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There comes a moment in every graphic designer’s life when you first encounter the term vector graphic.. it’s usually preceded or followed by another unfamiliar (and alarmingly mathematical-sounding) term – raster graphic.
If these terms automatically evoke bad memories of high school Physics Class – or even worse– Trigonometry- don’t be alarmed.
Vector graphics and raster graphics aren’t all that complicated to understand. Even better, you won’t need your calculator to figure this out.
Here’s the main difference between them: Vector graphics are path-based. Raster graphics are pixel-based.
There’s a little more to it than that, of course. And understanding the difference is important.
The sooner you master vector & raster graphics, the sooner you’ll go from total design noob to expert level graphic artist (pronounced ar-teest).
Here’s what we’ll be covering in this post:
- What a vector is, the pros/cons, and the common file types of vector graphics
- What a raster is, the pros/cons, and the common file types of raster graphics
- The role of Photoshop & Illustrator in vector vs raster graphics
- How to convert vector graphics into raster graphics and vice-versa
What is a Vector Graphic?
First off, what even is a vector graphic?
To put it simply…
A vector graphic is a graphic made up of paths (and not pixels).
The benefit of a vector graphic is that (thanks to math), it’s infinitely scalable. You can shrink it down or make it bigger, and it will stay perfectly crisp, clear, and proportional.
Common Vector File Type Extensions
Here are some common file extensions for vector graphics:
- .AI (Adobe Illustrator)
When to Use Vector Graphics
But other than understanding a vector graphic by it’s file extension, how do you know when to use one?
Most vector graphics are working files.
This means you aren’t usually going to visibly see vector graphics on display, if at all. But you might see the finished products that were made from vector graphics.
One occasion you always want to use a vector graphic is when designing a logo. (Even if you aren’t the designer, make sure your designer sends you this file.) This allows your logo to be editable with the right software. It can easily be converted into a cut file (think vinyl signs) or digitized for embroidery (shirts, hats, etc).
The most common vector graphic most people interact with on a daily basis is a .PDF.
Using the logo example again.. Even if you don’t have the vector file of your logo, if you have a .PDF – you can send it to your vinyl shop or graphic designer. They will be able to edit it to their specs using a program such as Adobe Illustrator.
The Pros & Cons of Vector Graphics
The PROS of vector graphics are:
- no background or bounding box
- no size constraints- infinitely scalable (larger or smaller) while maintaining sharpness, clarity, and proportion
- can easily be converted to raster graphics for display purposes
- useful for turning into product art
The CONS of vector graphics are:
- basic in appearance (less detailed)
- less realistic (they will always be a drawing or imitation of the real thing)
- most vector file types can’t be opened or edited with free computer software
What is a Raster Graphic?
Now that we know the meaning of vector graphic, let’s talk about raster graphics.
To put it simply…
A raster graphic is a graphic comprised of pixels.
Pixels are just tiny dots of light, and together a group of pixels makes up one large image. Generally, the higher the pixel count, the better quality the picture. The number of pixels that make up the image are known as the resolution.
This isn’t a hard concept for most of us to understand. After all, we interact with pixel-based images every day on our cameras, phones, TVs, etc.
Because it is made of pixels, you can’t scale a raster graphic infinitely the way you can a vector graphic. The maximum size and overall clarity of the image is going to depend on how many pixels it’s made of (aka it’s resolution).
Common Raster File Type Extensions
Here are some of the common file extensions for raster graphics:
When to Use Raster Graphics
So when should you work with raster graphics?
Raster graphics are the kind you most commonly see, because they are used as display graphics. Most of us interact with them every day.
Posting a photo on social media? Driving past a digital billboard? Just texted your BFF an animated GIF over iMessage? You guessed it.. all raster graphics.
Use raster graphics for anything you want people to SEE.
In general, the higher the resolution, the clearer the image. But keep in mind that your graphic is limited to the resolution of the device it’s being displayed on.
For example, you’ll never need to create a 4K image if it’s not being displayed on a device that supports 4K resolution. And even if the device supports 4k- chances are you can get just a sharp an image with a much smaller file size. In this instance, bigger doesn’t always equal better.
The Pros & Cons of Raster Graphics
The PROS of raster graphics are:
- extremely common file types
- can be opened, viewed, and edited with free computer software
- lots of rich colors
- fine detail
The CONS of raster graphics are:
- will become “pixelated” in appearance if you try to scale a raster past it’s maximum resolution
- not suitable for logo design, cutting vinyl, or embroidery
- difficult to convert to vector graphics
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The Role of Illustrator and Photoshop in Vector & Raster Graphics
Now we know the difference between vector graphics and raster graphics. We know what they are and when to use them, but questions remain, like:
How do we create vector and raster graphics?
How do we edit them?
There are other programs that work for these purposes, but my favorite programs are by Adobe.
Adobe Illustrator is software that is commonly used to create or edit vector-based graphic art.
Adobe Photoshop is software that is commonly used to create or edit raster-based graphic art.
As an industry standard, look to Adobe for basically anything related to the creation or editing of vector & raster graphics, but if you’re looking for free or alternative options – check out some of these:
A quick Google search will turn up even more results.
Converting Vector Graphics to Raster Graphics
The final thing we should cover about vector and raster graphics is the topic of conversion. Again – it’s not as scary as it sounds.
Can we convert vectors to rasters and vice-versa?
The good news is converting vector graphics to raster graphics is simple. It’s easy to do this in a program like Adobe Illustrator.
In Illustrator, simply save as or export your vector graphic as a .JPG, .PNG, .GIF, etc.
Remember, once you do this your graphic will have a set resolution and size, so be sure to scale it up or down before saving depending on your sizing needs. You can easily change your screen resolution in the document settings as well.
Converting Raster Graphics to Vector Graphics
Now for the not so-good-news.
Converting raster graphics to vector graphics isn’t easy.
But how difficult or easy it is depends on some different factors.
To convert raster graphics to vector graphics, you’ll need to use what Adobe Illustrator calls Image Trace. Alternatively, you could trace it by hand with your pen tool.
The trouble is that Image Trace can have a really hard time capturing all the detail of a raster image.
If the raster is comprised of just a few high-contrast colors, you’re in luck.
If it’s got lots of detail, tons of colors, and not enough contrast…Image Trace may not detect anything at all. Chances are you’re going to have quite a headache by the time you get done.
If you get it done, that is.
Long story short, when you convert a raster to a vector, you’re almost ALWAYS going to lose detail. Sometimes that’s ok, and other times it isn’t. It’s all relative.
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