The last time you saw something—seriously, anything—online, there’s a good chance you were looking at a raster image. You just didn’t know it. But what are raster images, and what does it have to do with the graphics you see on your computer or your phone? Here’s the quick and dirty explanation behind today’s digital imagery.

What Are Raster Images?

Also known as a bitmap, a raster image is a digital expression of an image using pixels as its foundation. Pixels distill color information into a single dot as a fraction of the image. From far away, the collection of pixels—also known as a dot matrix—approximates the overall image.

Raster images include today’s most familiar digital formats, such as .gif, .jpg, and .bmp. The higher the resolution of the raster image, or the more pixels viewed overall, the more realistic and sharp the image will be.

Source: unsplash
Zoom in close enough, and you’ll only see individual pixels of static colors. But zoom out, and raster images can represent sharp images like Saturn.

How Are Raster Images Created?

Raster images are essentially the compilation of thousands of small dots, or pixels, with specific color information.

This stands in contrast to vector images. Vectors use lines and algorithms rather than individual points to construct their graphics. When zooming in on a raster image, you’ll eventually find the individual dots that don’t look much like the resulting images. But zoom in on a curved letter in a vector image, and you’ll see that the algorithm of lines keeps the image smooth at any size.

raster images
Source: unsplash
Raster art tends to focus on pixelation and filling individual “nodes” with one color at a time. 

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What Are Raster Images Used For?

Pixelation makes it possible to transmit image data with a surprising amount of speed and quality. When you download a raster image, your screen can recreate a sharp, realistic, vividly colored image that resembles real life.

For that reason, they tend to be the preferred imagery in digital formats. Turn on your TV and watch Netflix, and you’re streaming a series of raster images. Send out a picture on Instagram, and you’re sending out the individual pixels that build these images. Today’s raster images are what make fast, sharp visual communication possible.

Convert Raster Images to Vector Images

The one thing raster images lack—scalability—is the exact quality that defines vector images. 

That’s one reason some people prefer vectors. This is particularly true for brand images and logos. A company might need to reproduce its logo in different sizes without losing any image quality. That’s where vectors come in.

There are lots of ways to convert raster images to vector images. Vectorization usually requires specific software, like Adobe Illustrator, but there are online portals as well. Vector Magic, for instance, makes it possible to take your images and “vectorize” them into something new and scalable. You can also look into using Procreate to create modern digital illustrations from scratch.

raster images
You can create vector drawings with Adobe Illustrator. 

Why Raster Graphics Are So Important in the Digital Age

How ubiquitous are raster graphics? Chances are, you’re looking at these words not as vector images but as a series of dots on your pixelated screen. Think of these pixels essentially as the atoms of the digital world: the smallest points that turn electronic screens into sharp images, gradient colors, and individual words. 

It’s true that you can use raster graphics technology to create art. But today’s raster graphics aren’t just a style of art. Along with vectors, they comprise the entire canvas of the Internet.

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