Photoshop Foundation – The Difference between Vector and Bitmap Graphics

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Introduction

Welcome to the first in a new series of articles on Photoshop – the Photoshop Foundations series. The aim of this series is to give both beginners and more experienced users all the information they need to use Photoshop as efficiently as possible. Photoshop is a huge application, and there is usually more than one way to look at a given subject, or perform a certain action. This series aims to both, guide you through the more confusing aspects of Photoshop and show you the very best ways to use this application.

In this first article we are going to look at the difference between vector and bitmap graphics, which is one of the most important principles to understand when working with graphics on a computer, inside or outside of Photoshop. Although Photoshop primarily is a bitmap image editor, it is capable of handling vector graphics to a certain extent. This can be a little confusing for people new to creating graphics on a computer, but by the end of this article you should have a clear idea of the difference between these two types of graphics.

Bitmap Graphics

Bitmap graphics are made up of colored pixels. Pixels are very small rectangles (usually square, although in some video applications they are wider than they are tall) of varying colors that once put together give you an image. You can see from the example below that zooming in on a bitmap image reveals the pixels that make up the image when viewed at 100%.

 

Photoshop Foundation - The Difference between Vector and Bitmap Graphics

Bitmap graphics are usually (but not always) photographic in nature, capable of subtle graduated tones – often in the range of millions of colors per image. The problem with bitmap graphics is that they don’t enlarge well as Photoshop needs to guess what color the extra pixels should be – this can result is loss of definition and a dramatic lowering in quality, depending on how much you enlarge the image. Common file formats for bitmap image data include GIF, JPEG and PNG for Internet usage and TIFF for print usage. As you can see from the example below, physically enlarging an image will degrade quality.

Photoshop Foundation - The Difference between Vector and Bitmap Graphics

Pixels are also used to display the image on your computer screen. Common pixel dimensions of computer displays are 1024 wide by 768 high and 1600 wide by 1200 high. The size of a bitmap graphic when viewed on your computer screen is defined by the number of pixels that make up the image – so an image that is 50 pixels wide will look very small on your screen at 100% viewing percentage, whereas an image that is 4000 pixels wide will be larger than your screen at 100% viewing percentage.

The printable dimensions of an image are defined by the DPI (dots per inch) – this information is invisibly embedded in the image file. Digital cameras often embed information such as this, that may include the conditions the image was taken in, and even the camera model used. This information is not actually visible in the image, and requires software such as Photoshop to read it.

You should not confuse the output DPI of your printer with this figure, which may range from 600-2400DPI – this refers to the density of the dots of ink laid down on the page by the printer. You don’t have to prepare your images to 2400 DPI to get the best results – in fact doing so will significantly slow down printing as your file could potentially be huge! Often an image DPI in the range of 175-250 will give very good results on home printers. Images prepared for high quality commercial print are usually prepared at 300 DPI for up to A3 in size; whereas very large images (for instance on billboards) can be as low as 50 DPI, as they are not made to be viewed as closely as a magazine or small poster. There is no need to go above 300 DPI when creating images as you will yield virtually no improvement in output quality, only increasing the size of your file when saved.

It is easy to understand the relationship between pixel dimensions and DPI – put simply, the DPI is how many pixels will be printed in an inch – so you could actually think of DPI as PPI (pixels per inch). Indeed, many experts believe this to be the true definition of DPI, and that Photoshop should refer to it as such. However, the term DPI is used throughout the professional print industry, so this is why it is referred to as DPI in Photoshop, not PPI.

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