What is the most effective format to manage aerial photography for viewing in ArcGIS?

I manage several datasets of Aerial Photography at a few different companies. I have backups of the original photography, so I'm not worried about keeping the original format in any way. What I need to do is create a small dataset, as too not take up much space on the server, that also draws as quickly as possible in ArcGIS.

So far I had been using GRID's in a File GeoDatabase, but that was just because I has assumed it was the standard. I then switched to TIFF's which were smaller, but seemed to draw slower. Before I do another mass conversion, I'm hoping someone can offer guidance on this. I've heard some great things about JP2's and that's where I am likely heading next.

Also I don't want to reduce cell size, but other than that I have no restrictions in any answer.

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    Do you care if the data is lossless or lossy? Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 15:07
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    ecw is a very high compression can help with limited space. forums.arcgis.com/threads/…
    – Mapperz
    Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 15:09
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    ECW is a great format and Intergraph provide software for it to be read by ArcGIS for Desktop. However, if you are looking at serving it out later using Esri software there are likely to be licensing implications.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 2:04
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    JP2 has similar compressing algorithm as ECW, wavelet compression. See gdal.org/formats_list.html for a comprehensive list of formats as well as description and links to jpg-2000
    – Francesco
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 19:46
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    Do you have a an ArcSDE server? Raster storage in ArcSDE is performant and disk efficient if you use compression.
    – jeb
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


Generally I'd go with ECW over JP2 as the refresh rates for the ECW are better. There is MrSID to consider, but it is expensive - possibly more than ECW provided you're appropriately licensed, but at the extreme compression level (95% to 99%) they are clearer than similar ECW.

JP2 offers open source compressors, lossless compression and 4 band support (RGBA). A bit of a loss with aerial photography shouldn't matter too much; The alpha band can be great if you've got two scenes with irregular edges that need to be superimposed.

If you build the pyramids (use GDALAddO to build ovr files) for TIFF files they can be very fast too, and when you zoom in it depends on your compression (LZW, Zip, Deflate... many supported) as to how fast they are. There is a trade off between smaller sizes and CPU usage by using more intense compression and there is a possibility that some software will not like a particular compression method.

In the end JP2 is the best free format for aerial photography and IMHO ECW is the best paid format.

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    JP2 ended up being my choice as its a good format and met all my requirements. It also is much more widely known, which is essential when talking to people who don't know a whole lot about air photo's. Calling a tile a JPG or JP2 can help some people understand what your talking about.
    – Cody Brown
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 19:07
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    I can't argue with that logic. Recently we have 'discovered' that the new ERDAS ECW format opacity mask is recognized by ArcGIS, effectively making ECW support RGBA. I don't think that this will change your mind but it does make ECW far more useable, especially if you have multiple irregular images you need to display. Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 21:41

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