TIFF Compression Options: ZIP vs LZW

A guide to using ZIP and LZW compression for TIFF images, along with real-world examples.

Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains
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TIFF files are very high quality–much higher quality than most JPEGs–but the trade-off is that they’re big. You do, however, have some options for making them smaller by using compression. When it comes to TIFF, two main compression options are available–they’re known as LZW or ZIP.

Both ZIP and LZW are lossless compression methods. That means that no data is being lost in the compression, unlike a lossy format like JPG. You can open and save a TIFF file as many times you like without degrading the image. If you try that with JPG, the image quality will deteriorate more each time. So you can rest easy: using TIFF compression will not degrade your image quality.

To Use or Not to Use TIFF Compression

The reason to use compression, whether it’s ZIP or LZW, is entirely to do with filesize. You’ll end up with files that are smaller without any loss in quality, which means quicker transfers over networks and you can fit more of them on any given amount of disk or server space. If you’re a working photographer shooting hundreds or even thousands of images a day, that can add up quickly.

There are two main reasons you might not use ZIP or LZW compression. Because they require more processing to open and close them, compressed TIFF files can be a little slower to work with. Unless you’re working with ginormous images, that’s rarely much of a problem with the speed of today’s computer processors.

A second possible reason you might not want to use ZIP or LZW compression has to do with compatibility. It is possible you might run into situations where certain software might not be able to work with compressed TIFF files. But in practice that’s pretty rare these days. Both formats have been around a long time (LZW for over 20 years and ZIP for over 10), and software developers and hardware manufacturers have had plenty of time to catch up.

There used to be a third reason not to use LZW: the algorithm was protected by patent. But that patent expired in 2003, so it’s no longer an issue for software developers to use LZW compression.

In practical use, I nearly always use compression on my TIFF files, and it’s exceedingly rare to run into a problem.

ZIP vs LZW TIFF Compression: Real-World Examples

Compression algorithms are most efficient when they can group a lot of similar data. So images low on detail and with few tones will compress much more than images with lots of detail and lots of different tones.

For some real-world examples, I’ve run each of these four images through the various TIFF compression options. All are exactly the same dimensions and aspect ratio (4200px x 2800px). All have the same amount of embedded metadata (Copyright only). All have the same color profile (sRGB).


tiff-compression-test-1 tiff-compression-test-2
tiff-compression-test-3 tiff-compression-test-4

  Image #1 Image #2 Image #3 Image #4
8-bit No Compression 35.3 MB 35.3 MB 35.3 MB 35.3 MB
8-bit LZW 12.9 MB 11.5 MB 22.5 MB 12.3 MB
8-bit ZIP 12.6 MB 11.6 MB 20.2 MB 12.0 MB
16-bit No Compression 70.6 MB 70.6 MB 70.6 MB 70.6 MB
16-bit ZIP 54.3 MB 53.6 MB 61.9 MB 55.3 MB
16-bit LZW 87.0 MB 76.2 MB 87.5 MB 70.9 MB

As you can see, image #2 (the photo of Australia’s Blue Mountains) compresses the most. It has the least detail and the fewest tones. The image that compresses least is image #3 (of the shrine offerings in Luang Prabang). It has the most detail and lots of different tones.

The last compression option, 16-bit LZW compression, is added mostly as a cautionary tale. There’s a reason you don’t have the option to export to that in Lightroom: LZW does not work at all well with 16-bit files and often makes them larger. So if you’re going to use compression on 16-bit files, stick with ZIP.

The Bottom Line

So the short answers are:

Should I use TIFF compression?

Almost certainly. It will make smaller files but will not degrade your image quality.

Should I use ZIP or LZW?

For 8-bit TIFF files, there’s not much in it. Both LZW and ZIP will give good results. Use either with confidence.

For 16-bit TIFF files, use ZIP.

by David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my travel photography here. More »

46 thoughts on “TIFF Compression Options: ZIP vs LZW”

  1. Hi.

    I’m having a problem getting certain photos inserted into a WORD document to appear clear. Although they all look great when viewing them in Photoshop or Windows Photo Viewer, once I get them inserted into the Document (a book I’m creating), some look fine and some are blurry.

    They were all scanned from old slides, at the same resolution (6400 dpi).

    Trying to figure out what was going on, I compared their properties and most of the details seem to be about the same (size abt 250 MB / dimensions abt 8241x 6230 / bit depth abt 25). There is only one different property that I can see and that is the horizontal & vertical resolution, but I don’t know how or where I could change that. And that also confused me because the ones that insert looking great have a hor./vert. res of 300 dpi….while the ones that come out fuzzy have a hor./vert. res of 6400 dpi. I’d think that the higher one would be the clearer (??). But as I said, I don’t know how to change that. I tried not compressing them at all (they are all TIFFs) but that didn’t seem to make a difference.

    My goal for these photos is to, of course, be clear in the book, and also to be printed out one-by-one to go into frames or hard-copy albums.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • I don’t use Word much anymore and am not all that familiar with the way it handles embedded images, I’m afraid. But the files you’re embedding massively exceed what is needed for a screen display to show as sharp and crisp. It sounds to me like a quirk in the way that Word chooses to display images rather than an issue with the image itself. What I mean by that is that Word is designed as an editor, not a reader, and if you export the file to your ebook format it might give a more accurate, and hopefully better, display version. Something else to try would be to use lightly compressed JPGs rather than TIFFs. So long as you keep the quality setting high when you export, there’s little chance you’ll be able to visually spot the difference between the TIFF and the JPG versions when viewing in an ebook.

      Reply
  2. Hi!
    I am a BIT confused about all these BIT depths. I can save a 16-bit TIF file in GIMP with JPEG compression. It seems that it keeps all smooth tonal changes but its size is very small, like average 8-bit JPEG. Is is possible that 16-bit information is stored in such a small file? Of course some JPG-typical artifacts occur but the result ich so much better than an usual JPEG.

    Secondly, is there any add-on for Lightroom to enable more types of compressions fot TIF? Like JPEG compression.?

    Reply
    • As far I’m aware–and recognizing that I might have missed something–the JPEG standard only supports up to 12-bit (it used to be 8-bit until an update to the library in 2014). Photoshop also offers a flavor of TIF with JPEG compression, but it’s only available when saving 8-bit images; it’s greyed out when using a 16-bit image.

      That’s interesting that you’re seeing better quality than saving as a regular JPEG–I would have expected them to be the same since they’re presumably both using the same compression library.

      I’m not aware of a Lightroom plugin that extends the built-in TIF compression options by adding JPEG. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist–I’ve just not had the need for it and haven’t investigated. Assuming one doesn’t exist, which is my hunch, my first inclination would be to make a Photoshop action (or Automator action if using Mac) that converts to the desired output and then the post-processing option in Lightroom’s export function.

      Reply
  3. I am working with monstrous images, normally 27000 pixel wide, the tiff file at 16bit as around 3-4 gigabyte. the LZW or ZIP compression makes the saving procedure 25 minutes long. 25 minutes. Without compression: 3 seconds.And it took my really long to figure out that the compression was causing the problem.

    Reply
  4. My artist partner and our 44″ Epson 9900 printer have a partnership in creating art. In this process, we have successfully enlarged, in an extreme, some 8″x8″ paintings to 40″x40″ prints with little loss in quality, even when the original is only 360dpi. My experience is that some images, simply do well with the Photoshop interpolation and some don’t. That being said, one of the tools we use is to create a Photoshop action that repeatedly enlarges the image by 10% as many times as needed to get to the desired size. In doing this, we are asking photoshop to interpolated less white space between pixels. Of course we also scan some originals in densities as high as 2400dpi, though we have found that the proof is in the pudding and different originals react differently to enlargement.

    I’m fascinated and curious why 16 bit images get bigger with LZW compression.

    Reply
  5. Almost started to do this test myself and then recalled that there is Internet invented recently :) Thanks.

    PS: You still have two #4 images in table headers.

    Reply
  6. The claim that jpg’s will loose quality everytime you save them is not completely true. As jpg in generel is considered a lossy compression, there actually is jpg lossless compression mode which still crunches a 100MB tif down to about 10MB jpg, depending on the image content. So if you want to safe Space on your comp, server etc. , get familiar with the different options for jpg compression and save over 90% of HD space with little to no loss of quality.

    PS: PPI/DPI is not an indicator for image quality.

    Reply
    • Yes, JPEG 2000 (.jp2) and JPEG-LS are both lossless (or can be), but support for them has never become universal, which reduces their usefulness in real-world use. Lightroom, for instance, doesn’t support JPEG 2000, nor do many web browsers. Many older lab printers also don’t work with it. Application support for JPEG-LS is much worse. Both have been out for a while now, so it’s no longer a case of just waiting for wider adoption. JPEG XR also has a lossless mode, but it’s not widely used–I don’t recall ever seeing a .JXR file in the wild. Relying on them for long-term archiving is a risk, and using them for even short-term uses leads to more problems than it solves.

      Reply
      • Yes, sadly there are only a few programs that use the more advanced jpeg compressions. Even more sadly since the jpeg library is free to use. As for storing images/sendeing them for production, I would use a program that let’s you set the parameters for jpeg compression, as on 100% quality setting the compression is actually lossless in most cases. Even on 90% the difference in the images are rarely more then 1 or 2 colorbits on a few pixels and not detectable for the human eye.
        As for working with images, the best choice is always to use the editing programs default/own format.

        Reply
  7. Thanks for this article David. It helped me gain knowledge to share with my photography students via link to your blog.
    One thing not discussed above is the compatibility of LZW or ZIP compressed Tiffs when imported (by end-user clients, for example) into other apps, such as InDesign, Pages or another layout app.

    I have learned that they will import and show properly in InDesign, but what I’d like to know from anyone out there who has tested this real-world, is if the compression of Tiffs alters their ability to be used in RIPs or other press-printing operations. (not inkjet desktop printers). This could be important for those sending their image TIFs to clients, commercial printers or even POD printers such as Blurb.

    Any knowledge on that?

    Reply
    • The last time I ran into that kind compatibility issue was many years ago, back before the LZW patent expired. That’s not to say that there might not be issues anymore–just that I haven’t come across them and don’t have a definitive answer.

      Reply
    • I have been working in the print industry for 10 years and have almost always used compressed tiffs. Importing into InDesign then sending finalized pdfs to the pressroom or even to outside printing companies. Only downside I have seen has been with text. It doesn’t print as clear as live text, but in my opinion it isn’t terribly noticeable, which of course wouldn’t pertain to printing of images/photos. I have also used compressed tiffs in Quark and it has always printed well and have never had a printer come back with problems.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply
  8. Hi David, The compression tips are great. Thanks. I do have another question, though. I have been working with large format images for lamppost banners. One of the images I received to place on the banner was saved as a tiff. It did not seem large enough to use for this purpose (4″x11″ at 300dpi), but the photographer told me to open it in Photoshop and use the “image size” feature to make it larger. I did that and resized it to approx. 25″x70″. It worked and there was no loss of quality. Do you know how he save this file?

    Reply
    • Without seeing the original file it’s hard to know for sure, but it sounds like one of two things might be happening. One possibility is that you’re changing the physical dimension settings but the PPI setting is lowering accordingly. If the resulting file still says that it’s 25″x70″ at 300ppi, the second possibility is that what’s happening is that Photoshop is using its algorithms to create pixels to make it larger. It does a pretty good job of it, so any image quality issues are hard to spot. Either way, there’s no magic in the way the file was originally saved. In part it’s taking advantage of the fact that a large banner simply doesn’t need the same pixel density of a smaller print to look good because you’re looking at it from further away.

      Reply
  9. What’s the difference between an 8-bit and a 16-bit photo? I am more aware of 24-bit colour schemes. Could you please explain these differences?

    Reply
    • It refers to the color depth that the file format supports. 16-bit images support exponentially more possible tones for each pixel than do 8-bit ones (16.7 million vs 256). A “24-bit image” can refer to two things. It can refer to yet another step up with even more possible tones, but it’s also often used to refer to an 8-bit image with three color channels (ie. Red, Green, and Blue). In most photography uses, 8-bit and 16-bit are the most common, although some cameras can shoot raw files that are 12-bit or 14-bit. In practice, and in terms of TIFF, 16-bit retains a higher quality than 8-bit and is therefore (in many cases) better for image editing and archiving. The downside is that 16-bit images have much larger file sizes than 8-bit images. Here’s a much more detailed explanation.

      Reply
  10. Thanks for the info. I’m still a bit lost on the rest of the TIFF saving info. There is the choice of Pixel Order, Byte Order is self explanatory, Layer compression. Then there is Save Image Pyramid and Save Transparency. With all the choices, how do I know what each means and what is best to use? I have Photoshop CS6 on Windows 7, 64bit.
    Thanks for your guidance.

    Reply
  11. I’m beginning to wonder if Adobe would prefer the TIFF format to slowly ‘die off’ and people go over to using their DNG format, which I think, is a lossless jpeg format? That would be a shame if they did manage to ‘get away’ with this, as the TIFF, is compatible with such a vast amount modern and old legacy software, I think that Adobe is trying to ‘lock’ users into their other software, via their RAW converter, as it isn’t as ‘free’ as people perceive it as being.
    To keep it updated, you also need to upgrade their software on your machine to the newest version. If Adobe, produced a ‘stand-alone’ version, where you paid a nominal fee for updates, I would be more inclined to use their RAW converter and then maybe the DNG format.

    However as things stand, and my suggestion is taken on board for a ‘stand-alone’ RAW converter, I’ll continue to save my files as TIFFs,

    Reply
  12. Are there any issues with compressed files being sent to a commercial printer as far as graphic design goes?

    Somewhere along the line I thought I read it could cause some issues. Maybe something to do with all the processing power needed to decompress / process a bunch of compressed large images in a magazine layout for example?

    Reply
    • Most of the time you shouldn’t have issues. Of course, it’s impossible to say never because there are so many possible combinations of software and hardware. I assume the type of layout you’re referring to is something like a packaged PDF with high resolution TIFFs. Depending on the size and the processing power of the computer, I can see where that might potentially become an issue, but it would really depend on the individual circumstances.

      Reply
  13. Thanks for the detailed information! I just want to say, Adobe could go a long ways towards optimizing TIFF compression for multiple cores. I saved a multi-layer 775 MB image as a ZIP compressed TIFF, and even with four 2.8 GHz processors and 16 GB or RAM it took over 15 minutes to complete the save (but it did take the 775 MB PSD down to 331 MB). It was taking so long I opened up my performance monitor and saw that my system was using only 23% of its CPU power, and most of that was coming from one processor. There’s no reason for that, other than poor optimization on Adobe’s part. And it’s frustrating, too!

    Reply
  14. Thank you, I found this very informative. I can supply one reason for not using compression when dealing with TIFF or other formats for motion pictures. The decompression will take enough CPU decoding that you will not be able to playback compressed footage even when you have plenty of disk bandwidth. When using uncompressed footage your only bottleneck will be file I/O bandwidth.

    Reply
  15. I’m rather puzzled as to why you are having problems with TIFF files with Lightroom, as the current owner/controller of the TIFF format, (since 1992) because they bought out Aldus who originally developed it, is in fact … ADOBE systems!! As a consequence, I feel that there should be no reasons whatsover why an incompatability should exist, unless of course Adobe are more interested in getting people to use their .DNG format instead …

    Reply
  16. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. This is one of those things I have always been curious about how much the compression really helps. Your examples are invaluable. There are many times when designing at full size around here means graphics that are 93″ tall and 40″ wide. This makes for very sizable Photoshop files. When I am ready to send the files to the printing or tradeshow company, I want to compress the files down to a reasonable size. Now I know just which compression to select when saving my files to a TIF format.

    Thanks again!

    Reply
  17. This is very helpful and leaves me with just one question – when exporting raw/DNG from Lightroom to tiff for external work (say, to use NIK or other plugins) when would you choose to use 8 bit and when to use 16 bit. And is there really any reason or circumstances to use the Pro-RGB colorspace?
    Thanks so much for all the helpful information and inspiration you provide

    Reply
    • Great question. For external edits in things like NIK or Photoshop, I always use 16-bit Pro Photo RGB. This maximizes your options with the range of colors, etc. When making changes to the image that affect anything to do with tonal range, colors, or exposure, it does have a practical effect of a better quality end product. You *could* use 8-bit for external editing, but the only reason I can think of to do so would be if you’re using an old computer with a slow processor (or memory) or that you have severe space constraints. And you *could* use Adobe RGB or even sRGB colorspace, but under normal circumstances your best bet is usually to stick with Pro Photo RGB (or Adobe RGB) for editing versions.

      Reply

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