What's the deal with .tiff files?

Here’s my situation that I’ve come upon a few time in the last few weeks.

As the family historian I’ve got a lot of photos. I’ve been taking my time and scanning them. In my research in reading and talking to archivists, I’ve been told that I should save my photos as .tiff files. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years.

Since I haven’t needed to do much with them but scan the photos that’s what I’ve been doing. However, in the last month or so I’ve wanted to print the photos out. Well I’ve had problem with that, Target will not print photos in the .tiff format. They told me that .tiff files do not have a high enough resolution to be printed, but all my .tiff files are much bigger then their .jpg files. I’ve also been told that .tiff files are the best way to save files as they are not compressed.

Today I also tried to upload .tiff photos to Picasa and it would not let me. I had to convert the files to .jpg for them to get uploaded.

Is there something about .tiff files that I’m missing? Why am I having such a problem with them when I’ve been told to go that way. I’d rather not go through all the work that I have and have them not be usable in years to come.

The size of the files.

TIFFs today are used for professional photos because they do not compress data. This can make the enormous. Picasa probably has a size limit for an individual files.

Target doesn’t know what they’re talking about. You get better resolution on TIFFs than with JPGs because they’re not compressed. They probably do have a problem with the size of the files and the clerk got the explanation all confused.

Nitpick, the resolution is the same, although the tiffs would look better as they do not have compression artifacts.

TIF or TIFF files are the standard, and have been so for 30 years, in the professional art industry.

That is wrong (although you have have given them low-res files by accident). TIF files can be any resolution you desire, including very high values.

You are right in saving your archive files as TIF, because unlike JPG, TIF stores data either as non-lossy compression or no compression at all. JPG, no matter what your settings are, discards some information that cannot be recovered.

If you are having trouble getting files printed, I suggest you shop around for a better service, or if all else fails, you might have to store a duplicate copy of your pix as JPG. If so, just use the “least compression” setting, and never read a JPG file, reprocess, then re-save, because each time you do, you will lose a little more data. Instead, always start from your original TIF if you need to crop or reprocess.

Don’t hesitate to use LZW compression on your TIFs; any data discarded will be perfectly recreated at the other end. You will, however, only get about a 2:1 compression ratio, compared to typical values of 100:1 for JPG. There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Lunch.

This is incorrect, as Musicat has mentioned. TIFF is a container format that can hold any of a number of types of compressions schemes within it. It can even contain a JPEG. The baseline TIFF is of uncompressed format, but most (at least in my line work) who deal with TIFF use a lossless compression of some sort, usually LZW compression.

Wikipedia has a decent treatment of the TIFF file. A TIF will usually be losslessly compressed or uncompressed, but it can be a container for a lossy JPEG compression, too.

Here is the Smithsonian Institution standard for preserving digital images. It’s TIFF.

If you want to save images losslessly, you could try png. It generates pretty small files, and doesn’t create compression artifiacts.

That document specifies

First of all, I suspect the use of RBG and RGB is a typo, for if the order of the color data was changed, that would present major problems.

Second, I wonder why BW prints are required to be converted to color data, but BW negatives are grayscale. Using color storage for data that has no color information is a waste of 2/3 of the data space.

Any lossless scheme doesn’t create compression artifacts – PNG is no exception – but PNG is far from common just yet.

I know a lot more people who know about PNGs than about TIFs. My browser will natively display PNGs, and I’m required to use PNGs in many places on the net.

Perhaps it’s just not well known in the industry?

PNG is very common, but not for photography or detailed art. Its compression scheme, while lossless, is tailored for simpler images with repeated areas of the exact same color.

Photographs saved as PNG will take a long time to save while the compression algorithm tries its best to deal with an image it wasn’t really designed for.

There are other lossless image formats like JPEG2000 (distinct from regular JPEG), but TIFF works well enough that nothing’s replaced it so far except maybe PSD, Photoshop’s format, but only in certain circumstances.

Anyway, while TIFF is great for archiving, JPEG is the more common standard for general-purpose use and what most non-professional outfits accept for printing.

People working at Target are rarely knowledgeable about what they sell; it’s a grocery store, not a professional print or photography shop.

Just had a quick look and seems “ACDsee Photo software” will convert and print TIFF files.


As others have said, the person at Target was wrong. I’ve used mostly Tiff with B&W scans and have had excellent results.

It may be that they’re allowing for the possibility that BW prints could be of some age, and discoloured, damaged or even sepia-toned. Retaining the colour information makes it easier to see what’s part of the original image and what isn’t.

Part of the issue with TIFF is that there are many tags that not all TIFF readers support. This can cause problems for print booths, and the ANSI standard for document management rejects TIFF on these grounds. Also, many TIFF files contain a lo-res preview image for quick display. To the casual eye, this may give an impression that the TIFF itself is low resolution.


Thanks for the replies. I thought I was going in the right direction with storing my photos as TIFFs. A lot of my photos are small so they are not huge, 3-4 megs mostly. The ones I was trying to put on my picasa page were small too so I don’t know why they wouldn’t come up.

I think that may be the reason, but unless it’s sepia, I use BW scanning precisely to eliminate some of the damage (coffee and pizza stains). And that doesn’t explain why negatives aren’t included – they could have damage or discoloration, too.

I think the trend is towards PNG, but it offers no quality advantage over TIF, just some space saving. With data space getting cheaper and transmission speeds faster, that’s becoming less of a consideration. If we were still using dialup and floppies, PNG might be more popular.

Edward The Head, note that the Smithsonian document recommends 400DPI, so it might be good to adhere to that standard.

Since nobody else has brought it up, I will: Is it possible, if your files had a “.TIF” extension, that the Target clerk mistook them for “.GIF” files? Photos saved in GIF format tend to look like crap because they’ll be low-rez as well as dithered, and printed results won’t be good.

It would still be a dumb mistake by the clerk (misreading/misunderstanding the extension), but at least somewhat correct if he/she thought the files were GIFs.

Maybe, but at Target it’s an automated machine that does the pulling of files and it said they couldn’t be printed. The files were not that big, 2-3 megs at most. It was a pain to have to go home and convert them then go back.

You can probably get better prints (and more convenience) from Shutterfly or Snapfish.

Picasa probably won’t take them because browsers typically will not display them. They’re not a web format.