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Bitmap and Vector Graphics Explained
by Chance Agrella

As people begin working with computer graphics, one of the subjects of greatest confusion is the difference between bitmap graphics and vector graphics. This article will attempt to define both, then explain them as they relate to each other. I've tried to start as simply as I can while offering some tips for intermediate users about working with each.

The article is divided into three sections:

Part 1: What is a bitmap graphic?
Part 2: What is a vector graphic?
Part 3: Comparing Bitmaps and Vector Graphics

Part 1: What is a bitmap graphic?
A bitmap graphic (you may occasionally hear "raster" graphic) is basically a large grid - think of a huge checkerboard, or a screen door, or any grid with a lot of little squares. If you put a different color in each little square, you can build an image square by square. When you stand far enough away from the grid, the individual grid squares blend together and you see a complete photographic image. (See Illustration 1.)

Illustration 1
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Bitmap empty grid.... Filled with colored dots... Enough colored dots make a photo.

This is how computer monitors and televisions work - they both are a series of little squares (pixels) in a big grid (the screen). When you specify your monitor's resolution (800x600, 1024x768 etc), you are telling the computer how many dots across by how many dots tall, and thus you define the grid that gets filled in with dots to show the image. (See Illustration 2.)

This is also how the pixel or megapixel count of a digital camera is derived: If you have a 6.3 megapixel camera, that means the files produced by the sensor (digital film) will be something like 3072x2048. Just do the math - 3072 X(times) 2048 = 6,291,456. A megapixel is a million pixels, so we get 6.29 megapixels, which is close enough to 6.3 for the marketing people.

Illustration 2
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Computer screens, digital camera sensors and other devices rely on bitmap screens, with resolutions referred to as the "X" dimension by (x) the "Y" dimension.
Hopefully this is not huge news so far, but the important thing to get out of this is that the grid is finite, as in "of limited size." You can make a grid any size you want, but it will still be a defined size.

The quality and appearance  of a bitmap image is determined by (1) its size and (2) its resolution. In some instances, as when printing images to actual paper, "size" can refer to the number of pixels (like 800 x 600) or the physical dimensions (like 8 by 10 inches).

Resolution refers to a couple of different things in different contexts. Sometimes it references the density of pixels, and is usually expressed as Dots Per Inch (DPI).

Graphics have different resolutions for different purposes, and it's important to know how you will be using the graphic. If you don't have high enough resolution and you try to print an image, it will look blocky or fuzzy. If your image is very high resolution but you use it on the web, it will take longer than necessary to download.  So what resolution, or DPI, should you choose?

The traditional rule of thumb is 72 DPI for images that will only appear online and 300 dpi for images that can be commercially printed. If you are printing images at home, 200 DPI or so should give you acceptable results. Resolutions higher than 300 DPI generally will NOT give better printed results - you just get unnecessarily large file sizes. The term DPI also is seen in specifications for printer and scanners - how many dots per inch the device is capable of scanning or printing.

The term resolution is also used when referring to the overall size of a bitmap graphic, as in:

Question:"What's the resolution of that photo?"
Answer (1): "It's 2400 by 1600."
The answer could also be (2): "It's 300 dpi."
The best answer would be (3): "It's 2400 by 1600 at 300 dpi."

So, for best results you may need to know the number of pixels, the resolution, the physical size, and how the image is to be used. Especially when the images are to be printed by a commercial printer, you have to know dimensions and the DPI to ensure a quality result.

Working with and resizing bitmaps:
Bitmaps are easy to work with as long as you think ahead and know what you have to work with. Bitmaps can effectively be made smaller, but cannot be made larger without degrading the quality of the graphic. For example, if you are working with an image that is 250x250 pixels, you can shrink it to 100x100 and it will look great - there is extra information that can be discarded. However, if you want to make the image 1000x1000, Photoshop will let you do it, but the image quality will suffer. Let's see some numbers:

Original Image - 250x250: 62,500 pixels (250 * 250).

Smaller Image - 100x100: 10,000 pixels (100 * 100) - Photoshop can discard 52,500 pixels and still have all the information needed to make the 100x100 image.

Larger Image - 1000x1000: 1,000,000 pixels (1000 * 1000) - Photoshop can make a grid of 1000x1000 pixels, but what should go in them? There are 62,500 pixels to work with, but that leaves 937,500 pixels unaccounted for! That's 15 times what we have to work with. To compensate, Photoshop will interpolate to create the missing data. That means it will look at what it has to work with and create a best guess as to what is needed. It actually does a remarkably good job, but the image may well suffer noticeably if you increase the image size more that 10 percent or so.

To avoid this damaging interpolation, one needs to think ahead and create a document as large or larger than will ever be needed. That way you can shrink the graphic to any size you need, and it will always look great. If you have files from a digital camera, start with the largest size and work down, then keep the larger original someplace where you can come back to it

One word of caution - if you make an image smaller in Photoshop, that information is gone. You cannot resize the image back to its original size and get your original image. (See Illustration 3.)

For instance, you have a 250x250 image and you use "Image Size" to drop the size to 75x75. Since you are making the graphic smaller, Photoshop dumps the information that is no longer needed. ((250 X 250) - (75 X 75) = (62,500 - 5,625) = 56,875 discarded pixels). If you then change your mind and use "Image Size" to put the size back to 250x250, Photoshop DOES NOT go back to what you started with - it will take that 5,625 pixels you're left with and guess (interpolate) the other 56,875, leaving you with a badly degraded image. With any luck, you didn't save and close the file, so you can "Revert" to get back to the original or go back in your history palette to a state before you resized the first time.

Illustration 3
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Original at 250x250...

Resize to 75x75 - still looks good.

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Changed mind and sized back to 250x250. Photoshop interpolates up, image loses lots of detail. Here is a comparison at 200% magnification to show loss.

 Some advantages of bitmap graphics:
- Bitmaps can represent complex, photographic images. The grid can be filled with thousands or millions of subtle variations of color to recreate the complexity found in the world around us.

- Bitmaps are quite universal - almost any program can work with simple bitmap file formats, and they require little system overhead to properly display.

Some disadvantages of bitmap:
- Since you have a finite amount of information, bitmaps are not effectively scaleable to larger sizes. You can increase the size of the image, but there is no information to occupy the space so the software interpolates to create a best guess.

Illustration 4
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
To save the file, the computer needs to record the color of X1Y1, then X2Y1, then X3Y1, etc., until the entire grid, possibly millions of squares, has been recorded.
- Bitmap file sizes can get quite large, especially if not compressed in some way. Depending on the resolution of the bitmap graphic, it can require lots of information to record the contents of the grid. Each little square in the grid has an X and Y coordinate, and the computer has to record which of the thousands or millions of color choices is present for each square. Illustration 4 has 16 little squares, but a typical bitmap can have millions of squares to record. This can chew up a lot of information.

- Bitmaps do not maintain editability. You cannot open a typical (non-Photoshop format) bitmap file and modify it as though you were the originator - there is no layer or other information in most bitmap files (TIFF, PICT, JPEG, etc...).

Bitmap formats:
Some of the most prominent bitmap formats are: TIFF (.tif), BMP (.bmp), PICT (.pct), GIF (.gif), JPEG (.jpg). There are others as well. Photoshop's native PSD format used to be bitmap only, but now has support for text and vector layers as well.

Part 2: What is a vector graphic?
In regards to this discussion, a vector graphic is one in which the shape or path of a line is defined by a bit of math. Vector graphics are basically points connected by lines of various shapes, filled with solid or gradient colors. So it's point A, connected to point B by a line of some shape, with the shape of that line defined by a little mathematical description. More points and more lines can make more complex shapes. The line that defines the vector shape is referred to as the path. (See Illustration 5).

Illustration 5
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Two versions of the same two points (A & B). Only the math that describes how to get from A to B (the path) is different. Five points and the path between them can make a simple shape. Use enough points and you make things like the Freerange Stock logo.

Drawing a shape with math? What's that supposed to mean? Well, if we think back to our algebra classes, lines and curves can be drawn in an X and Y coordinate space by graphing equations. (See Illustration 6.) In Illustration 6, a graceful curved line (parabola) is drawn simply by graphing the equation y = (x squared). By making the math more complicated, you can define more nuanced shapes. And there is no grid to worry about: as you make y = (x squared) much larger or much smaller, the line of the parabola is still perfectly defined. Its resolution is infinite.

Illustration 6
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
The blue line is a graph of the little equation y=(x squared)
Basic geometric shapes like lines, circles, ovals, squares, rectangles and polygons with any number of sides, are mathematically simple and are a good starting point for vector graphics.

Images made up of shapes, like line drawings and illustrations and logos, are often well suited for vector formats. Images with dense, differing colors, like photographic images, are NOT well suited to vector graphic formats.

Some advantages of vector graphics:
There are (at least) three very neat things about vector graphics:

- First, the file sizes are usually very small - rather than describing the many, many squares in a bitmap, it is only necessary to describe the math involved in recreating the image. For example, the Freerange Stock logo file used as the basis for the third panel of Illustration 5 above is only 36KB.

- Second, they have infinite resolution - no matter how large you expand or how small you contract the image, the math creating it holds up and it will always show smooth, clear edges and details. The little 36KB logo file mentioned above can be printed at ANY size (see Illustration 7) and will look great.

Illustration 7
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Here's the Freerange vector logo, viewed at 100% on screen. Here's a wingtip from the same logo, blown up to 1600% on screen. Still sharp.
- Third, the image remains editable as long as it remains in a vector format - any program that can understand the math will open the graphic can and modify its shapes, arrangements and colors. The points along the path can be moved around, and, when selected, have little arms sticking out of them - drag the arm and it changes the shape of the path as it passes through that point.

Once a "universal" version (usually an .eps file) of a graphic or a logo is PROPERLY originated, it can be used by may people and many different software packages. You do not have to recreate images in each application - this saves time and allows you to distribute and have greater control over your logo/brand/whatever. This can also be a big mess (see disadvantages below...).

Some disadvantages of vector graphics:
- The primary thing to keep in mind with vectors is this: Vector formats are NOT well suited to photographic images. The many colors and complexity necessitated by representing photographic subjects quickly overwhelms the formats. This isn't necessarily a disadvantage - it's just not something for which vector formats are well suited. Similarly, for advanced manipulation and complex colorings and lighting effects, you would need to rasterize (defined in Part 3) the vector into a bitmap and go from there.

- Vector formats aren't as universally interoperable as bitmaps. Even "universal" formats like .eps are often misused and misunderstood, so trying to give a vector graphic to your friend who doesn't have the same software can be a struggle. (Especially, in my experience, using Corel products.) Without caution and some expertise, your logo or graphic can be distorted, have the wrong fonts, be the wrong color, be uselessly low resolution or be missing entirely. On the other hand, once it's worked out properly it can be an advantage (see above...).

Vector graphics we use everyday: Type!
Did you know that we all use vector graphics everyday? Fonts are vector graphics shaped like letters, and they illustrate the behavior of vectors very well. First, small file size - an entire font, composed of many letters, numbers and symbols, is a small file that can easily be downloaded or emailed. Second, scalability and resolution independence - type can be set to any size and it never starts to look chunky. (That is, if your fonts are properly installed and used. There are cases where fonts will look chunky and have stair-stepped edges, but that's another topic.)

So when you install and use a font, you are working with vector graphics - some programs (mostly the illustration programs mentioned below, like Illustrator and Freehand) even allow you to convert these text shapes into editable shapes or paths. Once converted to paths (see Illustration 8), you can modify the shape of the letters or fiddle with them anyway you like.

Illustration 8
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
This is an "F" as it normally appears on screen - nothing unusual. Here's the "F" after Converted to Paths in an illustration program. Now it's just a vector shape... And it can be edited just like any other vector shape - drag the points around to redefine the path.

Programs that use vector graphics:
Many programs can use vector graphics in one form or another. Page layout programs like Quark XPress and Adobe InDesign can import, place, scale and distort (but not create or otherwise modify) vector graphics, usually in the forms of an .eps file. And they use text, which, we just noted, is basically a vector graphic.

Several other applications are also capable of using the files, but not creating them. Vector graphics are usually created in programs called illustration programs, like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe (formerly Macromedia) Freehand or Corel Draw. These are the programs that allow you to start with a blank document, draw or design what you want, and then export a completed .eps file for use elsewhere.

Vector formats:
Some of the most prominent vector formats are EPS (Encapsulated Post Script - .eps), Adobe Illustrator (.ai), Adobe (formerly Macromedia) Freehand (.FHx). On a side note Adobe (formerly Macromedia) Flash files are mostly vector data.

Formats that can deal with both bitmaps and vector information:
Recent Photoshop versions use a .psd file that can include vector layers (like text and shapes and paths). Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (.pdf) files can contain bitmap images and vector data in many different forms. The .eps format is also capable of holding both vector and bitmap data, which is why this format can get messy as an interoperable standard for vector files. On a side note, the .eps file is basically the same file that a Post Script laser printer uses. (Remember, EPS is Encapsulated Post Script, and many laser printers use the Post Script language to format printed pages.) EPS/Post Script was developed by Adobe, and is also the basis of Adobe's now-universal PDF format.

Part 3: Comparing Vector vs. Bitmap Graphics
So far we've looked at bitmaps and vector graphics separately. Now let's summarize a bit and rehash this information as we compare some points about these graphic types.

Back and forth - converting Vector to Bitmap and Bitmap to Vector:
I've noted the fact that vectors and bitmaps have different uses and are manipulated differently in different programs. What if you have a logo you've made in Photoshop, but you'd like it to be a vector EPS file? Or what if you want to use or manipulate a vector illustration in your Photoshop document? Let's start with the latter:

In Photoshop, you can apply drop shadows, give texture and distort bitmap graphics in a way that is difficult or impossible in vector illustration programs. Luckily, there is a very slick way to get vectors into Photoshop: just open them. When you do this, you will get a dialog box asking you to enter the size you would like the file to become - enter any value, and Photoshop will rasterize the file.

Here's what that means, and what the dialog box is asking: Remember that vector files have infinite resolution, and that bitmap files have a defined resolution? Photoshop will set up a grid of any size you specify, then fill in that grid with information from the vector file, creating a perfect bitmap file from the original vector. Once the file has been rasterized into a Photoshop document, you end up with a bitmap file as large as you need it - no stair-stepped edges and no interpolation - which you can then manipulate as needed. I suggest rasterizing the vector in to a file larger than you think you will need, then shrinking the manipulated result down for use.

Going the other way requires a lot more work, at least for a clean result. To get a vector file out a bitmap original, make a selection of the area/shape you want to convert, then select Make Work Path in the Paths palette in Photoshop. You will be asked to define a tolerance - I suggest somewhere around the default value of one pixel. If you make the tolerance too small, you will have more detail, but a mess of extra points on the path to clean up. Too high a tolerance and the shape will be ill-defined, but will have fewer points to clean up.

The best option will vary depending on the shape, so experiment. Once you have a Work Path in something like the right shape, select Export > Paths to Illustrator and save the resulting Illustrator (.ai) file. You can then open the file in Illustrator or any program that can edit Illustrator files. There may well be a lot of smoothing and cleaning up to do, but you should have a good start.

When to use which, and why - a little case study:
Each graphic type has instances where it makes sense to use one or the other. Let's say we're doing a project that will get printed - an advertisement, an elaborate invitation, or a catalog cover. For best results, both vector and bitmap graphics should play a role. We'll use some photos - lots of colors, fixed/finite size from a digital camera. These files have to be bitmaps, probably .tif or .jpg or .pict files. Photos just can't be easily represented as a vector graphic. But the files will be comparatively large.

We also want to use a company logo and some simple illustrations. The graphic designer (or you) probably created these in an illustration program so they would be a portable, small-sized file that will print smoothly at any resolution. The files use simple, non-photorealistic colors, and we may want to edit them a bit to serve our needs. These files should be bitmaps - probably .EPS files for use in other programs.

We will also use some type, which as we said, is basically a vector file.

Illustration 9
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Here's an Image Catalog cover - both vector and bitmap graphics are used to ensure the best results when printed.
The logo/illustration files and the text files are going to be small files, and they will scale infinitely. If these files were bitmaps, we would have to worry about whether they were of adequate resolution for our use. I shudder to think of the number of times I've requested a logo from someone, only to have them send me the header from their website. This is a JPG file, and it is small, generally 250 x 100 pixels at the most. If the project is to be printed at 300 DPI, this gets us a printed image of nearly an inch by a third of an inch. Not much to work with. As we increase the dimensions and Photoshop interpolates up to a new size, it will look fuzzy and ugly very quickly. But with a vector EPS file, we could print a billboard and the edges would be razor sharp.

Once we have these files collected, we need a program that can work with both bitmaps and vector graphics. Traditionally, this has meant page layout programs like Quark XPress or Adobe InDesign, though as Photoshop has matured, it has become more adept at handling both bitmap and vector graphics. I now commonly use Photoshop to do page layout and often it works well. Regardless of the program, the vector and bitmap elements get integrated into one work. (See Illustration 9.)

More comparisons a bit more in depth:
File Size: I've said that vector file sizes are smaller, making them easier to distribute via email or any other electronic means. Let's take a look at some file sizes for the Freerange logo we've already used. I'll be comparing the Vector graphic to versions of that graphic that have been rasterized into bitmaps.

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Resolution: Vector Size: Bitmap Size:
250 x 78 36KB 57KB
800 x 248 36KB 581KB
1500 x 466 36KB 2000KB (2 MB)

This can go on and on, with the bitmap becoming very, very large. The vector file never changes size, no matter how larger it's needed. (Now, the other way to look at this is: "Vector files don't really have a resolution, so your table is inappropriate/stupid." This very true, but I'm trying to make a point.)

Scalability: When a vector graphic is placed in a document, it can be scaled up or down with no loss in quality. Bitmaps can be made smaller, but not larger without interpolation, which will degrade the quality of the image. (See Illustration 10.) Let's look at a couple of scaled images as vector and as bitmap - this is basically Illustration 7 with one extra panel:

Illustration 10
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK

Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Vectors And Bitmaps - Guide To Photoshop Basics - SHOP TALK
Here's the Freerange vector logo, viewed at 100% on screen. Here's a wingtip from the same logo, blown up to 1600% while still in vector format. Still sharp. Here's a wingtip from the same logo after being rasterized and blown up to 1600% in Photoshop. Not good.

Okay, that about wraps it up - I've approached the issue from a couple different angles, and I hope the Vector vs. Bitmap question has been somewhat clarified!

I have made some broad generalizations for the sake of clarity, so if this is your area of expertise feel free to contact me with suggestions or corrections.

Text and images copyright © Chance Agrella. Chance Agrella is Creative Director of DigiVideo Productions | dv designlabs, an instructor at the University of Arizona, and the founder of Freerange Stock, where you can download thousands of high quality stock photos for free.
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Turn your Photoshop designs into CSS websites with SiteGrinder - Photoshop plugin.
Turn your Photoshop designs into CSS websites with SiteGrinder - Photoshop plugin.
Turn your Photoshop designs into CSS websites with SiteGrinder - Photoshop plugin.
Turn your Photoshop
designs into websites
with SiteGrinder
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