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File Formats Explained

In today's digital age, where visual content dominates our online and offline experiences, understanding different file formats is crucial. Especially when working with an agency who’s goal is to provide you with the best results. You may find that marketers and artists will ask for certain file formats that you may not be familiar with, or understand why they’re asking for a .png instead of a .jpg. For those outside or new to the digital space, the different types of files and their uses can be hard to understand! This guide is to help clarify any questions you may have about different formats so you can best prepare for your working relationship with an agency, freelancer, printer, and more.

From photographs to intricate vector graphics, each type of visual content requires a specific format to ensure the best quality, compatibility, and functionality. Let’s take a peek into the world of digital image and graphic file formats, shedding light on popular formats such as .jpg, .png, .eps, .pdf, .ai, and more.

JPG (.jpg)

The JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format is perhaps the most common and widely recognized image format. It's known for its ability to compress images while retaining acceptable quality. This compression, however, comes at a cost: the format is lossy, which means that some image data is discarded during compression. This results in a smaller file size but might lead to a loss of detail and a noticeable decrease in quality, particularly after multiple re-saves.

JPGs are ideal for photographs and images with subtle color gradients, making them popular for web use and sharing on social media. The format's compatibility across various platforms and devices makes it a staple in digital imaging. A downside to JPG files is the lack of transparency. One common request we get is to remove the background from an image. A JPG file does not have the ability to display a transparent background. So, if you’ve ever tried to remove the background from an image, but it ends up being solid white instead of invisible, that is why.

Primary Use: Digital screens (72dpi)

Uses for .JPG files:

  • Website photos
  • Images or graphics that do not require transparency
  • Printing JPGs is acceptable but but should be as high resolution as possible for the best results. (Standard 300dpi)

*Note: Print applications are best served by higher quality formats such as EPS and TIFF

PNG (.png)

The PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format is a favorite among designers and web developers due to its lossless compression. Unlike JPEGs, PNGs do not discard image data, preserving image quality at the expense of a larger file size. This format supports transparency, allowing images to have areas that are either fully or partially transparent. This feature is particularly useful for creating graphics with irregular shapes or for overlaying images on different backgrounds.

PNGs are commonly used for logos, icons, and images with sharp edges or text. Additionally, they are a great choice when quality and transparency are top priorities. Keep in mind that because .PNG files do not have the same levels of compression as .JPGs, keep an eye on the file size. Sometimes, these files can become significantly large and unideal for web–use.

Primary Use: Digital Screens

Uses for PNG Files:

  • Website photos
  • Images of graphics that require transparency or a high level of quality

*Note: Print applications are best served by higher quality formats such as EPS and TIFF

EPS (.eps)

EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) is a vector-based file format often used for graphics that require precise scaling without loss of quality. Unlike raster images (such as JPEGs and PNGs) that are composed of pixels, EPS files are made up of mathematical equations that define lines, curves, shapes, and colors. This means they can be resized indefinitely without any loss of clarity.

EPS files are commonly used in professional graphic design projects, such as logos, illustrations, and print media. They are also suitable for projects that require the highest level of quality and flexibility.

Primary Use: Print Applications

Uses for EPS Files:

  • Logos and graphics for brochures and other printed materials such as apparel

PDF (.pdf)

While the PDF (Portable Document Format) is primarily known for document sharing and viewing, it can also encapsulate images and graphics. PDFs offer a versatile and compact way to present visual content while maintaining the quality and layout of the original file. PDFs can include both raster and vector images, making them suitable for a wide range of applications.

PDFs are used for creating documents that need to be shared or printed while ensuring that the formatting remains consistent across different devices and operating systems. They are commonly used for brochures, presentations, ebooks, and more. 

With access to a PDF editing software such as Adobe Acrobat, you can edit, mark-up, and even create interactive fields inside of a PDF.

One common cause of confusion around PDFs is the fact that they can contain both raster and vector assets. A common question we get as an agency is about wondering if a PDF will satisfy the needs of a specific use-case. Unfortunately, the answer is always, “it depends”. For example, saving a vector format such as an EPS into a PDF, the vector quality of the EPS will remain. However, saving a JPG as a pdf will still retain the nature of a JPG. When a vector file format is requested, a PDF may or may not suffice. This is why a PDF isn’t always the best default option for providing artwork aside from fully completed layouts such as brochures.

Primary Use: Print and web-view of documents and layouts

Uses for pdf files:

  • Brochures and pamphlets
  • Digital booklets
  • Written documents and forms

AI (.ai)

The AI (Adobe Illustrator) format is native to Adobe Illustrator, a popular vector graphics editor. AI is among the most common native format in the industry, however, you may also come across formats from other vector graphics programs such as CorelDraw (.cdr), AffinityDesigner (.afdesign), or Sketch (.sketch). Each program does its best to remain compatible between vector softwares, but you may find loss of data when opening these formats in other programs. It’s best to edit the file in the appropriate editor.

These files contain editable vector graphics and are perfect for creating and editing complex illustrations and designs. They allow designers to manipulate individual elements, change colors, adjust shapes, and modify layouts easily.

AI files are indispensable for design professionals working on projects such as logos, posters, banners, and any visual content that requires extensive customization and precision. However, AI files may not be as universally compatible as other formats, so they might need to be exported to other formats for broader use.

Primary Use: File Sharing

Uses for AI files:

  • Passing artwork from one designer to another
  • Providing raw art files with maximum editability
  • Exporting vector art to other vector formats as needed

GIF (.gif)

The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) is a unique format known for its ability to support animations. Unlike video formats, GIFs are limited in terms of color depth and resolution, making them most suitable for simple animations and graphics with limited colors. GIFs also support transparency, making them useful for creating images with transparent backgrounds.

GIFs are widely used for creating short, looping animations, memes, and simple web graphics. They have experienced a resurgence in popularity on social media platforms and messaging apps. Overall, the gif isn’t commonly used in the world of web-design, but it can still have its place.

Primary Use: Short animations

Uses for GIFs:

  • Graphics with low color content such as logos or icons

SVG (.svg)

The SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format is a web-standard XML-based vector image format that's gained traction due to its adaptability and versatility. SVG files are incredibly small in size and can be scaled to any size without losing quality. This makes them ideal for responsive web design, where images need to adapt to different screen sizes.

SVGs are commonly used for icons, logos, interactive graphics, and animations on websites. They can be edited directly in text editors or graphic design software, allowing for easy customization.

The main benefit of an SVG file is that although it is a vector file, it is code-based. This means a developer can edit and animate the file for use on your website.

Primary Use: Website graphics and animation

Uses for SVGs:

  • Website logos
  • Website graphical animations
  • Vector editing
  • Interactive web elements

TIFF (.tif)

A .tif (Tagged Image File Format) file is a widely recognized and versatile image format that is commonly used for high-quality and lossless image storage. Unlike formats like .jpg, which employs compression techniques that can result in some loss of image data, .tif files use a lossless compression method that preserves all original image details and quality. This makes .tif files especially suitable for professional applications where image integrity is paramount, such as in medical imaging, graphic design, photography, and archival purposes. Due to their ability to store a vast range of color depths and resolutions, .tif files are favored for capturing and storing images that require the utmost accuracy and fidelity, even though they often result in larger file sizes compared to other formats. When it comes to web-use, other image formats such as .PNG are typically preferred for their balance of file size, transparency support, and quality. 

Primary Use: Maximum quality images for print applications (300dpii+)

Uses for TIFs:

  • Image storage and archiving to retain maximum quality without raw files
  • Large-scale print applications
  • Photography that contains precise detail

In the visual-centric world we live in, understanding the different file formats available for images and graphics is crucial for effective communication, design, and sharing. Although we didn’t cover every file format that you may come across, this guide should cover the most common files that are used day-to-day in graphic and web design. 

Each format has its unique strengths and applications, whether it's the compactness of JPEGs, the quality preservation of PNGs, the scalability of EPS and SVG files, or the versatility of PDFs and AI files. By selecting the appropriate file format for each project, you can ensure that your visual content looks its best and functions as intended across various platforms and devices.

If you have any questions about file formats whether you’re working with us, another agency, or yourself, feel free to reach out and we will be happy to help!

Brandon Dillon
About the Author
Brandon is the Graphic Designer at VDG. His favorite hobbies are ATV riding, mountain biking, kayaking, camping, and cooking.
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