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12/02/05 Best advice for digitizing 90 years of photos

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / November 30, 2005 5:15 AM PST

Please, I really, really need help. My mom passed away, and I inherited the family photos. I'm thrilled to say the least--I love them--but I need to create copies for the family. I figured, hey, scan them in and print 'em, not a problem. Wronggggggg! I am a total novice and haven't a clue about what is best or where to start. What size should I scan at, what file type should I use, is there a program that lets me print pages that look like a photo album page (or collage look), or do I have to print everything lined up like little soldiers? The questions go on and on and on and I have 90, yep 90, years of photos. Thank you!

Submitted by: Dawn M.
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Winning answer by Robert
by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / December 1, 2005 4:54 AM PST

Sounds like you've taken the first step in a journey that has no end. I've been scanning family photos for the past eight or nine years and have probably done about 3,500. Some have been included in the family history books I've published but most have been scanned to share and to archive. I've gone thru four scanners, five printers, several programs and uncounted program updates. And it's been a learning experience as I've found myself rescanning the same photo time and again because as technology improved and the capacity of storage media escalated, the quality of what I was saving could be improved upon.

Here's what I do with photographic prints.

1. SCAN all photos in high color (24-bit) mode...even those that would scan as well in grayscale. Why? Because I can and because many of those pictures are not b/w but a variety of "colors" depending upon the era during which they were taken and changes that may have occurred during aging. Rule number one: don't throw anything away. You can always convert a copy of the saved image file from the original tones to grayscale, but you can never convert a grayscale back to the least I can't.

2. SCAN at the highest resolution reasonable for the image and the use to which it will be put. My rule of thumb is 300 pixels/inch minimum. This is the lowest resolution which prints 1:1 with reasonable photographic-like quality. If the photo being scanned is a typical family snapshot, you won't gain much at higher resolution because photos taken with small-format films typical of the 70's and 80's doesn't contain detail that can be captured at any scan resolution higher than 300 dpi anyway. Photos taken with professional grade cameras (e.g. wedding portraits, graduation portraits, etc.) usually exhibit outstanding resolution and should be scanned at at least 600 dpi to capture the finer details. Enlargements of these will also print well when scanned at higher resolutions.

3. SAVE all files as TIF and write all collections of these to a data CD or data DVD as a permanent archive. Don't worry about using any special photo album software because proprietary software comes and goes...and when it goes, so does the compatibility of the albums you saved . Assign meaningful file names to each image that will assist with later cataloging (E.G. SmithJones-JohnJane1923.tif). When developing the system by which YOU will assign names to your files, keep in mind the ability of sorting them in alphanumeric order provided by Windows Explorer. Windows Explorer has several features that make it a useful substitute for Photo Album Software, but remember that any album dependent upon Explorer is probably incompatible with systems based on O/S other than those from Microsoft as well as (probably) with earlier versions of Microsoft operating systems.

The reason for saving as TIF while TIFF files take up far more disk space than JPEG? Why not in GIF? Remember rule #1? Don't throw anything away. TIFF is a lossless format while JPEG is a "lossey" format. GIF "compresses" the image by reducing the number of colors in the image -- so NEVER use GIF for a photograph. You can always convert a copy of the TIFF file to JPEG (or a GIF if you insist) if you wish to e-mail or display images on a website or HTML-based album. You can always go into a TIFF file and edit out pinholes, scratched, adjust color, brightness, contrast and resave as a TIFF without degradation. Besides, as the price of electronic (e.g. disk) storage plummets and internet bandwidth increases, the need for image compression (the reasons GIF and JPEG were developed in the first place) will continue diminish. TIFF is also pretty universal while other formats like PSD are proprietary and software version dependent.

I apply the same process to 35mm slides, but scan those at 2,400 dpi. I scan newspaper clippings at 300 dpi. Here I do scan in grayscale mode and save as a TIFF file. Remember that newspaper deteriorates comparatively quickly and is usually among the first of the family treasures to become unsalvageable.

I also scan family-related documents including naturalization papers, court documents, old deeds, old letters, etc. The resolution I use for these varies between 300 and 600 dpi depending upon the nature and condition of the document. Very large format documents like Land Patents are scanned in two pieces and stitched together using (in my case) PhotoShop and saved as a single TIFF file.

It's also very useful to save, as a text file, all of the data you have regarding on each photo (i.e. the names of the people pictured, the date or year or event or occasion at/for which the picture was taken, the place, and the name of the person who provided the picture and the name of the person (if different) of the person in possession of the original. This file should be on the same CD or DVD as the images.

Make at least one back-up copy of each archival CD or DVD and place it with a remote (as lives in a different house, town, or state) family member or friend for safe keeping. One friend lost his complete collection of disks in a house fire. A cousin lost the contents of a single disk due to a later read error of undetected origin. Fortunately, the cousin had sent me a backup copy which I was able to duplication and return. You can also upload the contents of the disk to a web sever as backup. I have a family website where digital editions of audio tapes and movies from the 60's and 70's are deposited as well as available for viewing by family and friends.

Now select the album software with which you're most comfortable and/or place your photos on-line using any or a number of photo-sharing or family websites for sharing pictures and captions extracted from the CD or DVD created above.

I hope this provides the suggestions you were looking for.

Submitted by: Robert L.

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Scanning family photos
by a.gillet / December 1, 2005 6:24 PM PST

I allways scanned photos in BMP format.
What's wrong with BMP original scanning?


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by alfordw / December 1, 2005 10:47 PM PST
In reply to: Scanning family photos

TIFF is the most widely supported graphics file format for printing. Although TIFF is not suitable for viewing in Web browsers, it has other strengths: it is a highly flexible format which is supported by the vast majority of image processing applications. TIFF was designed to be independent of the hardware platform and the operating system on which it executes, so it works equally well on a Windows machine as it does on an Apple. You can also store comments and retain digital camera EXIF data with a TIF while you can't do this with a bitmap.

The BMP format was written primarily for compatibility with Windows programs. Many photo developers will accept TIFF, but it is difficult to find ones who will accept bitmaps.

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.bmp okay but large - .jpg can catch you
by jepboro / December 2, 2005 8:51 AM PST
In reply to: Scanning family photos

Nothing wrong with .bmp that I know of, it is just that it is a very large file, there is no compression, just a record of the bitmap of the image. It is a totally complete record of the image as scanned and, as such, very good.

.jpg I think has a danger that no one else has mentioned, for the inexperienced or the unwary, at least. You have to be careful of the compression that you are using. You might not realise that it is set for maximum compression which is also, automatically, minimal fidelity.

Paint Shop Pro for instance has an 'options' button on the save file screen. When saving to .jpg you can click that button and find a slider that will choose compression from minimal to maximum, with a corresponding effect on reproducable fidelity.

What does this mean? Well, for instance, I downloaded .jpg files from my Canon A520 and then save them with a different name, again in .jpg and with the current setting on this slider on my machine (75%).

This reduced the files from more than 800kb to less than 200kb. That's fine for me because that's what I wanted.

That's a .jpg reduction of a .jpg file.

But for the unwary it can mean making up a collection of apparently fine files of wonderfully small size only to realise later they are in a compression ratio that sacrifices far more information than you wish to.

So - you've got to take the trouble to choose what compression you want with .jpg and be aware when saving on another machine.

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regarding working on tiff files
by kichigai808 / December 1, 2005 7:28 PM PST

Really good info but the information regarding working on tiff images is incorrect. Anytime you make changes to the image it will degrade. Granted it is better to work on a tiff or psd than on a jpg file but damage will still occur especially when making changes in exposure or color. The best thing is to try to get the image as close as possible to what you want the photo to look like in the scan. The other thing to do is to scan at a higher resolution ie. 600- 1200 dpi, do the corrections, then resize the dpi before saving the file.
The idea of giving a copy to another family member is great but all my family members live near me so I've been saving my backup copies in a safe deposit box. It's also a good place to keep any precious photos or negatives since it's temperature, humidity and UV are all controlled.
Since hard drive prices are so low and who knows how long CDRoms and DVDs will remain as the storage media of choice I keep another copy on a back up hard drive which will make it easier to transfer my photos whenever changes in technology happen.

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Backup HDD
by cesareDH / December 2, 2005 10:16 AM PST

"I keep another copy on a back up hard drive which will make it easier to transfer my photos whenever changes in technology happen."

That's great till your backup HDD goes bad like mine did. Always make at least 2 backups. I lost over 1500 family and baby pictures when a storage HDD went bad and the 2 CD's I had backed onto didn't have the headers for the images, and all was lost.
I am no longer the favorite family photographer.

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hdd back up...still the best
by kichigai808 / December 8, 2005 7:41 PM PST
In reply to: Backup HDD

The hard drive is my original back up which makes it easier to transfer and locate hundreds of gigabytes of information. I currently have two terabytes of files backed up on hard drives. I make two additional copies of all files on CD or DVD but hope to never have to rely on them for back up. It would one big pain in the butt.

Naturally the biggest reason for a hard drive to fail is the amount of use they go through. I only use these external drives for storage of files and put it away once it's about 80% filled. This helps keep the drive functioning for long periods of time.

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by PAISANO5 / December 8, 2005 9:42 PM PST
In reply to: Backup HDD

<<<lost over 1500 family and baby pictures when a storage HDD went bad and the 2 CD's I had backed onto didn't have the headers for the images, and all was lost.>>



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Scanning tips
by nhiep nguyen / December 1, 2005 7:44 PM PST

There is a site that gives very, very useful and detailed tips on scanning :
and a book by Wayne Fulton (A few scanning tips) which is for me a bible for scanning.

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Scanning 90 years of photos
by patksr2005 / December 1, 2005 8:05 PM PST

Why Tagged Image Format (TIF)? JPEG or JPG is much easier to use by a wide array of applications and TIF is not. Plus, JPEGs can easily be editied by many applications from Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, to a simple paint package.

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Editing JPG files
by rjcarter / December 2, 2005 10:11 AM PST

Each time you open and save a JPG file it gets compressed again losing more data. This damages your file each time you save it. It is recommended that you always scan or take your pictures in a file format like Tiff. Some digital cameras only take them in a JPEG format, in this case you would open the file in a photo editor and then save it in a TIFF format. The TIFF file becomes your archive file that you never edit. After you create the TIFF file always make a copy of it to edit and then save in the format that you need for printing, web or e-mail.

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Storing as tiffs not necessary
by steve bode / December 1, 2005 10:00 PM PST

There is virtually no difference between a tif and a jpg saved at the highest quality. You can prove this by printing a large image(16x20) or larger of the same picture in tif and jpg. There is no way you will be able to tell the difference. As a professional I work only with JPGS since many are sent over the internet for print ordering.

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I would agree with TIFF and JPGS to a point
by jimonline / December 1, 2005 10:12 PM PST

I too work almost completely with JPGS in my photography business. The only caution I would add is repeated editing with JPGS will over a few edits and compressions reduce the quality. But considering you are working with 8 X 10 and under JPGS will save a lot of space and time.

Can't imagine how long it would take to do all those years but the most important part is "Have fun with it!" If only a handful take the time to look through them that is more than most who.

Keep an eye out for those free blank CD's too and load'em up! Have fun

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I Disagree, But It Depends Upon One's Point Of View
by NorthernGuy / December 2, 2005 2:22 AM PST

Steve ?

I can agree with you slightly but there are some major differences between TIFF and JPEGs and Robert?s suggested method is correct for archiving old photos. JPEGs are a compromise solution for storage, Internet transmission, and the like. Even novices can see the differences when the shortcomings are pointed out.

I do considerable restoration work on old photos and I can tell you most of them are just about "Had it" condition wise. If one is working in the photographic professional field, a lost or damaged image can usually be replaced by reshooting. And, you must consider that most pictures/images are going to eventually end up being printed commercially. Nearly all commercial printing is done via a half-tone process where even the best magazine images are at 175 DPI. - A far distance from being high resolution.

Our prized Kodak moments from yesteryear that are being scanned probably will fall apart within a few more years. Depending upon whom you read, a photo typically has a life span of somewhere around 25 to 75 years. There are exceptions to this but it is a general rule of thumb. Everyone admits scanning and touching up is very time consuming and no one wants to do it twice. It just makes sense to get it right the first time when you store it.

Perhaps, to the average or casual viewer there are imperceptible differences between the formats, but if you know what you are looking for, the problems begin to be seen.

The JPEG format was created to perform compression by using known characteristics (flaws) of the eye. An eye is quite critical of edges and is not particularly picky about smooth slowly unchanging areas or surfaces. These traits are built into the JPEG algorithms to allow compression without seemingly giving up anything.

Where JPEGs really fall short, in my opinion, are when there is a sharp subject edge that has a large change in intensity or color. If you check such a condition on a JPEG even at minimal compression, you will see a ghost like effect alongside that edge. Now, in fairness, this is normally quite minor but it does cause the edge to seem blurred and that results in a loss of picture quality.

You can test this effect by making some simple one-color objects in MS Paint and then saving them to a JPEG file. If you then reopen the JPEG, and magnify the image to see the edges closely, the shortcomings of JPEGs become obvious. For this reason, GIF type files (simple artistic one color objects and letters) are not a recommended format by artistic/graphic experts to be converted to JPEGs.

TIFFs, on the other hand, are a pure representation of an image. Every pixel is faithfully reproduced and retained regardless of the number of times you open and store the file under different names. It is an ideal format with the exception of the large final file sizes.

There is a way around that problem and that is to store your TIFFs using a lossless compression program. Many imaging programs, such as Photoshop, offer an optional check box at saving time for LZW compression. This compression saves the TIFF file in about the same space as an equivalent JPEG file in its highest resolution modes (roughly a 3 to 1 reduction depending upon subject matter). Yet, when you reverse the process, you are back to exactly where you were when you created it.

Of course, there are other compression schemes too such as *.zip, etc. Zip files are lossless and are also an ideal way to combine multiple groupings of photos/images. For current users of Windows XP, the OS will unlock those zip images for you without any extra effort.

The point of this dissertation is that for those special photos/images retain them as TIFFs. For sending that image of Jenny in the sandbox to Aunt Millie where it will be looked at maybe once or twice, JPEGs are fine. But, for the special situations like a family album, then TIFFs are the only way to go.

Your scanning and touching up maybe the only time anyone will ever do it. Soon the photo will be gone, the information will be history and it can never be recovered then. Just remember, when some descendant a hundred years from now pulls up your image from the sugar cube thingy that uses gamma rays enhanced with pi mesons, you do not want them to say, Why in the H$@@ didn?t they use something with more resolution?

Just some thoughts from someone who has been there and done that . .. .

Northern Guy

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small correction regarding print resolution, plus enlarging
by mikebutler / December 2, 2005 9:58 PM PST

Northern has some good comments, but here's one minor correction. The 175 he refers to is the lines per inch of the halftone screen. And when I worked in the prepress business, the rule of thumb was that a photo should be scanned at approximately 2x the line screen, so 300 dpi would be close. A 175 dpi photo screened at 175 lpi would look bad compared to other pictures in the magazine. BTW, this only applies to publishing. Regular photographic prints do not use halftoning, the only purpose of which is to create a printing plate which can represent the various dark and light shades of a picture with printing ink.

One thing nobody has mentioned yet is what happens when pictures are printed at sizes other than original. Enlarging reduces resolution. For instance, if a 4x6'' photo scanned at 300 dpi is then printed at 2x enlargement, the effective resolution becomes 150 dpi. Blow it up to 4x the original size and it becomes a mere 75 dpi! Something to be aware of. Conversely, printing the same picture at half size would bring the target resolution to 600 dpi (not that anyone would notice the benefit).

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I Agree . . .
by NorthernGuy / December 6, 2005 2:14 PM PST

You are absolutely right about the half toning process. I really did not want to divert on that path too far because my post was getting long as it was.

My intended point was that 300 DPI JPEG file was going to be throwing away nearly half its theoretical resolution (300 DPI going to 175 DPI halftone). If a JPEG had some artifacts (irregularities due to the compression), those slight problems most likely will be masked when you go to the halftone plates.

Therefore, one does not really care whether you use a JPEG or a TIFF as the source file under most halftone situations. That is not the same case though when making a digital photographic image and you can see those artifacts.

Your rule of thumb where you need a source resolution at 2X for half toning has been derived from practical applications. Each little spot in the ink screen is an average of about two or more of the theoretical pixels (assuming a minimum 300 DPI source and a maximum 175 DPI halftone). If you do not use such an area averaging approach, the result will be color and intensity bands on the printed work.

Why does that happen? Each larger printed dot area becomes far more critical to our eyes than a single pixel in the original image.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the eye is very sensitive to changes, particularly along edges. It is also very adept at picking out a slight intensity or color change in an area that is basically all the same. This may come from our survival conditioning. Something slightly out of place may mean we are about to be eaten or injured and that arouses the senses immediately for action.

Each halftone dot needs to be a true average of those around it in the original; otherwise we may see wide changes in adjacent dot intensity. As such, the dots along an edge could very in intensity and we think the edge is jagged, while in actuality, the edge is continuous and should be a smooth line.

Your statements about enlarging are right on. Something that has always fascinated me in the movies is where a digital image can be blown up almost endlessly to clearly reveal the murderer in the crowd.

Northern Guy

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Enlarging resolution
by cesareDH / December 19, 2005 1:13 AM PST

Change the image to a TIFF format then increase the resolution to 1600 or higher and save it. Then enlarge the TIFF image, convert it back to JPG and store/print it. You don't get near the distortion working with the TIFF format.
I took a little wallet picture and ended with an
8" X 10" print that is as clear as the 1" X 2" original.
"Git 'er done"

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Gobbledegook TIFFS
by MegsL / December 3, 2005 8:09 PM PST

My image editors are Paint Shop Pro and Dell Image Expert, and whenever I try to save an image in TIFF format - which I often do, for all the reasons outlined so far in this correspondence - there's trouble re-opening it. I can open it in Paint Shop, of course, but elsewhere it opens as gobbledegook text characters only intelligible to Microsoft Word.

Future users of my stored images may not have access to Microsoft Word - or even, strange though it now seems, Paint Shop Pro!

(a) Can anybody suggest what I'm doing wrong with those TIFFs?
(b) Given that JPEGs degrade (as they do, we know) which is REALLY the best image format for seriously longterm storage?

By longterm, I mean storage on behalf of future generations? Personally when I think about this problem I can see no alternative to endless, and VERY space- and resource- consuming, boxes full of paper prints.

Cheers to all, Megs.

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re: trouble with tiff files
by kichigai808 / December 5, 2005 4:39 AM PST
In reply to: Gobbledegook TIFFS

I'm not sure of your exact problem but somtimes when saving files as tiff or whatever type of imaging file you might use it's possible for the image to show up in another format or none at all. Check your files and make sure that it ends with .tiff. If not change it and it should open.
Re: the jpeg files. They are not damaged by storage but rather by making any changes to the image,and saving them with the same jpg file name. Any change to the image ie.
cropping, changing color or even rotating can damage the image if it's saved with the same file name. If you have made changes to the image I suggest you keep the file name and simply add an a or whatever to the end of the file name before the .jpg before saving it so that the original image will still remain undamaged.

Also as suggested in many of the postings here be sure to save the original jpg files as they came out of the camera on a "CD or DVD. These can only go bad if the storage media itself goes bad.

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re: trouble with tiff files
by kichigai808 / December 5, 2005 4:42 AM PST
In reply to: Gobbledegook TIFFS

I'm not sure of your exact problem but somtimes when saving files as tiff or whatever type of imaging file you might use it's possible for the image to show up in another format or none at all. Check your files and make sure that it ends with .tiff. If not change it and it should open.
Re: the jpeg files. They are not damaged by storage but rather by making any changes to the image,and saving them with the same jpg file name. Any change to the image ie.
cropping, changing color or even rotating can damage the image if it's saved with the same file name. If you have made changes to the image I suggest you keep the file name and simply add an ''a'' or whatever to the end of the file name before the .jpg before saving it so that the original image will remain undamaged.

Also as suggested in many of the postings here be sure to save the original jpg files as they came out of the camera on a ''CD or DVD. These can only go bad if the storage media itself goes bad.

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Digitizing 90yrs of Photos
by NANCYAC / July 7, 2007 11:49 AM PDT

Best explanation I've ever read. Thanks

Is the zip file you mention different than what goes on a zip drive tape?

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Data loss in jpg files
by Vince.Rosati / December 24, 2009 5:54 AM PST

I knew that saving a photo in jpg causes loss of some information, but I did not know that repeated opening and saving a jpg file continues to degrade it.

Has anyone tested to see if the data loss occurs at the same rate each time, or does data loss decrease each time? For example, if I open and save a jpg photo 1,000 times, will it degenerate into a featureless blob?


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I'm with Robert
by nfoy / December 2, 2005 2:45 AM PST

While you are correct about the difference between tiff and jpeg in a digital print being minimal, I think if storage space is not a real issue tiff is the better way to go, converting a tiff to jpeg is better than converting jpeg to tiff. The issue with jpeg's is that every time they are saved the furniture in the room is re-arranged so to speak. When closing a jpeg in photoshop it is better to close with a "don't save" if you have not changed the image since opening it.

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What about PNG files?
by callibeth / December 2, 2005 4:52 AM PST
In reply to: I'm with Robert

I've read recently that PNG files are a good compromise -- a compressed but not lossy format. Can anyone shed light on the advantages and drawbacks of TIFFs vs. PNGs?

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What about .png files
by BobCPhoto / December 4, 2005 11:10 PM PST
In reply to: What about PNG files?

.png format was originally designd to make small inserts into web pages, etc. It was not designed to be used on photographs. Besides, you do not have the large gamut of colors and shades available as you do with Photoshop, etc. Suppose you want to add a small simple solid red heart fo part of a banner, you could easily do this with .png, but to copy a human and have a recognizable face, color of hair, multi colored dress etc., .png would not work. It uses only the basic amount of color , not the varying degree or shades of color. Try it and see. It is small in size, yes, but very limited in content of information.

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Wrong on the png.
by PKsteven / December 5, 2005 5:27 AM PST
In reply to: What about .png files
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Lossless JPG formats vs. PNG format
by callibeth / December 5, 2005 11:34 AM PST
In reply to: Wrong on the png.

Thanks for the link, Paul.

It was your discussion of lossless JPG formats that prompted my question about PNG formats. How to compare the lossless JPG format with the PNG format? And how do I tell whether my JPG format is lossless?

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by PKsteven / December 5, 2005 1:52 PM PST

Most utilites you use\editors what have you, will tell you the type of compression method, if used if not if less or more than usual. You can usually look it up in the help file or in a description of the software, ''.jpg lossless'' etc...Windows does not by default use this. If you open a picture in the win pic and fax viewer window, and try to rotate a jpg, it will warn you it may lose quality. However, most people use a decent conversion\editing software.

This link is fairly informative.

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storing as tiffs not necessary
by nhiep nguyen / December 4, 2005 2:08 AM PST

I submit that this view is not totally correct since JPG is not lossless and the quality is lost every time the JPG file is compressed and saved again.
cf. page 132 of ''a few scanning tips'' for extended explanations.

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TIFF beter than JPEGS If Doing Multiple Edits
by thib9564 / December 30, 2005 9:57 PM PST

While it is true that TIFF and high quality JPEGs are basically indistinguishable on initial saving, if you are going to be doing multiple edits on the picture JPEGs fail rapidly in quality with each additional save.
So if you need to do editing on the photo, start with a TIFF file and only save it to JPEG when you are done editing.

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