Bitmap vs. Vector: Which should you use?


There are an almost endless number of file types for storing images. When a new piece of photo-editing software enters the market, a stream of proprietary file types are sure to follow. It’s almost to the point where you need a whole volume of user’s guides just to understand how to save your images in the correct format. You also need to know if you are primarily editing images or viewing them. Do you want to show them in high-definition large format or are you willing to sacrifice quality for smaller file sizes?

The key is to remember that images tend to come in two varieties, bitmap and vector, and they each serve a specific purpose. Here is a quick and dirty guide for knowing when you need bitmap, and when to go vector:

Realism vs. abstraction

Bitmap images store data about every single pixel in an image. Alternatively, vector images only store the mathematical data about the image’s various elements. In general, bitmaps should be used when you are working with photographs of life-like images. You need the extra information to ensure the image is as faithful to the source as it can be. By comparison, vector images are more useful when you are creating images from scratch. With that in mind, take a look at Shutterstock’s front page. Can you tell which images are bitmap and which are vector?

Color vs. black and white

The most important data that a bitmap stores is the color of each pixel. That’s basically how digital images work, by tricking your eye into thinking a certain combination of multi-colored pixels is actually an apple. The more pixels, the better the trick (and the larger the file size). Bitmaps are good at storing color information, even if you are working in gray scale. Vector, by comparison, doesn’t care much about color. It’s more concerned with shape and scale.

Image fidelity vs. file size

As digital cameras refine their ability to capture detail with incredible precision, the resulting files continue to grow in size. When these cameras started to appear on the market, it was rare to see an image file go above a few megabytes. Now, it’s not uncommon to see files go into the hundreds of megabytes, especially if you’re shooting in raw mode. Luckily, hard drive space, processing power and bandwidth has also evolved to support theses larger files. By and large, bitmap images remain the primary mode for storing large images. It provides the highest level of detail and is relatively scalable so you can easily compress the files to smaller sizes. Vector images are small by nature, and only a real pro can use vectors to create complicated, realistic images.

Viewing vs. making

Just because you’re looking at a bitmap image doesn’t mean it was always a bitmap image. If you look at the logo on your favorite website, for example, it most likely has an abstract, geometric style that is typical of vector drawings. That’s because vector images are typically preferred when working in image production software. It’s a fast and flexible way to create new images, and the reliance on mathematics means that the results tend to have a geometric balance and clean composition. That said, once a vector image is created, designers tend to convert them to bitmap so that they can more easily be shared with the public. Most web browsers don’t support vector graphics, whereas bitmap formats like JPEG and GIF are considered the standard.



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