"Terracotta" brand logo printed in different sizes across packaging accessories

Raster vs vector images: How to use each image file type

Reading time: 7 minutes

Raster and vector are technical terms that describe the majority of images we encounter on a screen. While the average user doesn’t need to know the difference, anyone who works professionally with digital imagery — including artists, graphic designers and small business owners — needs a basic understanding of exactly what raster vs vector means for image file types.

The terms “vector” and “raster” describe how digital images are constructed, and this affects every aspect of how they work. Each image type is best suited for different contexts, so it’s important to know which is needed for your design project as early as possible. Fortunately, these technical terms have straightforward explanations. Read on to learn what raster and vector images are, the key differences between them and how to use them.

Table of contents

What is a raster image?

A raster image is any digital photograph or illustration made up of pixels. Pixels are minute squares fixed in place on a computer and are reserved for color information (either solid or semi-transparent). When viewed from a distance, the individual pixels disappear to the human eye, creating a seamless raster image.

The amount of pixels within a raster image, referred to as pixel density, is what determines image resolution, or the degree of visual detail and clarity. At a low resolution, the pixels become more visible, which is why a raster image might look blurry or “pixelated.” At a higher resolution, the raster image is detailed and clear.

Colorful packaging with zoomed in sample shows pixelated quality of raster images

A raster image is any digital photograph or illustration that is made up of pixels

How to create a raster image

Raster is the definitive image type for digital cameras, meaning they are automatically generated when shooting photos or videos. The product specs on the physical camera determine the pixel density of each captured image.

Non-photographic raster images, like digital painting or illustration, are created within raster image software like Adobe Photoshop. These programs contain digital paintbrush tools that the artist draws along the screen to create a raster image — just as they would a brush on a physical canvas.

What is a vector image?

A vector image is any digital image constructed out of points and lines, commonly referred to as paths. The position and curvature of these paths are determined by mathematical formulas the computer calculates behind the scenes. When the image is resized, placing the paths in different positions, the computer automatically recalculates these formulas to reproduce the image at a new scale. This makes vector images infinitely scalable with no loss in visual quality.

Zoomed in colorful logo represents the scalable quality of vector images

A vector image is any digital image that is constructed out of points and lines

How to create a vector image

Vector images are created in vector image software like Adobe Illustrator. Using vector tools within the program, artists place points on the canvas, connect those points and give curvature to the resulting paths.

While the points disappear in the final exported image, the paths combine to form geometric shapes composed of two elements: strokes and fills. Strokes are the basic borders of the shape, and they can be made invisible or given weight to create a visible outline. The fill is the area within a completely closed path (that is, a shape), and it is typically assigned a solid color. A typical vector image thus combines multiple shapes and fill colors.

Raster vs vector image file types: what’s the difference?

Although raster and vector formats both produce digital images, these images vary drastically in resolution, visual style, file compatibility and their creation process. Each of these are important factors to consider when deciding whether a vector or raster image is right for your project.

Resolution

Because raster images are fixed pixels, they are resolution-dependent. This means that their resolution is determined by their inherent pixel density (measured in Pixels Per Inch, or PPI, in design software), and this restricts the image to its original size. In other words, resolution-dependent images cannot be scaled up without lowering the resolution, since the existing pixels would be spread over a broader area, decreasing the pixel density.

High and low-resolution versions of same cardboard product packaging

Raster images are resolution-dependent, which means they become “pixelated” when stretched beyond their original size

Because vector images are flexible mathematical formulas, they are resolution-independent. This means they can be scaled to any size without any sacrifices to image quality since there are no fixed pixels. Image detail is instead determined by the amount of shapes and colors the artist chooses to include.

Image style

Because raster and vector images are different digital materials (pixels vs shapes), each format naturally results in a different visual style.

Between the two, raster images are the most stylistically versatile. Raster programs can be used both for minimalist artwork, high resolution photographs/photorealistic illustrations and everything in between. Because a raster image can contain millions of pixels, the shading, lighting, amount of colors and detail are all up to the artist.

Beer label with a video game-inspired digital painted label

Raster illustrated beer label by -Z- via 99designs by Vista

colorful mascot logo for juice carton with monster design

Vector illustration by bayuRIP via 99designs by Vista

Because vector images are individual shapes created one-at-a-time by the artist, they are most useful for simplified or cartoonish styles. While the artist is ultimately in control of the amount of shapes and colors the artwork contains, creating high degrees of realistic detail is much more cumbersome in vector than in raster programs.

Artistic process

Many raster programs simulate paint brushes to make image production feel as natural as possible. Artists often connect a digital tablet to their computer and make brush strokes with a stylus pen. This creates an artistic process that closely mirrors painting in the real world.

Vector programs, on the other hand, involve more of a learning curve — even for experienced designers. The process of placing points, connecting lines and combining shapes is far less intuitive than digital painting. Rather than a digital tablet and stylus pen, the physical process is typically limited to pointing and clicking with a mouse.

Illustration of a digital artist working at her home studio

Raster artists use a digital tablet and stylus pen to mimic painting on a computer. Illustration by fitriandhita via 99designs by Vista

File types and software compatibility

Most creative software will be able to open and display both raster and vector images, and some may even include tools for working with both. However, there are dedicated programs that are best suited for creating and editing each type of image.

Raster image software:

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Affinity Photo
  • GIMP
  • Procreate
  • Corel Painter

Vector image software:

  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Affinity Designer
  • Inkscape
  • CorelDRAW
Screenshot of an illustration within the Affinity Designer graphics software window

Source via Affinity Designer

When images are created in these programs, they are exported to either a vector or raster image file type. To tell whether an image you’ve sourced is raster or vector, look to the file extension.

Raster image file types:

  • PSD
  • JPG/JPEG
  • PNG
  • GIF
  • TIFF
  • BMP
  • HEIC

Vector image file types:

  • AI
  • EPS
  • SVG
  • PDF

When to use vector or raster file formats

When to use raster images

Because they are capable of high degrees of detail but are dependent on resolution, raster images are best used for design projects with fixed sizes and collages of images.

Photographic collage book cover design for a literary novel

Raster collage book cover design by green in blue via 99designs by Vista

Common uses for raster images:

  • Photography
  • Photorealistic illustration
  • Postcards
  • Flyers
  • Brochures
  • Signage
  • Menus
  • Album covers
  • Book covers
  • Product packaging

When to use vector images

Because they are resolution independent but less capable of detail, vector images are better suited to design projects with variable sizes and minimalist styles.

Tropical logo design for a pediatric dentistry

Vector logo design by bo_rad via 99designs by Vista

Common uses for vector images:

  • Logo design and branding materials
  • Typeface design
  • Web and app design
  • Apparel design
  • Cartoon illustrations
  • Animated graphics/characters

Frequently asked questions about vector and raster images

How can you tell whether an image is raster or vector?

Because different file types (listed above) are reserved for either vector or raster images, the file extension is the easiest way to identify the image type. Alternatively, zooming in on an image file in its native program reveals whether it has pixels (raster) or smooth lines (vector).

Can you convert a raster image into a vector image?

Because vector and raster files are fundamentally different, conversion is not always possible. Vector images are less complex, so converting from vector to raster is as simple as exporting the image to a raster file type. Converting from raster to vector, however, requires completely redrawing the image. While some vector graphics software include autotracing tools (“Image Trace” in Adobe Illustrator), this only works with the simplest designs. Raster images containing complex detail and colors, like photographs, cannot be recreated as vector images.

Can you combine vector and raster images?

It is possible to combine vector and raster images in the same composition, but the file will have to be exported as one image type. Because it is easier to convert a vector to a raster, the exported file will almost always be raster.

Vector and raster images made simple

Raster and vector images each have benefits and drawbacks, which is why it’s important to determine your design project’s imagery needs right away. If your project will be printed at a single size, will contain stock photography or will have a general painterly style, raster images are the way to go. If your project will be printed in multiple different sizes, often edited and won’t require photorealistic detail, vector images are the better choice. And when it comes to creating and printing your images, avoid the technical hassles and work with a professional.