What is a TIFF file? An introduction to the image format

When you save an image, you have multiple options in terms of the graphic file format you want to select. On the web and for sending image files, the JPG, PNG, and GIF formats are the most common. However, the standard format for high-resolution photos and print data is TIFF, an internationally standardised format. The current version, TIFF 6, dates to 1992 and has remained technically unchanged for over 20 years. This article looks at the file format that’s hidden behind this abbreviation.

What is TIFF?

TIFF is a versatile and flexible raster image format. Companies like Microsoft, Aldus Corporation, and Hewlett Packard developed it in 1986 to standardise image exchange. Today, TIFF is the standard format for rasterised photographs and for transmitting print data. In a TIFF file, any objects, including vector and text information, are stored as raster data. An alpha channel allows individual pixels to be transparent in addition to storing colour information.

A TIFF file supports grayscale as well as RBG,CMYK, and LAB colour space. The format allows a colour depth of up to 16 bits per colour channel and is therefore ideal for data exchange during a RAW conversion.

The abbreviation TIFF, or more rarely TIF, stands for ‘Tagged Image File Format’. This designation indicates the structure of a TIFF file: In essence, the file consists of data fields that are tagged to hold comprehensivemeta data.

While the so-called baseline tags are always present (for example, for the image width or the colour depth), the extension tags are optional (for example, for the software name). GeoTIFF is a special format which contains information about the GPS position and coordinates exactly where the image was taken. The GeoTIFF format is used for map images or aerial images, among others.

These tags form the basis of the complexity of TIFF files. Not every program can read all tags correctly, especially the extension tags. In some cases, this leads to an incorrect display. It should also be noted that not every program can read the LAB colour space. To counteract this problem, so-called baseline TIFFs are used, which contain a maximum of twelve tags with limited values.

Characteristics of TIFF files

Unlike the JPG file format, the compression and decompression of a TIFF file is mostly lossless. This reduces the file size without negatively affecting the original quality of the image.

Note

There are various colour spaces and algorithms for data compression in TIFF files, not all of which are lossless. In addition, it is possible to use a TIFF as a container format for lossy JPG images.

Because of this property, TIFFs are suitable for archiving and printing high-resolution images and graphics. Another advantage of the file format is its platform independence, which makes it suitable for file exchange – regardless of the operating system being used. The Windows and Mac operating systems both have built-in software to open TIFF files. However, to edit a TIFF file, it’s usually necessary to convert the image to another format first.

Lossless compression also results in larger data sizes than other graphic formats. However, on the web, short loading times are of great importance to achieve a positive user experience and ultimately a competitive Google ranking. In the cloud space, storage space usage is also an important factor in selecting the appropriate file format.

While the size of a TIFF file is limited to a maximum of four gigabytes, other file formats are still preferred in the web space. The associated loss of quality and lower resolutions are hardly visible online and are accepted in favour of the file size. To provide high-resolution images in printable quality, the TIFF format is also used on the Internet.

How safe are TIPP files?

As one of the safest image formats out there, TIFF is very much suited for sensitive image material since information can be read without needing to open it. In addition, TIFF prevents the use of links that may transmit personal data. For example, it’s not possible for a TIFF file to make the location of the IP address accessible.

The advantages and disadvantages of the TIFF file format summarised

The following table looks at the advantages and disadvantages of a TIFF file.

Advantages Disadvantages
✔ Platform independent ✘ Higher data volume
✔ Supports layers ✘ Difficult to edit and work with
✔ Lossless compression ✘ More complex
✔ Transparencies through alpha channel ✘ Limited to a maximum of 4 gigabytes per file
✔ Data is very secure  
✔ Ideal for print  

TIFF, JPG, PNG, and GIF in comparison

The most common graphic formats are JPG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF. The table below compares the most important properties of these formats.

  TIFF JPG PNG GIF
Use Print files Web Web; images with transparencies and many colour shades Animations
Lossless compression possible Yes No Yes Yes
File size 4 GB max Small Small Very small
Colour spectrum CMYK, RGB und LAB; full colour spectrum CMYK and RGB; full colour spectrum only RGB; full colour spectrum only RGB; limited to 256 colours
Transparencies possible Yes No Yes Yes
Suited for print Yes Yes No No

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