With so many file formats, it’s easy to get them mixed up. TIFF and PNG files are frequently referenced in the art field as ways to preserve the quality of a file and reduce the compression of popular formats like JPEG. However, PNG and TIFF file types are not created equal – there are specific reasons you’d want to use one file format over the other.
What Is A TIFF File?
TIFF is an acronym for Tagged Image File Format, which isn’t much of an explanation. TIFF was developed in 1986 to try and standardize a scanned image file across all desktop scanners.
A TIFF file preserves every aspect of the file itself, including its layers. The TIFF file can even act similarly to a PDF, saving multiple images and pages of a file.
TIFF files are very common in graphic design and photography thanks to the format’s ability to maintain layers and simultaneously utilize text, graphic, and image formats. The file does not compress the digital quality, preserving the finest details.
As perfect as the above may sound, TIFF files aren’t as universally read as common file types like JPEG, so forget about using a TIFF to share a photo on a webpage. More on this later, though.
What Is A PNG File?
Like TIFF, PNG is also an acronym. Short for Portable Network Graphics, the name gives away this file format’s primary use as being web-based. Created in 1996, the PNG format was intended to (and successfully) replace the GIF as a way to share images on the internet.
Although the JPEG rose into more common popularity than the PNG file because of its reduced file size, PNG is still superior when it concerns transferring images online. The PNG can reduce a file size from its original without compromising quality, so you can still easily see the small details in the file without pixelation.
As much as PNG is perfect for web sharing, photographers who print beware: PNG is not the format for this use.
What Is Lossy and Lossless Compression?
I can’t talk about either of these file types without quickly explaining what lossy versus lossless compression is. To start from the beginning, unless you’re playing with a RAW file, the other file formats will compress your image file. Compression is, essentially, a way to reduce the size of a file without (hopefully) reducing its visual quality.
There are two types of compression: Lossy and lossless.
Lossy compression reduces an image file size by deleting some of the original data.
Lossless compression reduces an image file size by removing metadata that the program considers unnecessary.
Lossy compression is a permanent alteration of the file. The data that is deleted can never be brought back. JPEG is the most popular lossy file. For example, a JPEG will degrade in quality if you keep resaving the JPEG repeatedly because it keeps compressing itself each time (therefore, deleting data).
Lossless compression will restore the missing information when decompressed, so removing information is not permanent. As such, the file can restore its quality repeatedly without any issues. However, lossless compression produces larger files than lossy files.
In regard to TIFF and PNG files, both of these are lossless compression files. That is why PNG and TIFF rose to prominence since you can save both file types repeatedly without altering the quality.
Comparing TIFF VS PNG Files
Although all image files look the same to an untrained eye, different file formats exist for a reason. The specific similarities and differences between TIFF files and PNG files validate why there need to be other file formats.
Photographs, digital art, graphic design projects, and other such visual endeavors tend to take up a lot of space on a hard drive. Part of the reason there are several different file formats has to do with how much space they take up on the computer.
On a general note, a JPEG file takes up the least amount of space in images. A PNG file takes up a lot more space than a JPEG. However, a PNG file takes up less space than a RAW image file from your camera.
A TIFF file generally takes up less space than a RAW file too – but it takes up a lot more space than a PNG. Especially if the TIFF file holds multiple layers, a TIFF can potentially take up a lot of space. Even if the TIFF file is flat (with no layers), it’ll still be larger in size than a PNG.
Image Quality & Bit Depth
At the end of the day, it all boils down to image quality. Luckily, PNG and TIFF files exhibit superb image quality. You won’t see pixelation or quality loss from the file’s original form to a PNG or TIFF.
That being said, the bit depth between these two file formats differs. To quickly refresh on definitions, bit depth refers to how many unique colors are available in an image. Every color in a photo is shown in a color palette, essentially, and PNG and TIFF files have different numbers of colors.
PNG files have 16 bits per channel maximum, while a TIFF file can hold up to 32 bits per channel. This means that a TIFF file records far more colors than a PNG, although we visually won’t see the difference as most computers only see up to 8 bits per channel. However, the difference is noticeable when an image is printed.
As for printing, TIFF excels here in a couple of different ways. As mentioned above, a TIFF file can hold much more color information at up to 32 bits versus a PNG file, which is half of this. Although the average computer views a bit depth of 8, having more colors can help a print be more color-accurate.
A TIFF file’s colors can be converted and saved to CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, matching the colors of a printer’s ink cartridges), which is the color format utilized by printers. A PNG file can only be an RGB (red, green, and blue), which is not supported by printers (and if it is, the colors won’t be accurate).
Because PNG was developed with web users in mind, it wasn’t designed for printing.
This one is pretty simple: a TIFF file can hold layers, but a PNG file cannot. PNG files are always flat.
Pros & Cons Of TIFF Files
As with all things, TIFF files shine in some aspects but aren’t useful in all situations. TIFF files are referred to as a jack of all trades but not particularly mastering a single niche. Although this might sound like a negative, it isn’t – a TIFF file is handy, just not made for something specific anymore.
A TIFF file can preserve the quality of a file effortlessly with its brilliant lossless compression.
Being able to preserve layers and editing capability is another great advantage to a TIFF file. TIFF format is relatively universal amongst editing programs, so you can easily bounce it around between Adobe Photoshop and a program like GIMP. TIFF files can handle all sorts of data in a single file, ranging from images to text.
The ability to record 32-bit depth color and be saved in either CMYK or RGB format makes a TIFF ideal for printing.
TIFF can also maintain transparency in a file, such as if the graphic you are saving has a transparent background.
The cons of a TIFF file have to do with its compatibility and file size.
Although I talked about how a TIFF file is compatible with various editing programs, the file is unfortunately not compatible with most web-viewers and web-based applications. You won’t be able to upload a TIFF file to your Facebook or Instagram news feed, for example.
As well as this, the size of the files is quite large. If I were trying to save space on my hard drive, I would not look to a TIFF file to achieve this. TIFF files can become massive if layers are involved.
Pros & Cons Of PNG Files
For web-based photographers and image makers, PNG is a popular format because of its advantages in the digital space, but not so popular for its disadvantages in the printing space.
PNG is a file format accepted by nearly all web-based applications, from social media to websites. PNG is the ideal way to share images online, as the format does not suffer from the type of compression JPEG does. PNGs are one of the only lossless formats you can universally use on the internet.
PNG files are much smaller than their original versions, allowing web pages to load up faster and for less storage space to be used on your drive. PNGs are lossless, so you can save them over and over again without a reduction in quality.
PNG files also support transparency, making them great for sharing logos and other graphics that sit on a transparent background.
Although PNG files have less bit depth than TIFF, they do have more bit depth than JPEG. PNG files are 16 bits per channel, while JPEG only has 8 bits per channel.
As much as PNG shines in sharing images, this is also the format’s downfall. Designed with web users in mind, PNG files are not suitable for printing. The file format can only support RGB, which is not the color format used by printers.
PNGs are still larger than JPEGs, so that is something to keep in mind if storage space is limited.
PNG files cannot save layers. The file itself is flat.
For photographers looking to save their EXIF data (the data that expresses what camera, lens, and settings were used to take a shot), you are out of luck. PNG files do not save this type of EXIF data.
Should You Choose TIFF Or PNG?
Neither file type is better than the other, nor are they interchangeable. The file format you settle on depends heavily on what you need to achieve.
If you are an image maker looking to share images on your website, portfolio, or social media, PNG is your file type.
PNG can help minimize the compression of social media websites, showcase your work to its finest quality in a portfolio, and help image-heavy web pages load up quickly due to PNG being a smaller file size.
For someone looking to print, share a file with all of its layers intact, or move files between editable programs, TIFF is what you want to use.
Because of TIFF’s near-universal application across editing programs, you can place these files in and out of different editors while still saving all of the layers, images, and text within. Printing a TIFF file is much better than printing a JPEG, as the quality is perfectly preserved for the printer to take advantage of.