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Different Image File Types and Formats

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What You'll Be Creating

In today's article, we're going to tackle a more technical subject, which should be part of your knowledge bag, no matter if you're a creative tinkerer or a simple computer user.

From file type to file format, we're going to explore the meaning of these notions and learn the most common image types and formats that are in use at the moment.

So, if I managed to grab your attention, quickly grab a fresh cup of coffee and let's jump straight into it!

1. The “File” Concept

Whether you’re a designer, a gamer, or a casual computer user, you’ve probably had your fair share of interactions with those digital creatures that we like to call “files”. But have you ever wondered what they actually are, or where the concept behind them originated from?

the file conceptthe file conceptthe file concept

According to TechTerms.com, a “file” is:

“a collection of data stored in one unit, identified by a filename”.

The computers that we work with (be it a Mac or a PC) or any other modern device operate with data (information, settings, commands, etc.) that is kept on a physical storage device (usually an HDD) using virtual containers that we universally call “files”.

These virtual objects are self-contained strings of bytes that once encoded are made available to the OS (operating system) and any program capable of opening and reading them, thus allowing the user to interact with their content.

The idea of the “file” as a means of portraying data was rooted back in 1981, when computer scientist David Canfield Smith and designer Norman Lloyd Cox used the “office metaphor” to develop the first modern user interface for the Xerox Star 8010, by creating and integrating a set of document-based icons, meant to ease the interaction between users and machines.

2. File Type. File Format. File Name. File Extension

Before we go any further, I want to take a couple moments and briefly talk about four distinct file-related notions which, even though they carry different meanings, are often treated as if they were the same thing.

I’m talking about “file type”, “file format”, “file name”, and “file extension”, which should become an intrinsic part of our day-to-day creative lingo.

2.1. File Type

Depending on the nature of its content, a file can be considered as being of a specific "type", thus allowing us to label it according to the application or standard to which it belongs.

For example, Windows describes a text file written in Word as being a "Microsoft Word Document" since the file is an application-specific document that can only be opened using that piece of software. At the same time, the document can be viewed as a text file since the data contained within it is mostly rich text.

example of microsoft word file typeexample of microsoft word file typeexample of microsoft word file type

If we create an illustration and then save it using the PNG compression algorithm, Windows will see that image as being a "PNG File", which is an open standard that doesn't require a specific piece of software to be able to view it. That same "PNG File" is also an image file since the data encoded within it describes the color and position of its composing pixels.

example of png file typeexample of png file typeexample of png file type

As you would expect, the list of existing file types is quite a big one, since it ranges from simple text documents all the way to developer code:

  • Text Files contain textual data such as logs, entire documents, or simple notes.
  • Data Files are installed by applications or created by the user and contain libraries, project files, and saved documents.
  • Audio Files contain waveform data that can be played with audio playback software.
  • Image Files contain image-related information blocks.
  • Video Files contain a wide range of encoded video data.
  • eBook Files contain books designed to be viewed on eReaders.
  • Database Files store data in a structured format, organized into tables and fields.
  • Executable Files contain code that is run when the file is opened.
  • Game Files contain saved video-game files and files referenced by video games.
  • CAD Files contain 2D or 3D designs (usually models or architectural plans) generated by CAD software.
  • GIS Files contain data related to GPS devices and mapping software.
  • Web Files contain website and web server-related data.
  • Font Files contain one or more fonts that can be accessed by the operating system and applications.
  • System Files contain system libraries, icons, themes, device drivers, etc.
  • Settings Files contain settings for the operating system and applications.
  • Compressed Files use compression algorithms to compress and store any other type of files.
  • Disk Image Files contain entire copies of a hard drive partition or other type of media.
  • Developer Files contain data related to software development such as source code, code libraries, etc.
  • Backup Files contain backups of files.

A more comprehensive list can be found over at FileInfo.com, where you can go through the different categories/types, in order to see exactly what they are used for.

2.2. File Format

According to Wikipedia, a "file format" is:

“a standard way that information is encoded for storage in a computer file. It specifies how bits are used to encode information in a digital storage medium. File formats may be either proprietary or free and may be either unpublished or open”.

To put it simply, the format describes the way the information is being stored within the file, which varies from software to software and from standard to standard.

For example, a Microsoft Word file uses the .docx format which is composed out of an XML file (Content Types) and three folders (_rels, docProps, word), which are hidden within its structure, unless you unzip the file, as Stepan Yakovenko demonstrates in this informal introduction to DocX.

example of word document file formatexample of word document file formatexample of word document file format

An image file saved using PNG compression will appear using the .png file format, which is composed out of a file header that starts with an 8-byte signature, which is then followed by a series of chunks which convey certain information about the image itself (Wikipedia).

example of png file formatexample of png file formatexample of png file format

2.3. File Name

A "file name" is a unique identifier which, depending on the nature of the file dependency (whether it's part of a system/software or a standalone one) comes already set or is entered by the user during the creation process.

For example, if we create a new Word file, the software will ask us to give it a custom name, so that we can later on find it within the system.

example of word document file nameexample of word document file nameexample of word document file name

Other files such as executable files come with an already predefined name, which if changed in some cases might prevent that specific application to launch or function properly.

2.4. File Extension

Last but not least, we have "file extension" which is the suffix found at the end of a file name. This suffix not only tells you what type of file we are dealing with, but also determines which program should be used to open it, as well as what icon should be displayed (TechTerms.com).

To continue on that Microsoft Word example, the file extension used by the software is .docx, which shouldn't be confused with its format, since they're quite different notions as we now know. The extension lets us know we're dealing with a Word document, but also helps the operating system decide which software should be used to open it.

example of word document file extensionexample of word document file extensionexample of word document file extension

Now that we have a clearer idea regarding these notions, we can move on and talk about the most common image file types and formats that you'll interact with in this line of work.

3. Image File Types

As we saw a few moments ago, there are a plethora of existing file types that you, I and everyone else using a computer interacts with on a daily basis, but out of all of them, one particular category is really important when it comes to our line of work.

As a creative tinkerer, whether you're an illustrator, a photo editor, or a print designer, you constantly have to work on image-based projects, which can easily become an overwhelming job.

This is especially true for those cases when you’re just starting out but haven’t quite managed to fully grasp the differences between the existing image file types and their specific use cases.

Now, before we continue down the path of exploring this category of file types, let’s take a couple of moments and see what an image actually is.

3.1. What Is an Image?

From an etymological standpoint, the noun is thought to derive from the Latin word “imaginem” (nominative imago, c. 1200), and was originally used to describe a “piece of statuary artificial representation that looks like a person or a thing”, meant to copy or imitate a real-life object.

Today, the meaning of the word has been slightly updated due to the technological advances in the fields of computer science and photography.

According to the online version of the Merriam Webster dictionary, an “image” (ɪmɪdʒ) is now defined as being a:

“visual representation of something: such as (1): a likeness of an object produced on a photographic material (2): a picture produced on an electronic display (such as a television or computer screen)”.

From a digital standpoint, an image can be perceived as any type of two-dimensional visual representation, created using dedicated software or captured using a digital camera, meant to be displayed on a pixel-based output device such as a computer monitor, or to be printed onto a physical medium.

Of course, any digital image can be turned into a physical one through the process of printing, but the file itself will remain saved within the computer's storage unit. 

Whether or not you're a designer yourself, you should be aware of the fact that there are two very different types of images that can be used in this line of work, and those are raster images and vector images.

3.1.1. Raster-Based Image Files

raster based image fileraster based image fileraster based image file

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, a “raster” is defined as:

“a pattern of closely spaced rows of dots that form an image (as on the cathode-ray tube of a television or a computer display)".

A raster image, or bitmap, is a grid-based data structure composed of a fixed number of square-shaped pixels, each of which carries a specific color value, forming an identifiable composition when displayed on the surface of a digital screen, be it a computer, smartphone, or any other pixel-based output device.

Due to its pixel-based nature, a raster image is resolution dependent, which means that it has a specific Width and Height pixel count that directly affects the quality of that image when it's subjected to the process of resizing or resampling.

Quick tip: while at first the two terms might seem synonymous, they are quite different methods of adjusting the size of an image. The first one maintains the same pixel count while stretching or shrinking their surface, while the second method physically changes the number of pixels found within an image using interpolation algorithms by adding to or removing from the original count.

For example, if we were to take an 800 x 600 px image and scale it down, the composing pixels would shrink, thus maintaining the overall quality. On the other hand, if we were to scale it up, then the resizing process would expand the surface of each composing pixel, thus degrading its quality, resulting in what we usually call “pixelation”.

While people tend to associate raster images with digital photography, almost all of the images displayed by a computer screen are raster-based ones due to the nature of the current display technology, which is pixel based.

The most common raster-based image files are JPEGGIFPNGTIFF, and PSD.

Depending on the compression method used by its format, a raster image can be lossy or lossless.

JPEG files are based on lossy compression since they approximate what the original image would look like and then reduce the number of colors within the file in order to remove any unnecessary data while trying to maintain a high quality.

GIF, PNGTIFF, and PSD are all lossless images since they manage to capture all of the data of your original file, thus giving you the highest possible quality.

Most raster files come as the final version of an image, which means that once they are created they can't be edited later on. I say most since TIFF and PSD files maintain their editability.

3.1.2. Vector-Based Image Files

vector based image filevector based image filevector based image file

According to OxfordDictionaries.com, in physics a vector is defined as:

"a quantity having direction as well as magnitude, especially as determining the position of one point in space relative to another".

In computing, it "denotes a type of graphical representation using lines to construct the outlines of objects".

Compared to raster images, a vector image is composed of a series of open and/or closed paths that are mathematically described by a series of points called anchors or nodes. These points help define the different composing shapes using lines and/or curves (TechTerms.com).

The main reason why vectors are usually the de facto choice when it comes to graphic design is due to their pixel-independent nature, which means that you can basically take any vector-based image and scale it up or down to any degree without any loss of quality.

The most common vector-based image files are AIEPSPDF, and SVG.

Compared to raster-based image files, vector ones give you the ability to edit their content at any time, as long as you have the right piece of software capable of opening them.

4. Image File Formats

So up to this point we've talked about the different existing image file types. Now let's spend a couple of moments and go through the most common file formats and see when and why we should use them.

As you would expect, there are two main types of File Formats, which are determined by the nature of the composing data.

4.1. Raster-Based File Formats

A raster-based file format is, as the name suggests, based on the use of pixels as the main way to create an image. It is usually the last part of the creative process, where the designer chooses how to output the artwork.

4.1.1. JPEG

jpeg image formatjpeg image formatjpeg image format

This is probably the most commonly known file format when it comes to saving images, but have you ever wondered what the letters stand for?

JPEG (pronounced jay-peg) is an acronym for "Joint Photographic Experts Group" and is a raster format based on lossy compression used for digital images, particularly those produced by digital photography, that was made publicly available in the year 1992.

The reason why JPEG became so popular was the ability to achieve high compression rates without any noticeable quality degradation.

While the format is raster based, it can be used to export any vector-based image, being one of the predefined available file formats in most modern pieces of vector software.


  • You have full control over the compression/quality ratio.
  • The small file size makes the JPEG format ideal for web-related content, where images need to be loaded fast without stressing the server or the local machine.
  • Compatibility across all operating systems and web browsers.


  • The JPEG format doesn't support alpha channels (transparency).
  • Once the image is saved using this format, any quality loss is permanent as long as the original source file has been discarded.
  • The process of resizing or scaling will result in quality degradation.

Recommended Use Case

  • The small file size makes the JPEG format suitable for most use cases, such as websites, visual presentations, or quick project previews that don't require extremely high-res images.
  • While the format is not the highest in terms of quality, it can confidently be used in non-high-resolution printing, such as text documents that are accompanied by images.
  • Due to its intended nature, the JPEG format is best associated with digital photos, but it can also be used to export vector-based images such as illustrations, icons, etc. However, it will come at a higher file size compared to a PNG file.

4.1.2. GIF

gif image formatgif image formatgif image format

GIF (pronounced jif) stands for "Graphics Interchange Format", and is a lossless raster image format created back in 1987 that quickly became widely used on the web due to its small file size determined by the available color limitation (only 256 colors), and the ability to support transparency and animations.


  • The GIF format comes with a very small file size.
  • It lets you embed animations within a single file.
  • It gives you the ability to use a transparent background.


  • Compared to JPEG, the image quality is far lower.
  • Once edited and exported, any changes to the contents of an image are permanent.
  • Due to its lower quality, the format isn't a viable solution for printing.
  • The process of resizing or scaling will result in quality degradation.

Recommended Use Case

  • Due to its small file size, the GIF format is a perfect fit for any web-related content that doesn't focus on image quality.

4.1.3. PNG

png image formatpng image formatpng image format

PNG (pronounced ping) is a popular raster image file format that stands for "Portable Network Graphics" and was designed as a lossless replacement for GIF.

Today, the format has become the web standard for graphics-based images, due to its small file size and sharp details.


  • The PNG file format is a great solution for presenting artwork within the digital medium, especially for the web, due to its higher color range and sharp details.
  • It has a small footprint compared to JPEG files.
  • It gives you the ability to use a transparent background.


  • When used with photos, the PNG format can end up increasing the overall file size of the final project.
  • Since the format was intended to be used for the web, printing any PNG file will always result in an unexpected or less desirable result.
  • The process of resizing or scaling will result in quality degradation.

Recommended Use Case

  • The PNG file format is best used within web-based projects due to its small footprint and the ability to add background transparency.
  • It can be used within mobile apps or desktop applications that require the use of a transparent background.

4.1.4. TIFF

tiff image formattiff image formattiff image format

TIFF (pronounced tif) is a lossless raster format developed by the Aldus Corporation in 1986, that was intended to be used for high-resolution prints.

Compared to JPEGTIFF files come uncompressed, which means that they can carry a lot more data since they allow the use of layers and effects, which in turn results in a heavier file size, thus preventing them from being used on the web.


  • The TIFF file format offers the highest level of quality when it comes to photo-based projects that are meant to be printed out.
  • It gives you the ability to edit an image later on, as long as its layers aren't merged.
  • It's a universal format supported by most raster/vector software.


  • The TIFF format isn't suited for web use due to its large file size.
  • It can quickly increase the file size of a project.

Recommended Use Case

  • Due to its high-res nature, the TIFF format is best suited for print projects, where you need as much color data as possible.

4.1.5. PSD

psd image formatpsd image formatpsd image format

PSD stands for "Photoshop Document" and is an Adobe proprietary raster format that allows users to add layers and effects to an image, giving them the ability to edit the file later on at any time. 


  • The PSD file format is a great way of creating and sharing a photo/art-based project while maintaining a high level of editability.
  • It can contain both raster and vector images/elements.
  • It maintains a high level of quality as long as the raster images used are of higher resolution.


  • It's an Adobe proprietary format, which means that the file can only be opened and edited using Adobe's own Photoshop software, or other software that supports it such as GIMP or CorelDraw.
  • It isn't a file format that can be viewed on browsers.

Recommended Use Case

  • The PSD file format is a great solution for those projects where you need to retouch photos or artwork.

4.2. Vector-Based File Formats

Vector-based file formats rely on the use of mathematical equations to create the composing shapes of an image, and they are usually used in the initial part of the creative process, where the designer works on the composition.

4.2.1. AI

ai image formatai image formatai image format

AI stands for "Adobe Illustrator" and is a proprietary lossless image format created by Adobe, containing primarily vector-based graphics along with embedded or linked raster images.


  • The AI file format is great for creating and sharing vector-based images.
  • It's a vector-based format that allows the user to edit it at any point in time.
  • It gives you the ability to scale any vector-based image to almost any degree without any loss of quality.
  • It has a small file size.


  • It's an Adobe proprietary file format, which means that which means that it can only be opened and edited using its own Illustrator software, or other software that supports it.
  • The file can't be previewed using simple image viewing software.

Recommended Use Case

  • The AI file format is great for creating, editing, and sharing vector-based projects.

4.2.2. EPS

eps file formateps file formateps file format

EPS is another vector-based image format developed by Adobe back in 1992, EPS stands for "Encapsulated Postscript", and the format was intended to work across different OS platforms and applications, which is something that it has successfully managed to accomplish.


  • The EPS file format is perfect for sharing vector-based projects across different software users due to its universal acceptance and integration.
  • It has a small file size.


  • To be honest, I really can't think of any, except for the fact that it isn't supported by web browsers.

4.2.3. PDF

pdf image formatpdf image formatpdf image format

PDF stands for "Portable Document Format" and is yet another image format developed by Adobe in the 1990s, capable of including both text and images. PDFs are accessible from any application, computer, or OS.


  • By now, the PDF file format is an established standard, making it universally accessible from any operating system and computing device.
  • It can be a great way of sharing a larger project.
  • It can display both raster and vector images.
  • PDFs are a good way of ensuring that what you create is what gets printed out.


  • They can't be edited using non-raster/vector software.

Recommended Use Case

  • The PDF file format is great for sharing and printing a project or design.

4.2.4. SVG

svg image formatsvg image formatsvg image format

SVG stands for "Scalable Vector Graphics" and is one of the more interesting available open file formats that was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) back in 1999. It has proved to become a strong alternative to traditional web images, due to the small size footprint and the ease of editability.


  • The SVG file format allows images to be created and edited using any text editor.
  • SVG images can be searched, indexed, scripted, and compressed.
  • They are scalable without any quality loss.
  • Images can be zoomed without image pixelation.
  • It is an open standard.


  • When using the SVG file format, the file size can quickly grow if your design has a lot of smaller details.
  • If you need to edit the file using a text editor, it might take a while until you identify the shape that you want to adjust.

Recommended Use Case

  • The SVG file format is clearly intended to be used for the web, in situations where you need pixel-crisp graphics that have a smaller footprint compared to the more classical PNG format.

It's a Wrap!

As always, I hope you found the read useful and worthy of your time, and if you have any questions or feedback suggestions, please feel free to post them within the comments section and I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

Expand Your Designer Skills!

Just finished reading the article, and feel like absorbing more knowledge?! Well, you're in luck, since I took the liberty of putting together this little list of tutorials and articles that should keep you busy for the following days!

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