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What are Raster Graphics?

Merrilee Willoughby
Merrilee Willoughby

Raster graphics are digital images represented by a matrix or grid of pixels commonly called a bitmap. Each pixel or dot displays a unique color and together all of these colored dots create an image. Every pixel in a bitmap is stored as one or more bits in computer memory. Raster graphics with a greater number of colors and pixels will require more bits and take up more memory. Typical file formats for raster graphics include .jpg, .gif, .tiff, and .bmp.

Since raster graphics are represented in a grid structure, the width and height are usually indicated by the number of rows and columns rather than a particular unit of measurement. The size of an image might be described as 640 x 480 meaning that there are 640 pixels in a row and 480 pixels in a column. The resolution or degree of sharpness present in an image is calculated by determining the number of pixels per inch (PPI) or dots per inch (DPI). A higher resolution raster graphic will have smaller pixels that result in a more detailed image. When raster graphics need to be displayed or printed at larger sizes, it is helpful to use a higher resolution so that the image does not appear grainy.

Raster graphics are composed of tiny squares that work together to create a recognizable picture.
Raster graphics are composed of tiny squares that work together to create a recognizable picture.

Black and white raster graphics contain only black and white pixels and each pixel requires just one bit in memory. A colored raster graphic requires additional bits because three values are necessary to represent each of the red, green, and blue components of the pixel. The color depth for an image is represented by the number of bits per pixel and as the color depth increases, more colors are available for display. An image with an 8-bit color depth would have 256 different colors available compared to an image with a 12-bit color depth that would allow for 4,096 colors. Graphics with increased color depth are more adept at displaying shading.

Raster graphics are only one of the two common graphic types used to digitally represent 2-D images. Vector graphics consist of points and paths and the mathematical relationships that connect them to create an image. A vector graphic is infinitely scalable in size, whereas a raster graphic is resolution dependent and changes in size will detrimentally affect the visual quality of the image. Vector graphics are often used for type work and line illustrations while raster graphics are most suitable for photographs and images with continuous tones and shading.

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Discussion Comments


@goldenmist - A lot of vector drawing software now has the option to “vectorize” raster images. In Illustrator this is called Live Trace. The results aren’t always perfect, but if you tweak the settings to your liking and make sure you zoom in close to fix any small errors it might have made in the process of converting then I don’t see why a simple black and white logo should be much of a problem.


I have a black and white logo that’s a raster image that I want to convert to vector so I can make it larger without it losing quality. Is there any easy way to go about this or do I have to recreate the image from scratch?


@rjh - Raster effects are actually stored in your saved files as mathematical equations and are always infinitely scalable without any loss of quality. It’s kind of difficult to explain, but try to imagine it this way: as all vector objects are infinitely scalable, you can resize them to your hearts content without any trouble. So if you decide to make your vector object twice the size it already is then it’s going to be twice as big but just as clear.

Now imagine there are raster effects on your vector object. If you make the object twice as big in your vector drawing software, then the raster effects are going to be blurry and pixilated, correct? Nope! Seeing as they’re mathematical equations, all that’s going to happen is when you resize your object, the same equation gets applied again at the new size, therefore maintaining quality.


I’ve just started to use Adobe Illustrator to make vector graphics and I’ve noticed there are options for raster effects such as drop shadows, glow, and some transparency effects. If I apply these effects, will it no longer be infinitely scalable? Do I have to convert my illustration to a raster object first?

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    • Raster graphics are composed of tiny squares that work together to create a recognizable picture.
      By: ldelfoto
      Raster graphics are composed of tiny squares that work together to create a recognizable picture.