Pixels versus vectors

In my newsletter I wrote that I have slowly been working to build a library of digital art that I’m making as vector based graphics.  This is a departure for me because the vast majority of my work is pixel based which is typical for any photographer.

This photo of Lyle is a pixel based image.

This photo of Lyle is a pixel based image.

When it comes to digital imagery, there are two different kinds of images; those comprised of individual picture elements (a.k.a. pixels) and those comprised of mathematically defined vector graphics.  Each has its place along with its own set of pros and cons.

As you might guess based on the fact that digital photographs are pixel based, pixels are a great choice for rendering fine detail.   Digital images are displayed as a series of microscopic red, green, and blue dots.  Depending on the resolution (think of it as the size of the image), there will be thousands or millions of individual pixels (a collection of one million pixels is called a megapixel) and our mind will blend those tiny individual pixels together so that we see a full color image.    All of that is to say that a digital photograph is defined by color and brightness of each individual pixel and that can mean very large file sizes.  If an image is pixel based, the program displaying it needs to take a look at each pixel in order to be able to render the image.   Now of course we are living in a time of relatively large and inexpensive hard drives so it might not seem that a large file size is particularly troublesome however file size still comes into play when sharing images on social media, by email, or by uploading them for cloud based storage so it makes sense to conserve space when possible.

Perhaps a bigger concern is that pixel based images do not resize very well.  The number of pixels for a properly exposed image from your camera represents the best possible image quality for that image.  If you change the size of your image, your editing software will have to decide what pixels are the most important and either add or delete pixels to accommodate the change.   Programs like Photoshop can do a pretty good job  resizing an image but there  almost always is a reduction in the quality of the image.  Worse, if you make a photograph smaller and later change your mind and want to bring it back to the original size, the damage is compounded.  There are ways around that but those ways require advanced editing tools (like Photoshop) and will further expand the file size potentially leading to problems down the road.

Vector graphics on the other hand define how images looks by defining the color and positions of lines, shapes, or complex paths.  This means that the actual size of each element of the image is irrelevant and the software only needs to keep track of the color, shape, and size of each part in relationship to the other elements in the composite.  This translates to smaller file sizes and it allows the image to be made bigger or smaller (repeatedly) without any loss in quality.  Sounds great, right?  The downside of a vector graphic is that there are practical limitations to the complexity of the image so the format is wholly inappropriate for all but the simplest of photographs.

Compare the level of detail from the image on the left to that on the right. The pixel based image has good detail throughout whereas the vector based is a stylized version of the original image. The benefit from the vector based image is that it will have exactly the same quality whether it is displayed as a 2" square or 200" square.

Compare the level of detail from the image on the left to that on the right. The pixel based image has good detail throughout whereas the vector based is a stylized version of the original image. The benefit from the vector based image is that it will have exactly the same quality whether it is displayed as a 2″ square or 200″ square.

So if vectors are not a great fit for photography, you might be wondering why I use them and why I’m creating a library of vector based images.  The simple answer is that I create more than just photographs.  One example that I previously shared with you was when I created custom footprints of each of Spring’s feet for a little decorative detail.  I originally scanned in the shape of her feet (which made a pixel based image) and then converted them to vectors to simplify the design and so that they can be made any size needed.  I also use vector based images for things like the inside of greeting cards and for making custom backgrounds (like the colorful background in this week’s featured gallery).  The reason that I’m making a gallery of stock vector based images is in part because it allows me a way to diversify my licensing business into a less crowded market and in part because I’ve been creating imagery that is suited to the format.

Maebe with prickly pears as a line art illustration

Maebe with prickly pears as a line art illustration

If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with the work that I’m creating for this vector based imagery.  It is highly stylized and the truth is, I can’t say at this point whether or not it will be a financially successful venture.  Like any other stock image I’ve created, I create the work for personal reasons and I do think there is a real market for this type of imagery – I’m just not sure if taking the extra step to allow for vector based sales (in addition to pixel based) will ultimately make the work more saleable.  Only time will tell.

 

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