Whether you run a small business, or your work just involves visuals, there comes a moment in your professional path when you receive an graphic design file and you cannot open it. Oh, the panic! Read on for the key facts about the most used raster and vector graphics formats – and how you can use them.
It’s not by chance that graphic design is a huge field in today’s online landscape. You need visuals in practically all digital endeavors – from your website to your everyday social media posts. Naturally, when you’re not good at design and illustration, it’s best to collaborate with a designer or another visual artist.
All sounds perfect, until the moment you receive the dreamt images that you have to upload on, say, your website. You suddenly realize that you have no idea how to open them, let alone how to embed them in the right place.
If you often need to work with visuals, it’s worth investing a bit of time to explore the most popular file formats you’d stumble on in your daily tasks. While the information out there is enormous, you just need to get the basics.
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The most important visual file formats you should know
If you had to learn the intricacies about all the visual file formats out there, you’d need a couple of months to get a full grasp of them. But if you just need to work with ready-made visuals provided by graphic designers, photographers or illustrators, there’s just a small list of formats that you should care about.
Raster graphics formats
There are two important sets of file formats that you should consider. The first type are raster formats. Raster graphics are made up of pixels, or points, which form a rectangular grid that makes up the image. Most digital visuals are stored as raster files. The most popular ones include JPEG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF. PSD files are also quite well-known, as they are the editable files for Adobe Photoshop.
That’s probably the most well-known visual format out there. It’s often used for photographic images. The trick with JPEG is that it’s highly compressed – which is great for fast loading online, but it comes at the price of quality.
In most cases, digital cameras capture photos in JPEG format. You can choose the quality parameters of the file before shooting, such as compression and size. JPEG is also the most commonly used format for online use because of its small size. High-quality JPEG images will have few to none visual defects, and in the same time will be easy to upload and load. The format supports both RGB and CMYK colors.
The second most popular raster file format you want to learn about is PNG. It is the equivalent of JPEG, but for so-called ‘synthetic’ images rather than photos. PNG offers lossless compression and is great for screenshots and other digitally created visuals. It allows for creation of transparent areas of the image. The format supports only RGB colors. You can work with it in image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop, but can view them with any regular image viewing program.
In addition, you may stumble upon three popular variants of the PNG format: PNG-8 PNG-24, and PNG-32. PNG-8 supports up to 256 colors and is good for simple graphics. PNG-24 can handle up to 16 million colors and is suitable for more complex graphics. Finally, PNG-32 is the most advanced option that supports full transparency and is great for images that contain gradients, rounded edges and a multitude of colors.
Another common raster format that’s used online is GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format. It’s a bitmap image format that can have 8 bits per pixel. The compression is lossless, which means it protects the quality of the image. It’s best for logos and other visuals with a limited number of colors.
The GIF format supports small animations and low-resolution videos. In fact, it’s mostly known for its moving images that are used to create internet memes. There are a number of programs with which you can create GIFs, such as GIPHY. You can view the files with your basic image software.
One of the popular file formats of Adobe Photoshop is TIFF, or Tagged Image File Format. It’s often used when scanning images, but also comes in application for online publishing and image manipulation.
TIFF offers lossless compression and is thus preferred by photographers and visual artists because of the high quality of the image it can provide. You can edit it in programs like Adobe Photoshop, but viewing is supported by most image programs.
PSD, or Adobe Photoshop Document file, is the native raster format of Adobe Photoshop. It supports layers, which makes it great for creating graphics and manipulating photographs. The format can be opened with Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, and CorelDRAW. PSD files can be up to 30,000 pixels in width and length. The size of the file can be up to two gigabytes.
Once designers are ready with their work in a PSD, they typically export the image in a format that flattens the layers, such as JPEG or PNG. When you convert a PSD into a flat file, however, you cannot return back to using the layers.
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Vector graphics formats
The second type of digital visual formats are called vector graphics. Unlike raster images, vector files represent visuals through polygons. They consist of vectors which pass through certain points on the working board. The points are positioned on x and y-axes and signify the direction of the vector. The path that is constructed through the points can be given a number of attributes. You can assign its shape, curve, filling, width and color.
AI is the native file format of Adobe Illustrator, and stands for Adobe Illustrator Artwork. You can edit AI files in the Illustrator software, as well as in CorelDRAW and Adobe After Effects. The format is one of the most popular vector ones and support single-page images.
You can create various shapes, use text boxes, and apply effects on the graphics. The format allows for easy scaling and reshaping without losing image quality. Typically, AI files are converted to EPS and PDF formats once ready.
EPS stands for Encapsulated PostScript and is most commonly used for exporting AI files from Adobe Illustrator. EPS files support text, vector graphics, and bitmap images. While the graphics are treated as vectors, the format also contains a bitmap preview image inside.
One of the most popular applications of the EPS format is for saving logos. The file allows you to easily change the size of the vector graphic without losing quality and ending up with a pixelized image. You can work with EPS files also in Adobe Photoshop and InDesign.
The PDF file format barely needs any introduction. The acronym stands for Portable Document Format. The file supports text, graphics and fonts. It preserves their shape and position and is thus great for printing.
You can create PDF files in the main Adobe programs, such as Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. You can view the format in Adobe Acrobat Reader.
The native format of Adobe InDesign is INDD. Besides text and visuals, the format contains information about the formatting and page content and is thus a great choice for layout setting.
INDD support multi-page file creation, so it is the preferred way to create documents with text and imagery for print. Designers and layout professionals use the format for books, brochures and newspapers, which can be used both online and offline once exported as PDF files.
SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphics and is a vector format. It supports text, 2D graphics, and bitmap images. Just like other vector files, it preserves the shapes of objects and can be scaled without loss of quality, so it does not depend on an image resolution.
SVG was created and is being used for website graphics. The format is XML-based, which means that all data about the image is saved in the form of text. You can edit SVG files in most text editors and view them in browsers.
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Which file format should you ask for?
Besides being able to open the files that graphic designers send you, knowing the popular graphics formats is important at the first stages of the image creation as well. When you start working with a designer, you have to clarify what the needs of your project are. For this purpose, you have to be aware what types of files you will need – whether you need them only for digital use, for print or both.
If you’re collaborating with a visual artist on creating your brand logo, for example, it’s a good idea to ask for the full set of files – working vector files, typically from Adobe Illustrator, and the compressed versions, which are in raster formats such as JPEG and PNG.
For print publications, designers often work in Adobe InDesign. In these cases, it’s best to ask for the original INDD files, together with the final exported files, which are often PDFs.
In other cases, you may not need the vector files from Illustrator or InDesign. If you’re posting visuals on your social media accounts, it may suffice to get simply the compressed raster images and use them straight away. If you need photograph retouching, you would usually ask for the Photoshop files, together with the exported JPEGs.
Ready to juggle with the basic graphics formats?
We promise it’s not so tough to get a hold of the most popular visual formats. Just make sure you can differentiate between raster and vector graphics, and that you know the various software programs with which you can open the respective formats.
What’s your top advice for learning the basics about visual file formats? Share your know how in the comments, please!