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What’s the difference between Illustrator and Photoshop?

Photoshop and Illustrator logo

In the world of digital design, two names are above the rest: Photoshop and Illustrator. These two Adobe applications are hugely popular, but what’s the difference between them? Why would you use one over the other?

For the non-Adode fans out there, the same goes for GIMP (an open-source alternative to Photoshop) and Inkscape (an open-source alternative to Illustrator). Keep that in mind when we talk about these applications.

7;s all about raster vs vector

Photoshop and Illustrator have some things in common, but there is one big difference that requires them to be separate products. Photoshop is a “raster” based editing application, while Illustrator uses “vectors”.

Raster-based editing applications use pixels to create images. Millions of pixels of different colors make up the image. When you zoom in, you can see the individual pixels, but they are imperceptible from a distance. One grid-based application that many people have used is MS Paint.

Vectors are shapes with perfectly smooth lines created with ‘points’ or ‘nodes’. They can be scaled to any size and the lines remain perfectly clean and sharp. Let’s take a closer look at the differences.

grid curve

The image above shows a zoomed-in view of a shape in Photoshop. You can see the pixels along the edges of the black curve. Now let’s take a look at the same object created as a vector in Illustrator.

vector curve

The edge of the black curve is completely smooth and sharp. It doesn’t matter how far you zoom in on the object. You will never see pixels when you view it in Illustrator.

One way to think about the differences between the two is to imagine a canvas. Grid is like painting with a brush. It may look clean from a distance, but if you get up close you can see the texture and any irregularities in the brush strokes. A vector is like cutting a shape out of paper and pasting it onto the canvas.

File formats

As you would expect, raster and vector also have their own file formats. You probably already know the typical raster file extensions of JPG and PNG. Common vector file extensions are AI, EPS and SVG.

Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. You can save an ongoing Photoshop project that contains layers of images and text as a PSD. Someone else can open that PSD in Photoshop and continue editing, and even undo some of the changes made.

However, in order to get it in the final raster image form, it must be exported as a JPG or PNG. This will merge all layers. Changes cannot be undone.

Illustrator, on the other hand, is different. An AI or SVG is the project file and the final product. A vector file preserves all individual layers of shapes and text. Someone can open an SVG file and continue tinkering with the vector.

That said, you can also export an Illustrator project as JPG or PNG, which will merge everything into a flat raster image. The result of both applications can be the same, but the way you get there is very different.

RELATED: What is an SVG file and how do I open one?

Which one should you use?

Photoshop or Illustrator each have their own strengths and weaknesses. In some situations, you can use both, but usually they are used for very different purposes. There is also a personal preference involved.

As the name implies, Photoshop is mainly used for photo editing and manipulation – things like adjusting the white balance on a photo, removing red eye, removing a crease from a scanned photo, editing an object from a photo, etc. If you start with an existing image ( and), Photoshop is the application you should be using.

Illustrator is mainly used for things like logo design and creating graphics. The ability to scale an image and maintain its quality is critical in these situations. For example, a logo can be used in so many different ways. It is important that whoever uses the logo can resize it without destroying it.

Many designers prefer Illustrator when creating something from scratch. Suppose you draw a circle and realize it should be a bit bigger. In Photoshop, you would highlight and resize the circle. However, that makes it blurry. Like so:

In Illustrator, you can grab the object handles and scale them up neatly. The edges of the mold remain clean. This gives you a lot of flexibility when designing from scratch. This is more difficult to show in a video, but you can see a difference.

There are certainly exceptions to this, but a good rule of thumb is that Photoshop is for editing or modifying and Illustrator is for creating.

Keep in mind that not everyone has to use both applications. Photoshop is widely used because it is more flexible. For example, you can design logos in Photoshop, but you cannot edit a RAW photo in Illustrator.

Photoshop and Illustrator are complex applications with lots of powerful tools, but the differences between them basically come down to raster versus vector. Once you understand that basic difference, it will become clear which one to use.

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