Why Image File Formats Matter

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It may sound like a small thing in the grand scheme of your design and print process, but image file formats actually play an important role in how your design transfers from the screen to the printed sheet. This is in part because file formats differ in the way they compress files and how well they retain the color and image data saved in the file. The wrong file format in the wrong application can cost you image quality in the final printed piece. 

“Think of file compression as a sweater in a bag that has had all the air sucked out,” explain Mary Schilling and Elizabeth Gooding, authors of The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition. “The bag was smaller than it was before the air was sucked out, but what will the sweater look like when you open the bag? Some compression algorithms will give you a sweater that looks like you slept in it for weeks.” 

The last thing a designer wants is for their hard-won creativity and inspiration to resemble a wrinkled sweater, so let’s take a look at a couple of the more common image file formats and the ideal applications for each to help ensure a seamless transition from the screen to the sheet. 

What are the most common types of image file formats?

The most common types of image file formats are primarily Joint Photographic Expert Group (JPEG) and Tagged Image File Format (TIFF). JPEG and TIFF files have their own unique compression rates, workflows, and types of print for which each is best suited. 

JPEG is most often used in transactional print applications because of its compression and file size features. JPEG is also a very common file format for workflows that have to process a large number of color images at a high rate of speed. 

“JPEGs use adjustable compression (low, medium, high, and maximum), sometimes called “lossy,” that allows for a selectable tradeoff between storage size and image quality,” write Gooding and Schilling. 

As a result, continuous tone images stored as JPEG files are very small and efficient, but JPEGs do not work well for solid image graphics such as logos. It’s also critical when using JPEG images that you do not repeatedly edit and save your files, as artifacts are added and the overall quality is reduced with each edit. 

TIFF image files use a lossless compression process that makes TIFF images the file of choice for the highest quality print work. TIFF images are not necessarily the highest quality kind of images, but their method of compression workflow means no artifacts are added that degrade the image quality. 

TIFF image files are much larger than JPEG image files and work with greater compatibility in both RGB and CMYK bitmap and vector images. 

Vector Encapsulated Postscript (EPS) is not one of the two more common image file formats, but EPS image files do warrant a brief explanation given that EPS is the main file format used to create and export graphic elements from Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign. 

Many designers work with EPS files throughout the design phase until they’re ready to save files in a final format that is the most appropriate for a specific production workflow. 

What are the ideal print applications for common image file formats?

Just like how there is a perfect tool for every job, there is a perfect image file format for every print application. The trick is understanding the nuances of these image file formats and having the knowledge base to pick the right format that best suits the wide range of possibilities with digital inkjet print. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help guide you through this decision-making process: 

  • JPEG files are ideal for variable bitmap images, particularly for smaller file sizes or instances where image quality is not necessarily a top priority. In this circumstance, it’s best to choose a “low” or “medium” quality setting. Plus, JPEG files can also be used for static bitmap images that need to be smaller in file size but demonstrate a better overall print quality. 

  • TIFF images are a more productive file format for both RGB and CMYK bitmap and vector images that require the highest level of print or image quality.

  • EPS image files are best to produce the highest overall print and image quality for the smoothest CMYK or spot fills. 

Part of what makes image file formats so critical in ensuring a smooth design and print process is that the file formats you choose can affect the overall quality of your print project.Instances of an inappropriate file format can cost you time and money in making alterations to design files to make them press-ready. The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition offers a much more in-depth look at how and why image file formats matter. 

Download the guide to get the full scoop.