Photoshop: What is a Master File, and why do I need one?

Updated: 05/20/20:

•  Want to see some of the principles mentioned below in action? This free “study” video perfectly encapsulates how best to use Photoshop, with a diverse range of images – includes copious notes, workflow chart, and more– click here:




From Matthew S in San Diego, CA:  

“Once you capture an image in RAW (or a 16-bit scan), what is the best way to save the image for printing purposes? Or should I convert the image to another format? I typically convert everything to a max
quality JPG.  Supposedly any “lossy” degradation will be unnoticed to the eye, or so I’ve been told. But, is this the best way? I’d love to have this clarified.”  




Before I can fully answer your question, Matt, you might want to review this post on my blog –  mostly a wee bit technical, but well worth the time:


Why shoot in 16-bit (RAW), rather than 8 bit (JPG)?


Once you read through it, you’ll see why saving your important final images in JPG is not such a good idea, particularly from a technical standpoint …


So, what to do?  Let me introduce you instead to the concept of a Master File – the best way to prep your important images for a multitude of uses, including printing.


If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then the chart  above is an overall “visual” representation of a proper Photoshop workflow for your important images – notice that everything is centered around the Master File (as an aside, you can download a free step-by-step “linear” workflow here).


Creating a Master File is NOT for every image: it’s for those images that you want to spend time with, doing all that’s necessary to make your image “pretty”.


Here’s where you pour your artistic “blood, sweat and tears” into your image (for awesome results, try using the methods shown in my  book,  “Not Just Another Photoshop Book”, available exclusively on Amazon (Kindle, too!) …


What is a “Master File”? It’s a 16-Bit, un-flattened, un-sharpened, un-cropped, un-resized file, designated as such in its file name, and saved as a TIFF or PSD.


Why create a Master File?


•  It’s Multi-purpose: Use it to create separate files for a specific print size or printer, for the Web, for magazine output, etc. and you’ll stay consistent between those files.


•  It’s easily correctable: for color, contrast, cropping, enhancements, etc. non-destructively (loss of digital information).


•  Sharpening is applied according to your print size: Let’s say that your Master File is created from a RAW file – It might be around 13″x20” at 300 ppi – If you sharpen for this size and reduce the file to prep for a 4×6 print, it will be over-sharpened.


So, bottom line, Matt: I’d strongly suggest you NOT save your final important images as a JPG, and consider the concept of a Master File for your important images, saved instead as a TIFF or PSD – and thanks for the great question!




John 🙂


PS – By the way: if you want a genuine, bonafide, certified “pro” (me!) to create a Master File for your best images (AND make it a “teachable moment”), that is a service I provide – more here:



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