactly what it sounds like—the raw picture file, with no compression applied. Every piece of information that your camera captured is contained in the raw file. For this reason, these files are huge—they can easily top 25MB each. And while that’s great for photo editing, it’s not so great for photo storage Save Space On Your Mac By Storing iPhoto & iTunes Libraries Remotely Save Space On Your Mac By Storing iPhoto & iTunes Libraries Remotely With my head held low with shame, I publicly admitted last week that I'm a digital hoarder. My once blazingly fast Mac is now left with just 100GB of a 1TB drive left. I've already... Read More , which is why image compression exists.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using a test photo to see just how much each compression technique saves in size and what they do to quality. I can’t display the raw photo in the browser, but looking at the high-quality JPEG or PNG photos should give you an idea of what the original looks like. Also, for the purposes of comparison, the raw photo file is 12.4 MB.


Possibly the most common image format, JPEG (or JPG) is the Joint Photographic Experts Group standard, and is often used for posting photos 4 Ways To Share Photos & Videos Privately With Your Family 4 Ways To Share Photos & Videos Privately With Your Family Sharing photos in no longer a big deal. Whether you’re an Internet addict or just own a computer, you shouldn’t have any problem sharing your digital photos and even your old films with the world.... Read More and images of text to the Internet (most of the images you’ll see on MakeUseOf are JPEGs). The format supports 24 bits per pixel, 8 each for brightness, blue, and red, making this a “truecolor” format that can display over 16,000,000 colors.

Although it can create very high-quality images, JPEG can be disadvantageous in that it’s a lossy compression format. This is why you’ll often see low-, medium-, and high-quality options when you export an image as a JPEG. Each option decreases the amount of compression applied and increases the quality of the photo.Here’s the test photo in high-, medium-, and low-quality JPEG formats, with their respective sizes:


JPEG high quality (quality set to 100) size: 471 KB.


JPEG medium quality (quality set to 50) size: 68 KB.


JPEG low quality (quality set to 20) size: 32 KB.

In general, a high-quality JPEG is usually a good compromise between size and quality. Once you get into mid- and low-quality JPEGs, though, quality will suffer significantly. Also, JPEGs tend to be best for photos or drawings, which have fewer sharp transitions than text.


The Graphics Interchange Format allows for 8 bits per pixel, three each of red and green, and two for blue. This makes 256 colors available for GIFs, though it is possible to get more colors into the image using multiple color blocks with different 256-color palettes. Using lossless compression, GIFs are able to reproduce their limited color palettes perfectly over multiple de- and recompressions.

Here’s the test photo encoded as a GIF:


GIF size: 194 KB.

As you can see, the size is relatively small, but the lack of color depth really hurts the quality of the image (it’s especially evident in transitions between light and dark, such as inside the rim of the blue pot with the yellow flower on the right side of the photo).

The other important thing to know about GIFs is that they can be animated, which has all sorts of cool uses 5 Uses For Animated GIFs Other Than Annoying Memes 5 Uses For Animated GIFs Other Than Annoying Memes GIF animations aren't just for corny memes and annoying reactions (but it doesn't mean you can't use them as such). Here at MakeUseOf, we've got a whole bag full of uses for these cool little... Read More . Using multiple image frames drawn in order, the appearance of motion can be generated. Beyond creating animations, the GIF format is rarely used due to its limited color space.


Designed as a replacement for GIF, the Portable Network Graphics filetype is another lossless format, but it includes significantly more information than its predecessor: it can contain either 24 or 32 bits per pixel. The 24-bit version contains RGB information, while the 32-bit version uses the RGBA color space. The “A” in RGBA stands for “alpha,” which allows for different levels of transparency in the image (when you see a checkered background like the one below, it usually indicates transparency).


Because it contains so much more information, a PNG file will be quite a bit larger than a JPEG or GIF (though there’s an increase in quality, as well).


PNG size: 1.5 MB.

Using the example photo, the PNG doesn’t look any better than the high-quality JPEG, though it’s important to remember that lossless compression will maintain the quality of the photo over multiple de- and recompressions. Also, if transparency is important, PNG is the way to go.


The Tagged Image File Format was originally developed for use in scanners, and has gotten increasingly complex as scanners have moved from binary to greyscale to full-color. It’s now a commonly used full-color filetype. TIFFs can be saved either compressed or uncompressed, and the compression used can be either lossy or lossless. In general, if they’re compressed, they’ll use lossless compression, though if size is an important factor, lossy can be used.

Because TIFF is technically a file wrapper or container, and not a filetype, it can save images with a variety of different bits per pixel, giving you the option of having a very high number of colors, as you would with JPEG or PNG. (Note: because TIFF support isn’t universal in browsers, I’m posting high-quality JPEG screenshots of the TIFF files.)


Uncompressed TIFF size: 2.2 MB.


Compressed TIFF size: 1.6 MB.

Again, these lossless image files are quite a bit larger than JPEG or GIF formats, but they retain a great deal more information. Although you don’t see TIFFs online as much as other formats, they’re very widely used, and can be opened by just about any image editing program.


This is an old format that isn’t used very often anymore—in fact, when I tried to upload the test photo to our site, my browser almost crashed and the tab became unusable (though the image was only 1.1 MB on my hard drive, WordPress thought it was much larger). I’ve posted a screenshot of the BMP in high-quality JPEG format below so you can see what it looks like, and in case you come across one, here’s what you need to know.

BMP (bitmap) is primarily a Windows-based format, and the standard is maintained by Microsoft. Like TIFF, it can store an arbitrary number of bits per pixel, up to 64, meaning it can retain a lot of image information. This format can store transparency data, but some Microsoft applications don’t allow the reading of it. In short, if you have a BMP, convert it to something else. Everything will work better.


BMP size: 1.1 MB.

Which Image Filetype Should You Use?

After all of these details, you still might be asking which filetype is the best. The short answer is that for most purposes, PNG is a very safe bet. It’s an especially good choice if your image files are large in size, such as the ones you’ll need to print 8″ x 10″ and larger photos. At 640px wide, the images in this article aren’t big enough to make the differences between filetypes extremely apparent, but you’ll definitely see them in printed photos. And lossless compression means quality will be maintained over multiple compression cycles.


If you need a greater degree of compression, such as for sending photos via email, a high- or even mid-quality JPEG will likely be just fine. TIFF is mostly useful if you know how to tweak specific settings, and both GIF and BMP should be avoided (unless you’re creating animated GIFs GIF-Addicted? Here's How To Pause, And Create, GIFs in Firefox GIF-Addicted? Here's How To Pause, And Create, GIFs in Firefox Tired of animated GIF images that take forever to load? Check out these Firefox addons, which make the wait bearable. Read More ). It’s a good idea to keep RAW files around so you can always edit your photos How To Use Your Mac's Preview Application To Edit Photos How To Use Your Mac's Preview Application To Edit Photos Read More directly from the source.

Do you agree with this assessment? Which image filetypes do you use most often? What advantages and disadvantages do you find you come across? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Alexandru Nika via, ed_g2s via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Bob Shaw
    March 15, 2016 at 11:37 am

    GIF also fell out of use due to copyright issues over the ownership of the method; it was once the image type of choice for the early Internet.

  2. Wayne Lee
    February 19, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    This is an incredibly informative article. I know quite a bit about each file type. This article illuminates the fine print and when and where to use it. This is very useful to me as an amateur photographer and graphic artist. Please continue to write more of these!

    • Dann Albright
      February 22, 2016 at 12:19 am

      I'm glad you found it useful! It turns out that the little details can make a pretty big difference if you need certain features. I'll keep the photography-related articles coming!

  3. Richard
    February 12, 2016 at 3:59 am

    "BMP... good for... Nothing" LOL

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      Seemed like a fair assessment. :-)

  4. Matthew Day
    February 12, 2016 at 12:52 am

    PNG has additional flavours, can also be used in lower colour depths.

    Also PNG has some variation of compressions available, various optimizers can often improve on the compression provided by photo edit software, by iterating through some of the available options rather than using a default strategy that is faster but imperfect.

    PNG also works very well for preserving clarity in screenshots, though a high enough level of JPEG quality will usually get by without too much damage

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      Thanks for this info! Using a compression optimizer sounds like a great idea; I might have to give that a shot. I've started using PNG for screenshots, too, though in many cases I have to scale them down and I get JPEG-quality shots anyway.

  5. Read and Share
    February 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I standardize all my photos to jpg. Most of my photos are travel photos -- and I might edit some of them the first time around -- and then they get stored away, and perhaps viewed from time to time. So lossless is not so important to me (I think).

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      I think that's fine. And most people probably store their photos in JPEG without seeing any serious drawbacks. If you aren't doing a bunch of edits on them, the quality should be okay. There isn't really a drawback to using PNG, though, unless space is an issue.

  6. Howard Blair
    February 11, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    "JPEGs ...The format supports 24 bits per pixel, 8 each for brightness, blue, and red..."
    Sorry, JPEG is an RGB format - red/green/blue. I don't know of any format (except maybe NTSC) that uses "brightness, blue, and red."

    • Dann Albright
      February 11, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      You're right, I misspoke (miswrote?) there. The brightness/blue/red (YCbCr) system is actually the JPEG File Interchange Format (JFIF), a common method of encoding JPEG information. A subtle, but important, distinction!

      W3 has an explanation of it in this 1992 documentation:

      Thanks for pointing that out!

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