The article which follows sets out to explain the different file types you will encounter in your photographic workflow. There are a great many different types of image file but this article deals with those filetypes you will most commonly encounter ie raw, jpg, psd, tif and png.

Rather conveniently, nearly all image filetypes are referred to by the names of their extensions eg jpg/jpeg, psd, tif, png. Raw files, however, are the exception. They will have different extensions according to the camera manufacturer. For example, Canon raw files have a .cr2 or .cr3 extension while Nikon have .nef. Other brands are available!

It seems sensible to set this article in the context of some commonly used approaches. Although it has been written with Adobe software and laptop and desktop PCs in mind, the process can be applied to other devices, software and platforms.

The diagram below gives an overview of the different stages of a typical workflow and the file types and software associated with each stage.

In Camera

Your camera will have options to set your file type to raw, jpg or both. There will also be options for file size/quality. With both raw and jpg, I would recommend that you select largest size / best quality.


When you capture an image, light and colour information is recorded on your camera’s sensor. With raw files, this data is saved directly to file without any alteration. The result will be a large file which is often described as a digital negative. This will need to be processed in a raw file editor such as Lightroom (LR) or Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) before you can use the file for any other purpose. A raw file set to best quality will deliver the best quality image your camera is capable of taking.

If you intend to process your images, this is without doubt the best option.


As with raw files, when you capture an image, light and colour information is recorded on your camera’s sensor. This information is then processed in a number of ways such as setting colour balance and adjusting brightness and contrast. When it is saved, it is compressed, resulting in a much smaller file, even though the pixel dimensions remain the same. Consequently, as the figures in the table opposite show, a jpg will contain considerably less information than a raw file. This makes jpgs much less suitable than raw files for post-processing. However, there are situations where you might choose to process jpgs:

  • when you are processing files that pre-date your use of raw files
  • when you wish to use an image immediately without any post-processing
  • when you are shooting in Continuous mode you will be able to capture many more shots before the camera’s buffer fills up.
  • file size is small so you can store many more jpgs than raw. It also means that processing will be quicker as less data is being manipulated.

Transfer to Computer

Before transferring image files, it’s worth considering where you’re going to put them and how you’re going to keep them safe

Camera Settings (Canon)
Raw / jpg comparison
jpgMaximum 1219.7851%
jpgHigh 83.69%
jpgMedium 52.065%
jpgLow 11.243%

The figures were gathered by exporting 4 jpg files from the same unedited raw file. When a jpg is exported or saved, a dialogue will ask you to enter a value for Quality. This will determine the amount of compression which is applied to your file. The higher the quality, the less the compression. Different qualities were used with each export.

As you can see, even the highest quality resulted in a jpg where almost half of the information had been lost. As the quality decreases the amount of lost information increases significantly. Although your image may appear little different, even at lower levels of quality, the underlying information is missing which has an impact on your ability to recover detail in shadow/highlight areas for example. In addition, you may find that ‘artefacts’ (small distorted areas) begin to appear in your image.

This is why shooting in raw is recommended.

File Management

Think hierarchies! Whatever system you choose, there will need to be some level of organisation otherwise chaos will reign. Some prefer a subject-based hierarchy, while others opt for a date-based hierarchy. There’s no right answer; whatever fits your brain best! I use a subject-based hierarchy.

All of my image files live on an external SSD which is dedicated to image files. All files are within a structure which has a single root folder; ‘Photography‘ (see diagram on the right). The second level of the hierarchy has only 5 folders. Whenever I transfer files from my camera, they go in the ‘New‘ folder for editing. Once processed, they are moved to the appropriate subject folder(s) in the hierarchy. The other folders are:

  • Miscellany: this includes anything which doesn’t fit in the other 3 main categories eg Abstract, Fireworks, Food, Textures etc.
  • Natural World: this is broken into 3 main categories – Fauna, Flora and Dead Stuff! (Sky, Rocks, Water etc)
  • People: again 3 categories – Family, Friends, Strangers.
  • Places: these are catalogued under a wide range of categories – countries, regions, counties, cities, towns, specific locations.

In addition to a folder structure, Adobe Bridge and Lightroom also allow you to use a number of other useful organisational tools including Collections and Keywords.

Top-level File Hierarchy


This is your insurance policy! Without backup, you run the risk of losing ALL your images in one go. Backup is a fairly simple thing to organise but it can be costly. A typical backup system would include:

  • a primary external drive for ALL image files.
  • a second external drive for a backup.
  • a cloud-based backup. There are many deals available for cloud space. Amazon Prime gives pretty good value as it has unlimited space for all image files.

Backup can be carried out automatically using suitable software. Some software will compress files as they back them up. While this requires less disk space it makes it more complicated to retrieve files. I choose to use Backup to create an exact copy of what is on my primary image drive. 

I would recommend using Solid State Drives (SSD) as these are considerably faster than ordinary Hard Drives. Inevitably, they’re also more expensive!

Typical Backup Setup

Transferring Image Files

There are 4 ways (at least) to transfer your image files from your camera to your computer:

  • Using your computer’s card slot(s): this assumes your computer has this capability. It is the simplest and best option.
  • Using a USB card reader: your camera’s card(s) go into the card reader which, in turn is connected to your PC. A good option.
  • Connecting via bluetooth: It works but it’s slow and not great for batteries.
  • Connecting your camera directly to your computer: I wouldn’t recommend this except in an emergency. It will chew your camera’s batteries and the connector can be a tad fragile on some cameras.
If you are using Lightroom you can import directly from card to your desired location in your Lightroom catalogue.

If you use Adobe Bridge and Camera RAW just import directly to the desired location in your filing system.

Raw Processing

This stage is where you ‘develop’ your digital negative using a raw file editor (LR/ACR). You will be able to adjust a wide range of settings such as exposure, contrast, colour and much more. A variety of masks is available, allowing you to edit different areas of your image. Any settings you change are recorded in a separate ‘sidecar’ file, a process which is automatic and usually hidden from the user.

I choose to use the minimal amount of processing in ACR. Any changes made are hard-wired into the file and this reduces flexibility in Photoshop. It is possible to create a ‘smart object’ when you open a file in PS. This allows you to return to ACR at any future point and change the current settings. This is helpful but only up to a point as your Photoshop edits will all change if you change the original layer. This is not always a good thing!

At this stage you can opt to export/save a jpg or you can take your image into Photoshop for further processing.


This is the stage where you edit your image in Photoshop. PS is extremely powerful but is also very complex and it takes time to master, if indeed anyone ever does! It has many capabilities which are not available with a raw editor.

For example:

  • Photoshop can use multiple layers. This allows the use of blending modes, the use of text, the introduction of content from other images (eg sky replacement) and much more.
  • it can create a wide range of selections and masks, allowing the user to work with very precise areas of images.
  • it offers a range of filters which can transform images beyond recognition.

Export / Save

Files can be exported from Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop. Export dialogues usually offer a range of parameters such as image size, naming and colour space. Photoshop also has a Save function which is a much simpler process.

In both cases, you will be able to select the filetype. Your choice will depend on a number of factors

  • psd/tif: if you are working in Photoshop, saving as a psd or tif will keep the entire structure of your image at the point you saved. There will be no loss of quality. Choose either if you intend to carry out further edits. Unlike psd files which will only work with Photoshop, tif files have the advantage of being compatible with a wide range of software. On the other hand, I have noticed that tifs are often bigger files and slower to load than psds. I use psd.
  • jpg: This will produce an image which is intended to be a finished result. It can be widely used across devices and platforms. It is the standard for digital imagery and printing. It is, however a compressed format and is not ideal for processing.
  • png: this allows transparency which can be particularly useful for composite images and website design. It is a lossless format but it will not preserve Photoshop layers.