TIFF File Format Summary

Also Known As: Tag Image File Format

Type Bitmap
Colors 1- to 24-bit
Compression Uncompressed, RLE, LZW, CCITT Group 3 and Group 4, JPEG
Maximum Image Size 2^32-1
Multiple Images Per File Yes
Numerical Format See article for discussion
Originator Aldus
Platforms MS-DOS, Macintosh, UNIX, others
Supporting Applications Most paint, imaging, and desktop publishing programs
See Also Chapter 9, Data Compression (RLE, LZW, CCITT, and JPEG)

Used for data storage and interchange. The general nature of TIFF allows it to be used in any operating environment, and it is found on most platforms requiring image data storage.

The TIFF format is perhaps the most versatile and diverse bitmap format in existence. Its extensible nature and support for numerous data compression schemes allow developers to customize the TIFF format to fit any peculiar data storage needs.

Vendor specifications are available for this format.

Code fragments are available for this format.

Sample images are available for this format.

The TIFF specification was originally released in 1986 by Aldus Corporation as a standard method of storing black-and-white images created by scanners and desktop publishing applications. This first public release of TIFF was the third major revision of the TIFF format, and although it was not assigned a specific version number, this release may be thought of as TIFF Revision 3.0. The first widely used revision of TIFF, 4.0, was released in April 1987. TIFF 4.0 added support for uncompressed RGB color images and was quickly followed by the release of TIFF Revision 5.0 in August 1988. TIFF 5.0 was the first revision to add the capability of storing palette color images and support for the LZW compression algorithm. (See the sidebar on LZW compression in the section called "Compression" later in this article.) TIFF 6.0 was released in June 1992 and added support for CMYK and YCbCr color images and the JPEG compression method. (See the section called "Color" in Chapter 2, Computer Graphics Basics, for a discussion of these color images. See Chapter 9, for a discussion of JPEG compression.)

File Organization
File Details
For Further Information

Today, TIFF is a standard file format found in most paint, imaging, and desktop publishing programs and is a format native to the Microsoft Windows GUI. TIFF's extensible nature, allowing storage of multiple bitmap images of any pixel depth, makes it ideal for most image storage needs.

The majority of the description in this chapter covers the current TIFF revision 6.0. Because each successive TIFF revision is built upon the previous revision, most of the information present in this chapter also pertains to TIFF Revision 5.0 as well. And, although more images are currently stored in the TIFF 5.0 format than in any other revision of TIFF, quite a few TIFF 4.0 image files are still in existence. For this reason, information is also included that details the differences between the TIFF 4.0, 5.0, and 6.0 revisions.

TIFF has garnered a reputation for power and flexibility, but it is considered complicated and mysterious as well. In its design, TIFF attempts to be very extensible and provide many features that a programmer might need in a file format. Because TIFF is so extensible and has many capabilities beyond all other image file formats, this format is probably the most confusing format to understand and use.

A common misconception about TIFF is that TIFF files are not very portable between software applications. This is amazing considering that TIFF is widely used as an image data interchange format. Complaints include, "I've downloaded a number of TIFF clip art packages from some BBSs and my paint program or word processor is able to display only some of the TIFF image files, but not all of them," "When I try to display certain TIFF files using my favorite image display program, I get the error message `Unknown Tag Type' or `Unsupported Compression Type'," and "I have a TIFF file created by one application and a second application on the same machine cannot read or display the image, even though TIFF files created by the second application can be read and displayed by the first application."

These complaints are almost always immediately blamed on the TIFF image files themselves. The files are labeled "bad," because they have been munged during a data file transfer or were exported by software applications that did not know how to properly write a TIFF file. In reality, most TIFF files that do not import or display properly are not bad, and the fault usually lies, instead, with the program that is reading the TIFF file.

If an application only uses black-and-white images, it certainly does not need to support the reading and writing of color and gray-scale TIFF image files. In this case, the application should simply, and politely, refuse to read non-black-and-white TIFF image files and tell you the reason why. By doing this, the application would prevent the user from trying to read unusable image data and would also cut down on the amount of TIFF code the application programmers need to write.

Some applications that read TIFF image files--or any type of image files, for that matter--may just return an ambiguous error code indicating that the file could not be read, leaving the user with the impression that the TIFF file itself is bad (not that the application could not use the image data the TIFF file contained). Such an occurrence is the fault of the application designer in not providing a clearer message informing the user what has happened.

Sometimes, however, you may have an application that should be able to read a TIFF file, and it does not, even though the type of image data contained in the TIFF file is supported by the application. There are numerous reasons why a perfectly good TIFF file cannot be read by an application, and most of them have to do with the application programmer's lack of understanding of the TIFF format itself.

A major source of TIFF reader problems is the inability to read data regardless of byte-ordering scheme. The bytes in a 16-bit and 32-bit word of data are stored in a different order on little-endian architectures (such as the Intel iAPX86), than on big-endian machines (such as the Motorola MC68000A). Reading big-endian data using the little-endian format results in little more than garbage.

Another major source of problems is readers that do not support the encoding algorithm used to compress the image data. Most readers support both raw (uncompressed) and RLE-encoded data but do not support CCITT T.4 and T.6 compression. It is also surprising how many TIFF readers support the reading of color TIFF files, which are either stored as raw or RLE-compressed data, but do not support the decompression of LZW-encoded data.

Most other TIFF reader problems are quite minor, but usually fatal. Such problems include failure to correctly interpret tag data, no support for color-mapped images, or the inability to read a bitmap scan line that contains an odd number of bytes.

File Organization

TIFF files are organized into three sections: the Image File Header (IFH), the Image File Directory (IFD), and the bitmap data. Of these three sections, only the IFH and IFD are required. It is therefore quite possible to have a TIFF file that contains no bitmapped data at all, although such a file would be highly unusual. A TIFF file that contains multiple images has one IFD and one bitmap per image stored.

TIFF has a reputation for being a complicated format in part because the location of each Image File Directory and the data the IFD points to--including the bitmapped data--may vary. In fact, the only part of a TIFF file that has a fixed location is the Image File Header, which is always the first eight bytes of every TIFF file. All other data in a TIFF file is found by using information found in the IFD. Each IFD and its associated bitmap are known as a TIFF subfile. There is no limit to the number of subfiles a TIFF image file may contain.

Each IFD contains one or more data structures called tags. Each tag is a 12-byte record that contains a specific piece of information about the bitmapped data. A tag may contain any type of data, and the TIFF specification defines over 70 tags that are used to represent specific information. Tags are always found in contiguous groups within each IFD.

Tags that are defined by the TIFF specification are called public tags and may not be modified outside of the parameters given in the latest TIFF specification. User-definable tags, called private tags, are assigned for proprietary use by software developers through the Aldus Developer's Desk. See the TIFF 6.0 specification for more information on private tags.

Note that the TIFF 6.0 specification has replaced the term tag with the term field. Field now refers to the entire 12-byte data record, while the term tag has been redefined to refer only to a field's identifying number. Because so many programmers are familiar with the older definition of the term tag, the authors have choosen to continue using tag, rather than field, in this description of TIFF to avoid confusion.

Figure TIFF-1 shows three possible arrangements of the internal data structure of a TIFF file containing three images. In each example, the IFH appears first in the TIFF file. In the first example, each of the IFDs has been written to the file first and the bitmaps last. This arrangement is the most efficient for reading IFD data quickly. In the second example, each IFD is written, followed by its bitmapped data. This is perhaps the most common internal format of a multi-image TIFF file. In the last example, we see that the bitmapped data has been written first, followed by the IFDs. This seemingly unusual arrangement might occur if the bitmapped data is available to be written before the information that appears in the IFDs.

Figure TIFF-1: Three possible physical arrangements of data in a TIFF file

[Graphic: Figure TIFF-1]

Each IFD is a road map of where all the data associated with a bitmap can be found within a TIFF file. The data is found by reading it directly from within the IFD data structure or by retrieving it from an offset location whose value is stored in the IFD. Because TIFF's internal components are linked together by offset values rather than by fixed positions, as with stream-oriented image file formats, programs that read and write TIFF files are often very complex, thus giving TIFF its reputation.

The offset values used in a TIFF file are found in three locations. The first offset value is found in the last four bytes of the header and indicates the position of the first IFD. The last four bytes of each IFD is an offset value to the next IFD. And the last four bytes of each tag may contain an offset value to the data it represents, or possibly the data itself.


Offsets are always interpreted as a number of bytes from the beginning of the TIFF file.

Figure TIFF-2 shows the way data structures of a TIFF file are linked together.

Figure TIFF-2: Logical organization of a TIFF file

[Graphic: Figure TIFF-2]

File Details

This section describes the various components of a TIFF file.

Image File Header

TIFF, despite its complexity, has the simplest header of all of the formats described in this book. The TIFF Image File Header (IFH) contains three fields of information and is a total of only eight bytes in length:

typedef struct _TiffHeader
	WORD  Identifier;  /* Byte-order Identifier */
	WORD  Version;     /* TIFF version number (always 2Ah) */
	DWORD IFDOffset;   /* Offset of the first Image File Directory*/

Identifier contains either the value 4949h (II) or 4D4Dh (MM). These values indicate whether the data in the TIFF file is written in little-endian (Intel format) or big-endian (Motorola format) order, respectively. All data encountered past the first two bytes in the file obey the byte-ordering scheme indicated by this field. These two values were chosen because they would always be the same, regardless of the byte order of the file.

Version, according to the TIFF specification, contains the version number of the TIFF format. This version number is always 42, regardless of the TIFF revision, so it may be regarded more as an identification number, (or possibly the answer to life, the universe, etc.) than a version number.

A quick way to check whether a file is indeed a TIFF file is to read the first four bytes of the file. If they are:

49h 49h 2Ah 00h


4Dh 4Dh 00h 2Ah

then it's a good bet that you have a TIFF file.

IFDOffset is a 32-bit value that is the offset position of the first Image File Directory in the TIFF file. This value may be passed as a parameter to a file seek function to find the start of the image file information. If the Image File Directory occurs immediately after the header, the value of the IFDOffset field is 08h.

Image File Directory

An Image File Directory (IFD) is a collection of information similar to a header, and it is used to describe the bitmapped data to which it is attached. Like a header, it contains information on the height, width, and depth of the image, the number of color planes, and the type of data compression used on the bitmapped data. Unlike a typical fixed header, however, an IFD is dynamic and may not only vary in size, but also may be found anywhere within the TIFF file. There may be more than one IFD contained within any file. The format of an Image File Directory is shown in Figure TIFF-1.

One of the misconceptions about TIFF is that the information stored in the Image File Directory tags is actually part of the TIFF header. In fact, this information is often referred to as the "TIFF Header Information." While it is true that other formats do store the type of information found in the IFD in the header, the TIFF header does not contain this information. It is possible to think of the IFDs in a TIFF file as extensions of the TIFF file header.

A TIFF file may contain any number of images, from zero on up. Each image is considered to be a separate subfile (i.e., a bitmap) and has an IFD describing the bitmapped data. Each TIFF subfile can be written as a separate TIFF file or can be stored with other subfiles in a single TIFF file. Each subfile bitmap and IFD may reside anywhere in the TIFF file after the headers, and there may be only one IFD per image.

This may sound confusing, but it's not really. We have seen that the TIFF header contains an offset value that points to the location of the first IFD in the TIFF file. To find the first IFD, all we need do is seek to this offset and start reading the IFD information. The last field of every IFD contains an offset value to the next IFD, if any. If the offset value of any IFD is 00h, then there are no more images left to read in the TIFF file.

An IFD may vary in size, because it may contain a variable number of data records, called tags. Each tag contains a unique piece of information, just as fields do within a header. However, there is a difference. Tags may be added and deleted from an IFD much the same way that notebook paper may be added to or removed from a three-ring binder. The fields of a conventional header, on the other hand, are fixed and unmovable, much like the pages of this book. Also, the number of tags found in an IFD may vary, while the number of fields in a type header is fixed.

The format of an Image File Directory is shown in the following structure:

typedef struct _TifIfd
	WORD    NumDirEntries;    /* Number of Tags in IFD  */
	TIFTAG  TagList[];        /* Array of Tags  */
	DWORD   NextIFDOffset;    /* Offset to next IFD  */

NumDirEntries is a 2-byte value indicating the number of tags found in the IFD. Following this field is a series of tags; the number of tags corresponds to the value of the NumDirEntries field. Each tag structure is 12 bytes in size and, in the sample code above, is represented by an array of structures of the data type definition TIFTAG. (See the next section for more information on TIFF tags.) The number of tags per IFD is limited to 65,535.

NextIFDOffset contains the offset position of the beginning of the next IFD. If there are no more IFDs, then the value of this field is 00h.

Figure TIFF-3: Format of an Image File Directory

[Graphic: Figure TIFF-3]


As mentioned in the previous section, a tag can be thought of as a data field in a file header. However, whereas a header data field may only contain data of a fixed size and is normally located only at a fixed position within a file header, a tag may contain, or point to, data that is any number of bytes in size and is located anywhere within an IFD.

The versatility of the TIFF tag pays a price in its size. A header field used to hold a byte of data need only be a byte in size. A tag containing one byte of information, however, must always be twelve bytes in size.

A TIFF tag has the following 12-byte structure:

typedef struct _TifTag
	WORD   TagId;       /* The tag identifier  */
	WORD   DataType;    /* The scalar type of the data items  */
	DWORD  DataCount;   /* The number of items in the tag data  */
	DWORD  DataOffset;  /* The byte offset to the data items  */

TagId is a numeric value identifying the type of information the tag contains. More specifically, the TagId indicates what the tag information represents. Typical information found in every TIFF file includes the height and width of the image, the depth of each pixel, and the type of data encoding used to compress the bitmap. Tags are normally identified by their TagId value and should always be written to an IFD in ascending order of the values found in the TagId field.

DataType contains a value indicating the scalar data type of the information found in the tag. The following values are supported:



8-bit unsigned integer



8-bit, NULL-terminated string



16-bit unsigned integer