The TIFF file format

TIFF or the Tagged Image File Format is a file format that is strictly used for bitmap data. TIFF files don’t contain text or vector data, even though the file format theoretically would permit additional tags to handle such data. Despite being one of the earliest file formats for images, it is still very popular today. It is a highly flexible and platform-independent format that is supported by numerous image processing applications and virtually all prepress software on the market.

The file extension for TIFF files is .tif even though .tiff is also used occasionally.

File format specifications

As the name implies, TIFF images make use of tags, keywords defining the characteristics of the image that is included in the file. For example, a picture that contains 320 by 240 pixels would include a ‘width’ tag followed by the number ‘320’ and a ‘depth’ tag followed by the number ‘240’.

The flexibility of TIFF makes it very easy to write a TIFF-writer, but very difficult to create a fully TIFF compliant reader. The need for well-defined rules has caused a few TIFF-sub standards to appear. For prepress, TIFF/IT is a prime example but that file format is no longer actively used. Another substandard is TIFF/EP, a version of TIFF optimized for digital photography.

Color spaces

TIFF images can contain more or less anything:

  • Line-art (pure black-and-white)
  • Grayscale
  • Pseudocolor, from 1-bit to 8-bit (also called palette color or indexed color in Photoshop)
  • RGB
  • YCbCr
  • CMYK
  • CIELab

For grayscale, RGB and CMYK images, 8 bits (256 levels) are used per channel but this is not a limitation of the TIFF file format. The file specifications also allow 16-bit channels. Although this feature is also supported by recent versions of Photoshop, many layout applications and drivers cannot yet support these data types.


TIFF supports a large number of compression algorithms. The lossless algorithms that can be used are:

  • PackBits
  • LZW (Lempel-Ziv-Welch), popular for grayscale or color images (although it is not very efficient for CMYK images)
  • CCITT Fax group 3 & 4, mainly used for line-art images (especially screened data coming from a RIP or copydot application).

TIFF also supports lossy JPEG compression, which doesn’t seem to get used that often. Below are the options available for saving TIFF files in Adobe Photoshop CC. The available options depend on the image type.

Saving TIFF in Photoshop


When the TIFF file format was first developed, transparency wasn’t something that applications in those days supported. The file format is however flexible enough to be able to deal with it. The above screen capture of Photoshop’s Save menu shows that you can save a TIFF with transparency data. The transparency mask can be 8-bit, allowing for a nice smooth transition from the background in a layout to the masked image on top. I tested this with Adobe InDesign CC which handled a transparent TIFF just fine.

Be aware however that the TIFF file format may support transparency, but that this does not guarantee that any application capable of processing TIFF files can also handle the transparency data embedded in the file. The Adobe suite can clearly do this but other layout or drawing applications may simply ignore any transparency information.

File size

TIFF files cannot have more than 4 Gigabyte of raster data. However, this is 4GB of compressed data, and so if the compression ratio is high enough, theoretically a TIFF image could be much larger (in fact, 2**32-1 pixels square). There is an unofficial ‘BigTIFF’ variant that supports larger file sizes, but support for it is limited.

How to edit TIFF files

All professional image editing applications on the market are capable of opening TIFF files. My favorite is Adobe Photoshop.

How to convert TIFF files

There are tons of converters that can convert a TIFF file to a JPEG, PNG, EPS, PDF, or other file format. Google is your friend.

  • I have in the past had good experiences with GraphicConverter, a shareware tool for Macintosh that can import about 200 file types and export 80.
  • For occasional file conversions I stick to Photoshop – it is not too difficult to write an action that does a batch conversion of a series of files.
  • To convert a series of TIFF files to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Professional 9: select File > Combine > Merge Files into a Single PDF. The Combine Files dialog box pops up. If you want to preserve the original image resolution, be sure to select the largest page icon that appears in the most lower right-hand corner listed next to ‘File size:’.

The history of TIFF

TIFF 6 specsTIFF was developed as a universal image file format by Aldus (makers of PageMaker) in 1987. The most recent specifications, TIFF 6, were released in 1992. It is pointless to study older versions of the format since everybody sticks to the TIFF 6 specs. Since then, Aldus has been bought by Adobe so Adobe now holds the copyright. They have not released any new versions of TIFF which is not necessarily a bad thing since standards that last long are well supported and understood in the market.

Other sources of information

The Adobe open standards page on TIFF contains a PDF with the file format description. Additional notes describe the way Adobe extended the file format in Photoshop.

Niles Ritter maintains an unofficial TIFF home page. It covers various aspects of the file format.

58 thoughts on “The TIFF file format

    1. Interesting question and I did some testing to see how transparency is handled with TIFF files. I updated the article with that information. Thanks for asking!

  1. Scanning old b@w negatives with a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED. Using VueScan software.
    TIFF file types are:
    1 bit B/W
    8 bit Gray
    24,48, and 64 bit RGB
    16 bit Infrared
    I should be scanning using 1 bit B/W?
    Thank you.

    1. No, don’t use 1 bit because then the scans only consist of pure white and pure black, no greytones. 8 bit makes much more sense.

  2. Hi,
    I’m hoping you can help me with a problem I am having with older tiff photos. I have several folders of tiff photographs going back 8 years and almost all of the tiff photos in the 7 & 8 year old folders have thick black lines across the entire photo. The jpeg photos do not have these lines. What causes this and can they be removed?
    Thanks, Mona

  3. I have been tasked to change tif files (some have multiple pages) to pdf files. I have a folder full of tifs which needs to be copied over to another folder as a pdfs. This needs to be done via C# code. Are there any utilites I can use, to accomplish this task?

  4. I was making 72dpi jpg versions of my tiff files for web and must have accidentally saved the change because a couple of my tiff files are now stupidly low res. Is there a way of reverting it back to the original file size?

  5. Hi, I have some pics tiff-formatted which do not opened properly -half of it and low resolution and poor color quality- in microsoft office picture manager but they do look great when I use windows live gallery or I convert them to .pdf. Before they opened properly in MOPM. thanks

  6. I have some old tif photo’s from 2001 and i am currently using Photoshop CS5 how can i open the photo’s it is saying that it can not open

    1. If images don’t have an extension (the .tif part in their file name) applications have to try and predict if they can handle the file. Sometimes that goes wrong. If your image’s names don’t end with .tif, try adding that and then open them in Photoshop. Else simply doubleclick the files after renaming them and see if any other application will open them. That should tell you if those files are corrupted. I’ve seen files get corrupted and ending as 0k files. Check the file size of your images – if they are 0k something went wrong in the past 10 years.

  7. If i was to save a large photoshop image of around 3.84G to Tiff, would i then be able to convert it to PDF? Because it is so large, my current photoshop document is a PSB and I dont currently have the option to save to PDF. It is a large exhibition stand design and needs the PDF format to send to the printers. Any info would be great. Thanks.

  8. If i shoot a photo in raw and save as a TIFF in adobe photoshop elements 8, is this 16 bit? If so, how do I convert/save as an 8 bit TIFF file? The photostock site I want to sell on requires TIFF files (8 bit).

    1. I don’t use Photoshop Elements but Photoshop itself. As far as I know both systems use the same ACR RAW conversion plug-in. There is a setting in ACR to define if you want a conversion to 8 or 16-bit. In Photoshop’s ACR interface, it can be found at the bottom of the RAW iimport window. You should check if your module has the same option.

  9. I did some work in Uganda this past summer, and set up a scanning workflow at a local archive in a basic digitization effort. 180 boxes of documents have been scanned thus far, all as TIFF images. Problem is, the 2 TB external hard drive I left there is nearly full. How would my colleagues go about compressing the images in order to decrease storage space? I know LZW is the most common algorithm used with TIFF compression, but could you explain exactly how to go about using it? (I’ve tried downloading LZW but have no idea what to do from there)

  10. I’m a JPEG shooter. I normally process my images with Lightroom first and then Paint Shop Pro. I usually save my images in the highest JPEG setting with lightroom and then reopen them in Paint Shop Pro for 2nd editing.

    My question: Is it better to save the images in TIFF format with Lightroom and then finalize the editing in Paint Shop Pro and then output in JPEG? Will I get benefit from doing this way or same as what I’ve been doing? Thanks a lot!

  11. when i resize a photo in either picassa or kodak easyshare software, the photos look out of focus when they are enlarged to only 5×7. i know that the software is reducing their size after editing. is photoshop the only software that doesn’t reduce size after editing?

    1. I don’t think Picassa actually reduces the resolution of an image when you edit it. The most logical guess would be that you save the image as a JPEG after editing and that this uses a different compression setting which causes the file size to change. That however does not change the resolution of the image and shouldn’t lead to a huge jump in quality. If however you accidentally also change some other setting while saving, that might make a difference. Check the documentation to make sure you are not overlooking some checkbox or setting. Photoshop doesn’t necessarily reduce size after editing but it has a huge learning curve and matching price. Photoshop Elements does 95% of what most photographers need and is less expensive.

  12. I recently began using software that requires scanning documents in TIFF format (previously scanned in PDF but software changed). I’m finding the scanner (a multi copier) is saving the files at significantly increased size – 1-3 MB as tiff (300-400 dpi) vs 50 kB as PDF. Being not familiar with the format, I’m not sure if this is a problem with the scanner or is this how much space TIFF files need. Suggestions?

    1. There are some pretty sophisticated compression algorithms (such as JBIG) available for PDF. Not all of these exist for the TIFF file format. I would however first check if the new software doesn’t accidentally save 8-bit files whereas for PDF 1-bit black&white was used. That would be a more logical explanation for the large difference in file size.

  13. How do you get beyond the 1st page of a tiff file that has been received as an email attachment? The person only sees page one of the 4 page document.

    1. That person most likely needs to use a viewer that supports multipage TIFF files such as ‘Microsoft Office Document Imaging’ or ‘Windows Picture and Fax Viewer’ or some other third party software.

  14. Hi, I have a 5 color ( CMYK + Spot Color )document, and i save it as TIFF. Then I try to open that file on a prepress offset program, but the program won’t open because it says it can only read CMYK file only. Then I try to convert it as 4 color only ( CMYK ), and the program can open, however the spot color is missing. Any solution?

    1. What do you mean by ‘Prepress offset program’? Some press control system that uses these images to generate ink key data?

  15. I had scanned 580 no pages in Tiff in cause 85 pages or bad image or corner of page as black i should to clean the black .what kind of software should be use to clean the black of corner .

  16. I have a file in tiff format which prints the logging reports on page size 7.88 when I convert this file into Adobe Acrobat the page size reduces into 6.25..meaning the reports can I convert a tiff file into PDF format without shrinking ???

  17. I have several TIFF image files but I noticed they all have 2 pages. When I print an image, 2 of them print. How can I get rid of the 2nd page on these files?

  18. I am scanning documents of our local museum as a ‘it must be done’. I have been informed by a frined at a reputable Univ Libray in the USA to scan documents as TIFF. Question today I have scanned about 200 documents – sales deeds from the 19th century – but 2 to 3 pages per scan. Wehn I open the files with Microsoft Picture Manager I notice that the 2nd and 3rd pages not available. Will I have to re-scan all the work or can the TIFF files still be maniplulated(?) eg for PDF, etc.

    1. I found this reference on the net that might answer your question: If you are refering to multi-page TIFF files, either open them in Microsoft Office Document Imaging or Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, or some other third party software that supports multipage tiff format. Microsoft Picture Manager cannot show the additional pages in a multi-page TIFF file.

  19. I have read a monochrome TIFF file in ArcGIS (geography software) and the values are discrete in 0..255. I read the same file in R (statistics software) and the values are continuous in 0..1. The problem is that those values obtained in R times 255 are not equal to those obtained in ArcGIS. What is the real range of values for the pixels in TIFF file? Why two applications read the same file in such a different way?


  20. Where can I find a complete specification of the content and structure etc of a tiff file with 16 bits per channel? It is not documented anywhere. The reference file “Tiff 6” only describes the 8bits/channel case.
    Thank you!

    1. The Adobe TIFF specifications page is the best source for information on the file format. Admittedly I couldn’t see any detailed information about 16-bit images either. Asking on one of the Adobe support forums might provide some useful feedback. An alternative might be to take a 16-bit Photoshop TIFF file and analyze it with an application that can display TIFF tags and the file structure.

  21. I have had our engineering prints digitally converted from microfilm and they are in the .tif format. I would like to edit them as there is background that is not necessary. The sizes vary from 24″x36″ down to 8-1/2″x11″ when printed. Can you tell me what software would be the best to edit the files? Thank you for your time!!

  22. Is it possible that scanning to TIFF involves a little bit of deliberate overscan? I scanned the same reflective original in my Epson Perfection 4490 Photo two times, one time as a TIFF, the other time as a PDF, all other settings the same each time. I scanned at 100%, cropped to 8.5 x 10.94. The image in the resulting PDF seems to be cropped precisely as intended. The TIFF, on the other hand, includes a little unwanted image on the right side and button.

  23. I do genealogy research (for myself only) and I sometimes scan certain pages of books no longer in print, and sometimes rare, to preserve my own copy. With backups and distribution to family members, the files may be copied multiple times. Is tiff the best to use for this?

    Is it best to copy files without opening them (using say Windows Explorer) rather than to open the file and use “Save As”?

    Is it true that every time a jpg is opened and saved the image is degraded?

  24. My Dell laptop with Windows XP was able to open TIF files. With updates, downloads, cleaning and defraging, somehow the Tif application is no longer on my computer. Therefore, I cannot open any items previously scanned in in TIF.
    Is there a free download of the TIF application? Help!

  25. I have been trimming TIFF aerials to make them fit together without showing overlaps. But the new TIFF’s have intensified colors that I would like to tone down. Is there a color adjustment method out there?
    (Used GIS Arcview software to do the trimming).

    1. There are a couple of solutions for this.
      – Lowering the saturation of the colors will make them appear a bit less intense or a bit duller. I think most image editing applications are capable of doing this. If it needs to be done to loads of images you could use the batch processing capabilities of an application like Adobe Photoshop to handle this.
      – Another option is to use color management to alter the appearance of the colors. By remapping the colors to a smaller color space, their intensity will change. This is however more difficult to configure.

  26. Open the TIFFs in an application like Photoshop and crop the images in it. It is most likely easier to retype the captions than to use an OCR application to convert them to text.

  27. Hi,

    I have a coloured jpeg image I need to convert to ‘bitonal black & white’ then put in .pdf. I’ve got d .pdf covered ‘cuz I have Adobe acrobat but don’t know how to convert the image. I read somewhere that tiff does bitonal? What do I do?

  28. I have software that requires version 4 formatted tiffs, and am needing to convert version 6 tiff back to a version 4 format, is there anything out there to do this?
    thanks in advance.

    1. Since the TIFF 6 specs are by now 18 years old I think it might be a bit difficult to find software that can convert to an even older revision of the specs. I am not aware of any such tools.

  29. Hi Laurens,

    Thanks very much for your speedy and helpful reply. I will send the image as you suggested. I know where to come now if I have any other queries!

    Once again, thanks.


  30. Hi,

    I have been asked for a particular image from a friend in South Africa who wants to have it enlarged and framed,however my camera image setting in this particular case is “Large Fine” not “RAW” which gives an image size of 3072 x 2048 and a file size of 2.24 mb. Bearing in mind that the image needs to be enlarged to probably to larger than A4 size, what would you suggest is the best way to send the image in order to maintain, or enhance, the sharpness of the picture? Should I convert to TIFF, burn a CD, and send in this way? Basically, what do you think?

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Thanks and regards,


    1. Your camera produces Jpeg images, which are compressed. Resaving as TIFF will increase their file size without improving the image in any way. If you just want to send the unaltered images from the camera, I’d send the Jpegs straight from the camera’s memory card. 16-bit TIFF would make sense if you would want to send the highest possible quality processed images derived from the original RAW-data.

    1. I don’t think submitting a manuscript or any multipage document as a series of TIFF images is a good idea. At a decent resolution each page easily takes up a few megabytes, even compressed. Navigating from one page or file to another is also a nightmare.

      As for converting files to TIFF: If you have Acrobat Professional, you can use SAVE AS to save a PDF as a TIFF file. The Settings button in the save menu allows you to specify the resolution, color space & compression settings. For a multipage PDF, each pages is stored as a separate TIFF file.

      To save Word and Excel documents as TIFF, I’d first convert them to PDF and then use the above procedure.

    1. A DVD writer, a (re)writable DVD disk, a DVD burning or slideshow authoring application, 10 to 30 minutes

  31. One of your colleagues has given you a great graphic but it’s in the TIFF file format. Which of the following can you NOT use to convert it to a browser-friendly format?
    A) Adobe Photoshop
    B) Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
    C) Microsoft Image Gallery
    D) Adobe Fireworks

    1. Odd question and not related to prepress – which is what this web site is all about. I’ll have to pass this question.

  32. I have been given old Quark files of a book that I would like to publish electronically, but the images are all TIFFs of the printed page (actually the film used to print the book). It is a combination of line drawings and text, kind of like captions. This is a reference book, so it must be searchable.

    What is the easiest way to pull out those drawings and captions so the book would be searchable in a cell phone or ebook format?

    Steve Ettlinger

    1. Open the TIFFs in an application like Photoshop and crop the images in it. It is most likely easier to retype the captions than to use an OCR application to convert them to text.

    1. Compared to other file formats, TIFF doesn’t use more efficient compression algorithms. It’s main advantage is that it is a trusted industry-standard file format, supported by every application.

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