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Citation Software Inc.
 Specialists in variable-data publishing since 1986

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QUESTION: How do you know whether you should use a bitmap format as opposed to a vector format for a particular graphic?

ANSWER: In many situations, vector descriptions are more desirable than bitmap descriptions - for two reasons:
  1. Vector descriptions are much smaller than bitmap descriptions.

  2. Graphics with vector descriptions look much better than graphics with bitmap descriptions when you enlarge or reduce them.
However, when the graphic that you are talking about is a photograph, bitmap is the way to go - because it is difficult or impossible to create a vector description that represents a photograph well.

Sometimes you don't have a choice about whether to use a bitmap format or a vector format. That is: if you need to include a graphic in a document that you are creating, and someone else has already created the file for that graphic, you have to take what you can get. Or, if you are creating the graphic yourself and you don't have a large collection of graphics-software programs at your disposal, you have to use whatever formats your software programs can create.

(Of course, in some situations it is feasible to convert a graphic from a bitmap format to a vector format and vice versa - but file-format conversion is a topic unto itself and is certainly outside the scope of our discussion here!)

Graphics on the Web:

If you are creating a graphic that will be used in a Web page, you don't have a choice: you must use a bitmap format. That's because today's Web browsers understand bitmaps but they don't understand vectors.

Generally, there are two graphics formats used in Web pages:*
  1. JPEG (generally, this format is used for photographs)

  2. GIF (generally, this format is used for graphics that are not photographs).
As we said earlier, JPEG and GIF are both bitmap formats.

The fact that Web browsers don't understand vectors is a problem for Web designers today. Why? Because it takes a long time to download bitmap graphics from a Web site to a Web browser. If graphics could be described in a vector format, it would take less time to download graphic descriptions because the graphic descriptions would be much smaller. Web designers spend a lot of time and effort trying to minimize the sizes of the graphics in their Web pages so that their site visitors won't navigate to a different site because they've lost patience while waiting for the graphics to download.

It is for this reason that several high-tech companies are now working on developing a Web standard for vector graphics. This standard is called "Scalable Vector Graphics" (SVG), and some of the companies that are working on it are Adobe Systems, Quark, Corel, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. Learn about SVG at or

* BMP files are sometimes used in Web pages, too, but some browsers don't display them properly.


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