Working with image files like photos or illustrations is something that many people now do every day, even if you’re not a graphic designer. And nothing is more frustrating than resizing or reformatting a graphic, only for it to become blurry or pixelated. 

Vector images are an alternative file format that allows images to be manipulated without losing any of their quality, no matter what shape or size. Instead of settling for imperfect graphics, vector files will keep your artwork looking its best on every device.

What Is a Vector Image?

At first glance, a vector file looks much like any other digital image. It isn’t until you start zooming in and out or trying to adjust the size that you realize the benefits of this file type.

A blue and yellow racoon graphic, made out of curved lines and shapes as a vector image in Adobe Illustrator.
Vector images are made out of shapes and lines to create a unified design. Still from Skillshare class Vector Basics: Mastering the Illustrator Pen Tool with Fun Results by Tim Eggert.

Vectors are made of a series of points assembled into lines, curves and shapes, all calculated based on mathematical formulas. Any shape on the Cartesian plane, a system of coordinates along an X and Y axis, can be used to make a vector image.

You can think of vectors like a connect-the-dots puzzle—they’re high resolution images that can be scaled to any size while retaining their quality, because each individual point resizes in alignment with the other points on the image. 

With vector files, every edge and feature stays smooth and crystal-clear. This becomes even more important if you’re using textures in vector images. At the most zoomed-in view, these files are as clear as when you’re zoomed out, making the textures appear more lifelike.

The most frequently used vector images file types are .ai, .svg and .eps. Pdfs are also vector files.

How Do Vectors Differ from Rasters?

You’re likely more familiar with raster images, even if you’ve never heard them called by that title. These are files like .jpg, .png, .gif, .bmp and .tiff. Each part of the file is formed by pixels, small squares or dots of color that combine to form an overall picture. 

Editing a pixelated photo of orange objects on a table in Adobe Photoshop.
Photos are typically raster images, made up of pixels and difficult to scale without losing resolution quality. Still from Skillshare class 5 Advanced Adobe Photoshop Tops: Photo Editing Beyond Lightroom by Tabitha Park.

Like vectors, raster images can also be high resolution if the graphic is made up of enough pixels. But when you try to scale a raster image, you lose sharpness and clarity. Ever tried zooming in on an Instagram photo and noticed a blurry grain? The pixels can’t adjust correctly in rasterss, so the bigger the picture gets, the lower the quality becomes.

So why use a raster image at all? The file size of these graphics is typically smaller, which makes sending or publishing faster. But when you need to keep quality high across different devices, using a vector image will be a better option.

What Are Vector Images Used For?

Any graphic that needs to be resized should be in a vector file format. The marketing industry is one of the most prolific users of vectors, as designs like company logos and billboard imagery can sometimes be resized hundreds, even thousands, of times for different purposes.

A vectorized image used as a business logo, spelling out Abira under a bird design.
Vector files are often used for graphic design projects like company logos. Still from Skillshare class Iconic Logo Design: Brainstorm & Refine Unique Concepts by Will Paterson.

Illustrated films and computer games using 3D modeling techniques also make use of vectors. This keeps the quality level the same, regardless of the type of computer or TV a user might be viewing them on.

Illustrations and animations like this yellow dog in a sailboat are vectorized to retain their quality when published.
Game designers and illustrators also use vector files to save the highest resolution version of their artwork. Still from Skillshare class Collage Animate: Creative Motion Graphics with Photoshop and After Effects by Carminys Guzman.

Printed images also benefit from the crisp lines of vector files. On paper, fabric, plastics and metals, vector images produce a consistently clear finish that can be used for just about anything.

How to Make Vector Images

While raster images can be made as quickly as snapping a photo on your phone, vector files require particular programs to ensure correct formatting. You can also use these tools to convert a raster file into a vector image if your original file was saved as a jpg or png.

Adobe Illustrator

Mapping out each point in a vector can be somewhat challenging, but specific vector image software like Adobe Illustrator can create new graphics, edit older images, or convert a raster image for you.

A blue teacup is made into a vector image using Adobe Illustrator on an iPad.
Tools like Adobe Illustrator can easily map out the shapes that make up an image, placing points along lines and curves to form the vector image. Still from Skillshare class Learn Adobe Illustrator on the iPad: Draw Vector Illustration, Handlettering & Pattern by Sahar Heumesser.

You can use Adobe Illustrator on tablets and desktops, although using the pen tool to create vector illustrations with an Apple Pencil on an iPad can make intricate details easier to navigate if you don’t have a desktop stylus. For certain projects that require detailed images or hand lettering, Illustrator for iPad will give you more flexibility and control over the individual lines and curves of your shapes.

The vectorizing tool will convert your raster images in fewer than five clicks. If you’re familiar with editing pictures in Adobe Photoshop and the points added to allow you to remove background or foregrounds, you’ll see a similar process happen in Illustrator’s vector tool.

Adobe Fresco

When you’re on the go and need to edit your vector files, software like Adobe Fresco is a good choice. It’s available for iPads and makes portable editing simple when you’re away from a desktop.

Graphics and handlettering typography are created as a vector image using Adobe Fresco on an iPad.
Adobe Fresco allows artists to use brush and pen tools to add typography to their vector images. Still from Skillshare class Digital Illustrative Typography: Playing With Adobe Fresco by Jennet Liaw.

Adobe Fresco integrates seamlessly with other Adobe tools like Photoshop, which makes it one of the best tools for converting photos or existing illustrations into vector images. If you have a vector file you’ve already created in Photoshop or Illustrator, you can import it into Fresco and use the various brushstrokes and pens to edit and refinish your artwork or graphic.

While Illustrator is a more robust tool for drawing and editing any type of image, Adobe Fresco is ideal for beginner artists who are still learning how to work with vector files and are looking for a cheaper alternative to other Adobe software.

Adobe Photoshop

Other Adobe products like Illustrator and Fresco are better for creating vector images from scratch, but you can use Adobe Photoshop to convert raster files and make basic edits before importing to other softwares.

A green and orange cactus is transformed from a raster photo to vector file using Adobe Illustrator on an iPad.
Photos can be converted into vector images using Adobe tools like Photoshop or Illustrator. Still from Skillshare class Vectorize in Adobe Illustrator on the iPad by Maja Faber.

You’ll need to first separate the image into two layers to break the main graphic away from the background. From here, you’ll make a vector mask of the image and save in a vector-compatible format, ready to be used in Illustrator or Fresco.

Online Tools

You can find a handful of vector tools online if you don’t need to use expensive software like Adobe frequently. Vector Magic and Vectorizer both allow you to convert raster files into vector images by simply uploading your original jpg, png, or bmp.

Once uploaded, these softwares allow you to make edits directly within the platform to create vector images for printing or digital display. You can download the completed graphics in svg, eps or pdf formats, while desktop versions of each allow .ai and .dxf file formats too.

Perfectly Precise at Every Size

Working as a graphic designer or illustrator will mean that you’ll need to be familiar with vector files, both creating them from scratch and converting other file types into high resolution images. But even as an artist or photographer, learning how to make vector images can make resizing and tweaking your graphics much easier and faster.

Written by:

Holly Landis