Today’s Question: Another photographer recently recommended that you should save images as a JPEG when uploading to an online printing service, and the specifically said that TIFF was a “bad” file format for this purpose. I thought TIFF files should be used instead of JPEG for making prints. Can you clarify?
Tim’s Quick Answer: While I wouldn’t “recommend” using JPEG files as the basis of producing prints, I would also acknowledge that in many cases it is possible to achieve a print of excellent quality from a JPEG image. That said, the only reason in this case to use a JPEG image rather than a TIFF image is that the JPEG file size will be considerably smaller, which can be helpful (or even mandatory) when uploading an image to an online print service.
More Detail: The key issue with a JPEG image is the subtle grid pattern that is often visible within the photo, caused by the compression used to reduce the size of JPEG images. With a high Quality setting for the JPEG image, the grid pattern will generally be relatively difficult to see. However, with some images, and especially with larger print sizes, that grid pattern may become visible.
Thus, while it is certainly possible to produce a print from a JPEG image where you can’t see the grid pattern caused by JPEG compression, my preference is to work from an image that does not have “lossy” compression applied to it when I am producing a print.
In other words, whenever possible I prefer to use a TIFF image format rather than a JPEG image format for photos that need to be saved so they can be printed by a print service. It is very possible that you can achieve an excellent print from a JPEG image, but there are some risks involved due to the JPEG compression. By contrast, with a TIFF image saved without compression (or with lossless compression, such as the LZW scheme) you don’t have to worry at all about compression artifacts in the final print.
So, given the choice I would work from a TIFF image, but in cases where that is not practical you will generally get very good results from a JPEG image saved at the maximum Quality setting.