What is a TIFF File? Everything You Need to Know

The TIFF format is a fairly common file type and is often requested by printing agencies because it was designed with printing in mind by a company that developed desktop publishing applications. TIFF has been around for a long time and is very versatile, easily handling black and white, various color spaces, such as CMYK, RGB, and even spot colors.

There are downsides to a file format that can do almost anything, and that’s bloat. An image saved as a TIFF file is larger than almost any other format, so understanding when to use it can save some storage space.

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What does TIFF mean?

The Tag Image File Format (TIFF) was created in 1992 and is a very flexible file type that can be extended by developers to cover a wide variety of uses. The format is also known as Tagged Image File Format and the owner, Adobe, uses both in its documentation. This is done through the use of tags containing information about the type of compression used, transparency and bitmap data of the image, as well as printer-specific information such as color space, resolution, halftones and inks. Private tags are also available for organizations to further customize TIFF files and can be registered with Adobe.

Is TIFF an uncompressed image format?

While TIFF files may use JPEG compression, known as the lossy format, the primary use of TIFF is for lossless images. The JPEG format should be used when it is known in advance that the file size should be limited as it is a more direct representation. Lossless doesn’t always mean uncompressed, and TIFF files can use Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression, which encodes simple footage without losing any image data. However, LZW is more efficient for computer graphics.

Unlike JPEG images, lossless TIFF files retain their quality after being repeatedly edited and saved. Photo by Tracey Really.

Photographs rarely have the kind of exact repeats that would benefit from this type of compression. This means that photos saved as TIFF files are often uncompressed. It is possible to repeatedly open a lossless TIFF file, make changes, and save it back to TIFF format without any reduction in quality.

Should all photos be saved as TIFF files?

After modifying a JPEG image, saving it as a TIFF file prevents adding another layer of compression artifacts. This can be a critical step in a workflow if further changes need to be made. Repeated editing and saving in JPEG format will gradually deteriorate a photo to the point that it will eventually become unusable. Saving in a lossless format such as TIFF allows edits to be made in-progress without further damaging the image.

On the other hand, many painting and photo-editing apps already save in a proprietary lossless format, so that might not be a problem. Additionally, some JPEG manipulations can be performed without requiring recompression. Cropping, rotating, flipping, and editing metadata shouldn’t hurt the quality of a JPEG if the application handles the process correctly.

It is usually not necessary to save every photo in TIFF format. If an image captures a moment perfectly or requires minimal editing, it probably doesn’t need to use the extra storage space required by a TIFF file. RAW files are already the purest representation of the original photograph and require less space than a TIFF file.

When to use the TIFF format

TIFF allows the use of choice of color space, such as CMYK and spot colors. These are colors used by some professional printers with CYMK for cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink. Spot colors are often used for logos and for greater precision than allowed by CYMK. Since TIFF can use these print-oriented color spaces, it is often preferred for layout and publishing. As a lossless file format, editing can be done without adding compression artifacts.

TIFF supports the CMYK color space which is used in print jobs.

Although TIFF is ideal for photographs that will be printed, it is not an ideal format for documents. A PDF file is preferable in this case because it can contain bitmapped images as well as super-efficient vector graphics and text using styled fonts much more efficiently than TIFF. The TIFF format remains the first choice for printing photographs even if the image is wrapped in a PDF file.

In general, TIFF is a good choice for image files that are in progress but need to be moved between applications or locations. If an image is used in a page layout program, sent to a print service, or when a document is scanned, TIFF may be the preferred format.

Where can I use TIFF?

TIFF images can be saved from most print-oriented applications, and many paint and photo applications can export an image in TIFF format. Applications from Adobe, Affinity, Corel, Pixelmator, and the open source application GIMP are examples of common support for TIFF images. Almost all desktop publishing applications support TIFF files.

Apple’s Preview app, built into macOS, can open and save TIFF files. Microsoft’s Photos app opens and saves TIFF images when using Windows. Linux handles TIFF images with the open-source ImageMagick library. This means that TIFF files are widely supported on most computers. A Chromebook, however, needs an app to view or save a TIFF file.

Apple Preview application exporting a photo in TIFF format.

Even on mobile devices, Apple Photos can open TIFF files on iPhone or iPad and Google Photos can be used to view them on Android devices.

What is the difference between TIFF and TIF files?

A TIFF file can use a .tiff or .tif extension and most modern computers will correctly recognize it as a tag image file format. Both file types refer to the same image format. The only reason for .tif is to honor the limitations of early computers that were programmed to understand file extensions that were only three characters long. Modern operating systems like Windows, macOS and Linux can handle longer extensions without issue and .tiff will work just as well as .tif as long as an application is installed that can display the image.

Alternatives to TIFF format: JPEG, PNG, PDF and DNG

As mentioned above, TIFF can be compressed but is primarily considered an uncompressed image format, so JPEG is preferred for image files that need to be limited in size to reduce download times and storage requirements. TIFF can use lossless compression which saves some space when storing certain types of infographics. Portable Network Graphics (PNG) is another common image format that has lossless compression and is more efficient in this case.

Since TIFF is print-oriented, PDF is another file type to consider. PDF files can contain PNG and JPEG encoded images, vector graphics, text, and fonts. A PDF can also contain TIFF images, which makes it even more versatile and much more efficient for complete documents.

RAW image formats, such as Digital Negative (DNG) and manufacturer-specific equivalents can outperform TIFF when storing photographs for later editing, because a RAW image contains device-specific image information photo taken directly from the image sensor. Editing a RAW image is the closest a photographer gets to what was originally captured with the camera. RAW files are generally smaller than the same image saved in TIFF format.

Who created the TIFF format and why?

TIFF was jointly developed by Aldus (which was later acquired by Adobe) and Microsoft Corporations and is now owned by Adobe. Desktop publishing was in its infancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s and Aldus developed many of the leading solutions. As a major force in the industry, the company was able to introduce some much needed standards and TIFF provided a robust image format for printing and scanning. This usage results in its ability to store page number, position, resolution (horizontal and vertical), and color space.

Aldus, now Adobe, worked with Microsoft to develop TIFF.

Conclusion

TIFF is a very old image format, but it is still widely used in the printing industry and many scanners still have the ability to save as TIFF files. This speaks to how well the format is designed for these purposes. RAW or JPEG format is a better choice for storing photographs and PNG or a vector format such as Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is better for computer graphics. Conversion to TIFF format can be used as a final step after finishing editing a RAW image and preparing the file for printing.

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