How-to: The best practices for managing digital photos, part 1


When it comes to managing digital photos, technology can be a blessing and a curse. The good news is, it’s up to you to decide which it will be.

One of the challenges – or curses – is knowing that technology can simplify some part of life, but not knowing how to actually use it to that end. When it comes to preserving memories, pictures are one of the best options.

But then come the questions:

  • What format should I take and store images in?
  • What resolution should I use?
  • Where should I store them?
  • How do I convert printed photos to digital?
  • How do I share them?

There are many more questions, but you get the idea. Let’s talk about some of the more common questions and answers.

This started as a single article, but the file format section quickly grew into its own blog post. So part one will cover file formats and part two will discuss resolution, storage, digitization and sharing.

What file format should I use?

There are several different options you can choose from, each with pros and cons. There is likely one that will work for you most of the time, but there will always be instances where a different format might be better. Here are the most common file types for both phones and cameras.

jpg or jpeg

Both are pronounced “jay-peg.” These formats are the most common, and are the default format for pretty much every camera out there, be it a DSLR, point and shoot or phone camera. While it is easy to get confused with two different names, these are in fact, the same file formats. If you want the details on why one has an extra letter, this short explanation on Stack Overflow will help.

In most instances, the jpg format is the best option, even though it a “lossy” format, which removes some color and details.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “I don’t want to lose color and details in my photos, I want them to accurately capture that moment or story.” Let me explain why, even with the “loss” that comes with the jpg format, it’s still a good choice for most situations.

  1. The algorithm used for this compression removes colors and details the human eye doesn’t detect as easily. Essentially, what’s being lost was never found in the first place.
  2. By removing this detail, the file size is dramatically reduced. This means you can store more images. It also means your camera can process the images faster, allowing you to take pictures at quicker intervals.
  3. Even with this loss of detail, jpg images still display millions of colors.
  4. This file type strikes a nice balance between providing great images with a manageable file size. It does this without having to use (and know how to use) any additional processing or editing after taking the photo.

For most pictures, this is the recommended file type.

One quirk about the jpg format

The compression occurs every time you save an image. So if you open a jpg, make one edit and save it, it compresses again. That will happen for every save you do, so it is possible to edit and save an image into an unusable state.

To avoid this, do one of two things (or do both):

  1. Make all your edits once, and click save only after you’re done.
  2. Make a copy of the file and edit that. If you mess it up, go back to the original, copy it and start over.

Remember that family photos and memory-type images shouldn’t need a lot of editing. Maybe some red-eye removal, but that’s about it.

Let’s look at the other options. While in general you only need the jpg format, there may be times when another format is preferred. It’s also nice to know what options there are.

png

This is pronounced “ping” or “P-N-G.” It is called a “lossless” file type because its algorithm does not discard any data the way jpg does. Many DSLR cameras and some high-end cell phones can take pictures in this format. For family history purposes, there are two instances where you might consider using this format.

  1. The image is very complex – i.e. you can’t explain what is happening in a short sentence – and file size isn’t an issue. Png files tend to be large enough to make uploading and sharing a little cumbersome.
  2. You are going to edit it significantly and need to be able to add various levels of opacity to the image.

Png files are usually used as web images, like company logos. If you want a high level of detail and file size isn’t an issue, you’re better off going with tiff, or if you want to get really crazy, RAW.

tiff

Tiff (or sometimes tif) is pronounced just as it is written. Like the png format, it is lossless even though it does offer compression. Even with that compression, file sizes are much larger than jpg files.

The advantage of tiff is that you have absolute control over everything. You get all the colors and detail, it’s lossless, and no matter how many times you save it, the original image remains. Tiff files are traditionally used for printed media (like photo books, newspapers, etc). Many people will say that if you plan to print your photos – be it in a book or a stand-alone photograph – you should use this format. While this is a true statement, it is coming from an enthusiast or professional photographer. The tiff format is great, but for day-to-day photography, it’s overkill. I don’t think there are any cell phones that shoot in tiff, and even most DSLR cameras don’t these days. Rather than use tiff, if you’re looking for this level of control, consider RAW.

RAW

RAW (pronounced as written) gives you complete control over every aspect of the image, and while the file sizes are huge compared to jpg or png, they are usually smaller than tiff. I think every DSLR camera can shoot in RAW, as can high-end phones (like the iPhone 6 and 7 or Samsung Galaxy s7 and 8).

So why not just buy as much storage as you can and shoot everything in RAW?

  1. Most software – including the picture viewer app on your phone – can’t read RAW files.
  2. It takes time to process the file. So you take a picture, wait (30 seconds or longer), then take another picture.
  3. At a minimum, you would have to upload the files to your computer and import them into Photoshop (or some similar application), render them and save them as a jpg or png. Then you could upload those to wherever you keep your photos.

Using RAW requires more technical understanding than other types. It is great, but like tiff, it’s probably overkill for day-to-day photography.

So hopefully now you have a better understanding of the different file formats and you’re thinking, “jpg it is!” If you want more detail about file types, including a lot of technical information about photography, try photo.stackexchange.com.

Up next: resolution, storage, conversion and sharing

I’ll post part two on Monday and discuss the other frequent questions. One last thing to share is that there can always be a compelling reason to use a non-standard image format. For 97-98% of situations, jpeg is the best option, but there is no perfect-for-every-situation format. My hope is that with this basic understanding, you can make the best decision for what you are working on today, be it professional photography that needs heavy editing (so you’d probably use RAW) or snapping a bunch of pictures at your daughters dance recital tonight (where you’re likely using your phone and want jpg files).

So, what questions or comments do you have about file formats? Let me know by leaving a comment.

 

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