From JPEG to GIF and TIFF to EPS, image file formats are a language all their own. It’s one that professional graphic designers are fluent in, but it can be intimidating for just about anyone else.
Choosing the right file format up front saves you time and money and helps avoid the question we all like to avoid:
Why does this image look so bad?
Let’s say your graphic designer asks you for images to use on an upcoming project. You have a big pile of files you could send.
With so many different options, how do you know which to choose? There isn’t a universal answer, but you will be closer to finding the correct file format by asking yourself a few questions.
Do you have the source files?
Having the original files used to create the image is always the best first option. If you are lucky enough to have the original files, send these files. These files will give the people you are working with the most flexibility to create the perfect image.
Common source file formats: PSD, AI, RAW Image Formats
What is your destination?
Consider where people will see this image. Is it a physical object that requires printing, or will it appear on a screen?
Most file formats are optimized for specific destinations. Physical destinations require higher quality, which leads to bigger file sizes. Download speed is a priority on digital projects, so those file formats rely on compression to keep file sizes smaller.
Formats for physical items: TIFF, EPS, JPG
Formats for digital use: PNG, JPG, GIF, SVG
What type of image is it?
The content of your image plays a big part in the proper file format you should choose. Is it a photo with a wide range of colors, or is it a graphic with a limited color palette, like a logo? The type of image will tell you if you should be using a raster or vector-based format.
Photos (Raster): If your image is a photograph or is a piece of artwork with many details and colors, a raster image format is your best choice. Raster formats retain the details of your image but need more care when resizing.
Raster file formats: TIFF, JPG, PNG, GIF
Graphics (Vector): If your image has limited colors, it is best to use a vector-based format whenever possible. Vector formats scale to any size without losing quality.
Vector file formats for graphics: EPS, PDF, SVG
As you can see, there are many factors to take into account when choosing the right file. To help you make the right decision, we put together this handy little decision tree. Click on the image below to download it as a PDF.
Types of Image File Formats
If you are still curious about file formats, here is a shortlist of the types you probably encounter most.
JPEG (also called a JPG): Joint Photographic Experts Group
Destination: Physical or Digital
JPEGs are easily the most common type of image format used online.
One of JPEGs’ defining characteristics is their “lossy” compression, which means that they will discard data from the file based on the level of compression applied. Because of this, you must keep the resolution and file size in mind when using JPEGs.
PNG: Portable Network Graphics
PNGs are an outstanding choice for web pages, but not so much for print. They’re “lossless,” which means that you can freely edit them without sacrificing quality. However, they’re still low resolution. PNGs include support for transparent backgrounds, making them a beneficial and flexible format for the web.
GIF: Graphics Interchange Format
We all know the GIFS that show up in animated form, especially when they give us a good laugh online or in our text message threads. But basic GIFs are composed only of a maximum of 256 colors within the RGB color space, which significantly reduces the file size and load time. GIFs are the right choice if your graphic will be small and only has a few colors.
SVG: Scalable Vector Graphic
Web developers use SVGs when they need a graphic that will scale to different sizes. SVGs are great to use inside responsive web designs, so they load fast and stay sharp on desktops and mobile devices.
TIFF: Tagged Image File
No matter how much you compress, copy, or er-save a TIFF, this large raster file doesn’t lose quality. But since they take forever to load, they aren’t ideal for web use. Instead, TIFFs are better suited to saving photographs for printing.
EPS: Encapsulated Postscript
An EPS is a vector file format intended for high-resolution graphics in print. You can open an EPS in various design programs (not just Adobe Illustrator), making it an excellent option for sharing with others.
What about PDFs?
PDFs are the most versatile format on earth and are purpose-built for sharing with others. They are used universally for a wide range of purposes. PDFs are used when printing out business cards and t‑shirts but are also used in digital applications like ebooks and whitepapers. They often mix vector and raster elements into a single file. For this reason, we don’t think of PDF files as something that we work with, but more as an end product of most of our work.
Now that you’re well-versed in image file formats, you’re ready to head out and make the most of your future design endeavors – or at the very least, keep up with your graphic designer!