With any professional project involving graphic design, you’re going to want to use an image that’s in a vector file format to get the best results. Much of the work done with company logos, branding images, and icons often requires the file to be in a vector format, but you might only have a raster file, another type of image file.
How do you convert anything into a vector file? It’s relatively simple to convert anything into a vector file. While there are plenty of online converters, it’s much more reliable to use an editing software like Illustrator or Inkscape. Here’s how to do it in a few simple steps:
- Open the file you want to convert in Illustrator or Inkscape.
- Use the selector tool to highlight all of the elements of the image.
- Now, you’ll want the software to trace the image.
- In Illustrator, this will be listed as “Image Trace” under Windows in the toolbar.
- In Inkscape, you’ll select “Trace bitmap” under Path in the toolbar.
- In each program, a box will pop up that allows you to select the specific changes you want to make. Hit accept and wait while your image is vectorized.
- Then, make sure to save the file in a vector format (.ai, .pdf, .eps).
That’s a fairly simple process to end up with an image file that can be much more useful to you in the long run. The reason that it’s important to have a vector version of any graphic design element you want to work with is because of the fundamental differences in how vector and raster files display images.
Differences Between Raster and Vector Files
Whether you’re dabbling in image editing yourself or plan to have graphic design work done on a logo you own, it’s important to understand the different types of image files that exist. While vector files are undeniably essential to editing and showcasing graphic design work properly, both vector and raster riles have important uses.
The main difference between these two types of image files is that while raster images are made up of a collection of colored pictures, vector images are made up of curves and lines controlled by mathematical expressions embedded within the file. As a result, these images work very differently when manipulated.
How Raster Images Work
The most common types of images used, especially online, tend to be raster images. If you’ve ever looked at an image and thought it was low-quality because it was “grainy” or “pixelated, you were viewing a low-resolution raster image.
Within raster image files, the objects, people, colors, and lines you see are all representing by thousands or even millions of individually colored pixels. If you’ve ever heard of a type of artistic technique calling stippling or “dot-drawing,” you already have a good grasp on the concept behind how raster images store information.
One of the most frequent ways you may have seen or interacted with raster images is by taking digital phones, with either a digital camera or smartphone. When the camera or phone stores the raster file of an image, the colors in the image are translated into pixels. Depending on the specifications of the camera used, the pixel density of photos taken will change.
The more high-quality (and usually more expensive) a camera is, the greater the pixel density may be. That density can be described as either dots per inch (dpi) or pixels per inch (PPI). That pixel density of a saved image will affect future changes that can be made to the image, an issue that vector images don’t face.
How Vector Images Work
While the colors and shading of an image are represented with a set density of colored pixels in raster images, vector images have the same type of information stored very differently. No matter what changes you make to a raster file, the same number of pixels will make up the image, which limits the kinds of changes and uses that are suitable for it.
On the other hand, vector images are perfectly designed to be “scalable,” which means that you can make the image as large as you want, and the resolution or clarity of the image won’t be affected.
The way this works is that the colors displayed in the image aren’t encoded pixel by pixel, but instead using mathematical formulas. Whether the image is being loaded onto a digital screen or sent through a printer, the digital representations of the image details won’t lead any pixelated “gaps” that show up in low-resolution raster images.
That facet of working with vector images is why they’re so valuable in graphic design and are the optimal choice when you’re changing features of a permanent brand logo or icon. Whether you’re doing the work yourself or having a designer make changes to an existing image, it’s important to have a master file of your logo in vector form.
Often, you may only have your image in raster form, but, as you now know, thankfully, it’s fairly straightforward to vectorize an existing file. Once you do that, you or your designer will have a file that can be much more flexibly manipulated for whatever your needs are.
Common Uses for Vector Files vs Raster Files
Raster images come in a few different file formats, many of which can be used to save pictures taken with digital cameras. That’s the kind of image file that most people have experience with, and for good reason.
Outside of graphic design, most people don’t have a need to use raster files in everyday life. Considering how high-quality cameras in everyone’s smartphones are these days, sizing up an image doesn’t pose a huge problem in terms of picture quality because the pixel density is usually more than sufficient.
As a result, raster files are great for plenty of common uses, including web-graphics and most printed photos, among others. To display properly on a computer screen, most raster images will need to have a pixel density of 72 PPI to 100 PPI, which is perfect for displaying a clear image while loading a website quickly.
However, using these types of files for high-quality editing and for larger printing projects often doesn’t offer sufficient quality. When handling brand logos and icons, it’s important to have high image quality and consistency.
This not only helps develop brand recognition, but it helps your design impart a professional look and feel to whatever project you’re using them for. For example, if you decide you need to hire a graphic designer to update or add onto your professional logo, you’ll want to be sure your new design presents as a consistent, polished logo, whether it’s in print or online, which is where vector files come in.
Types of Image File Extensions
If you’re unfamiliar with changes image file types, don’t feel intimidated by the upcoming information. This explanation will be simple and straightforward. Basically, whatever type of file you’re working with will be indicated by the file extension, which is listed at the end of the file name.
So, for example, if you’re working with a Word document, when you look at the saved files on your computer, the document would look like this: YourDocument.docx. In that case, “.docx” would be the file extension. Different file types for images will have different ways of storing the image details, even within the raster or vector file categories.
As we touched on previously, many common file types used in photography are raster images. The most common file type used for pictures is a JPG image (with a .jpg file extension). The file you want to convert to a vector image may currently be a JPG image, but it also may be a PNG (.png) or GIF (.gif) image.
All three of these types of images would be converted to a vector image using the same method described above. When saving your image as a vector file, you have a few options. You can save it as an AI, EPS, or PDF file, although the last one can technically be a raster file as well (but that’s outside the scope of this discussion).
For the most part, EPS files are the most common file extension used to save vector files, but what you use will depend on you’re the software you’re using. Specifically, AI files are a file extension that was specifically created to use with Adobe’s Illustrator software, but it’s not necessary to use one software over another.
Choosing Software to Use to Vectorize an Image File
The two software programs chosen to explain how to vectorize a raster image, Illustrator and Inkscape, aren’t the only options you have to do this process, but the process will most likely be fairly similar no matter what program you use.
If you don’t have a vector graphics software already, you obviously won’t have a way to vectorize a file using the method described here, so you may be tempted to take an easier way out. As you may already know, there are plenty of online image converters that offer to vectorize your image for you, but that’s not necessarily the best way to go about it.
For one thing, the results you get may not be as reliable as if you use dedicated design software to handle the job, which will mean lower quality design for whatever future work you have done based on the original vector file. Also, without a vector design software, you’ll have no way to open your final vector file to check the results.
Illustrator and Inkscape were the examples used here because the two software programs are more-or-less equivalent and more likely to be familiar to non-designers. Illustrator, one of the programs from Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, isn’t something to buy just for this task, as it requires a fairly expensive subscription, even with the company’s student discount.
If a vector design software isn’t something you rely on for school, work, or other projects, Inkscape is a great alternative as it’s free to download and offers much of the same functionality as Illustrator. It’s one of the most popular free vector design software programs among graphic design professionals and enthusiasts, and it’s available for Mac, Windows, and other operating systems.
In case you’re not interested in using Illustrator or Inkscape, there are a variety of other vectorizer software programs that you can use, so feel free to look into the different options before downloading a new program.
How Software Converts Raster Images
Once you have downloaded the vector design software of your choice and open up the image file in the program, you can trace the image using the relevant selections. When the software “traces” the image, the geometric shapes, such as lines, curves, and circles, that make up the image are being converted from pixel representation to mathematical data.
This may take a few moments as the software converts the way that the image details are stored within the file because vectorization requires algorithmic calculations to be made to fill in any “gaps” in the pixels of the image.
If you were to open the original raster size and zoom in as far as possible, you would start to see the lines that make up each of the color pixels, which is what distorts the details shown low-resolution images that are made too large to retain their clarity. Vector files don’t have this issue because no matter how far you zoom in, the mathematical values in the image remain constant.
For this reason, vector files are the go-to choice for creating corporate brand logos. No matter what size a company may need a file to be enlarged to, if they have their logo manipulated as a vector file, the lines of the font and other lines won’t become pixelated and look unprofessional.
This is why it’s important that you save a master file of any important graphics you own as a vector file. If the file you currently need to convert to a vector file is something you plan to have work done on or are updating yourself, make sure to save the new design someplace safe and/or back up the file using cloud storage.
While you can always go back and vectorize the design, you risk having an inexact match since the software is calculating and estimating the details of the image based on the quality of the raster file that you’re converting.
Using Vector and Raster Files for Your Design Needs
Once you have a vector file of your design, you’ll want to make any permanent changes to the design in the file. As soon as that’s done, save a copy as your master file, and you’re ready to use your new and improved design. Depending on how you want to use the design in the future, you can decide whether a raster or vector file is best in each scenario.
While permanent changes to a logo, icon, or other design are best made within a vectorized master file, other edits don’t necessarily have to be done using a vector file. For example, a PNG file is often a common way to save logos. The main difference between a PNG file and a JPG is that PNGs can have transparent backgrounds.
If you’re planning to use a logo or icon on branded merchandise, your website, or other places, you’ll most likely want to be able to place the image there without a permanent background ruining the aesthetics. You can easily change the file extension using Illustrator, Inkscape, or other editing software. Online converters are another easy way to solve this, as removing a white background is a fairly simplistic change.
You make also want to add your logo on top of another image, in which case you could add it as a PNG file on top of a JPG file using the editing software of your choosing. Once you do that, the recommended way to save a colorful, high-resolution would be as a JPG file.
This is especially important if you want the color to remain vibrant after you save it. You also have the option to save pictures as a GIF file, but the pixels in GIFs can only vary between 256 colors within the RGB color model. That may sound like a lot, but that limitation hinders the vibrance and visual integrity of a colorful image.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many animated memes seem lackluster in color, it’s because they are GIF files. However, there are other advantages to using GIFs, particularly the fact that details of the image can’t be lost because of the type of compression that these files use. In contract, a JPG (o JPEG) image will lose some detail when uploaded online.
Depending on the kind of printing you want to do, both raster and vector images can be appropriate. The amount and type of detail in the image, as well as how large it needs to be printed, will determine whether a raster image or vector image is appropriate and what type of file extension will work best.
When printing logos and icons that you want to look crisp and clean, a vector file will work best, and the file extension you use doesn’t matter. Having the image saved as a vector means that the print will receive the data stored in the file and converts it to a sharp, detailed image.
On the other hand, if you decided to print a large poster of a logo using a raster image, it would most likely come out with some level of pixelation, unless you were for some reason using an extremely high-resolution image.
For example, think about the common logos you see on billboards, such as the Coca-Cola logo. As large as billboards are, the company’s logo still looks just as clean and consistent as it does when it’s printed onto a can of Coke. That’s because the company’s designers are using vector images for the logo.
In contrast, photographers and billboard designers have to take special care to make sure that the images used alongside company logos are suited to be displayed on such a large scale. The cameras used have to be very high quality, and the standard JPG or JPEG file format is insufficient for the amount of detail needed. Instead, they may use a TIFF file, which is standard for professional photography and better suited for larger prints.
Limitations with Converting Raster Files to Vector Files
Depending on the size you intended to use, JPG or TIFF files can handle the amount of detail and shading in the typical marketing picture. But that’s not the case for vector files, which are meant to save graphic designs and not highly detailed photography.
That’s something you need to keep in mind when vectorizing your raster image. Because the vectorization process is based on the software’s calculations or estimations of what mathematical data will most accurately represent the image being converted, having a busy or cluttered image from the start will undercut the accuracy of the process.
Converting a raster file into a vector file is best done with simple logos, icons, and other graphic design images. In a perfect world, you would already have a vector file version of the image you want to work with, but since that’s not the case, you can improve your chances of having a professional-looking result.
How to Make Sure Your Raster File Converts Properly
If you’re planning to update or use this file yourself, choose the simplest, cleanest version of the image that you have, even if this means adding back elements you need in the image after it’s been vectorized. This will ensure that the most important elements of your design are persevered and vectorized properly.
However, if you’re planning on working with a graphic designer once you have the vector file, consult them to see how you might need to simplify the image you want to vectorize to get the best results. Chances are they can help you easily clean up the image or accurately add back the removed elements once they have an initial vector file to edit.
When vectorizing your original raster file, make sure to check the image trace settings in whatever software you’re using. You can specify several details, including whether or not you’re using a colored or black & white image.
Within the color-setting options, you can also specify whether you want to use a variety of color pre-sets or want to limit the number of color variations used. If you want to see the various results of what you’ll get, play around with the settings and save a few different versions until you get an option that you’re happy with.
Not only will this ensure you have a workable master to use for the future, but you’ll also be able to gain familiarity with the software that you’re using. If you’re in doubt about how else you can do to edit a vector graphic, make sure to check out the plethora of online resources about how to use Illustrator, Inkscape, and other software programs out there.
Whether you’re familiar with graphic design best practices or not, getting started with converting your logo, icon, or another design to a vector image is simple and easy. Don’t be put off by a lack of knowledge and seemingly unapproachable software. There have never been more easily accessible ways to learn graphic design than now.
Learning the basics of what vector and raster images are, their differences, their uses, and their limitations is an important first step in editing and creating your own photographs and graphic designs, whether you want to use them for printed work and or digital/online content.
Even if you’re not planning to do any graphic design work yourself and want to hand off the job to the professionals, it’s always great to know about the services you’re paying for. For example, now you know that whenever you have graphic design work done or finish your own project, having a vector master file is an essential part of managing the digital work you own.
As you get more comfortable with editing and use different file formats, you’ll gain more familiarity with each file type and when it’s best to use each. Consider following free video tutorials and testing yourself to flex your graphic design skills. While using a vector design software can be frustrating as first, as long as you take manageable steps toward progressing your skills, it can be a fun challenge.
For the high-quality work you need in your professional life, you can always turn to professional help, as masters of graphic design are always going to provide a very valuable service. But learning some of the background information and basic graphic design techniques can be a useful skill and allow you to better assess whose work you like, which can help you choose a designer to hire when you need one.