Adobe Illustrator is not as well-known as its eponymous cousin Photoshop, but it’s far from a niche application. Illustrator is a piece of vector graphics software that’s better suited for creating certain types of digital artwork than Photoshop, which works in raster images. Here’s a primer on when and why to use Illustrator – and its best alternatives, if you don’t want a monthly bill from Adobe.
Raster vs. vector images
A little bit of tech speak is required to establish the fundamental differences between the two main types of graphics programs.As we’ve mentioned, Photoshop is a raster (also known as bitmap) image processor. It creates and deals with images that are made out of pixels. Much like Monet’s waterlilies, raster images look amazing at the proper viewing distance, but when you get close, things grow increasingly blurry and blotchy.
In practice, this means that Photoshop is excellent at making edits to preexisting images. You can zoom in down to the pixel and make painterly adjustments, along with other photographer-friendly manipulation options. But when it’s time to print that image, or view it at a different size than it was created, you’ll run into trouble – your image needs to be the correct resolution, or it won’t look right (think of a grainy, pixelated, low resolution photo).
Or, if you want to create an image from nothing, you might find Photoshop’s piecemeal tools for doing so rather cumbersome. And you’ll run into sizing issues with whatever you create.Enter Illustrator and other vector graphics programs. Vector graphics are completely scalable, meaning that they do not lose detail no matter which size you view them. That’s because they are visible representations of mathematical formulas that represent the outlines of objects – they’re not built with pixels.But don’t worry, you don’t need to understand the algorithms behind vector images. You just need to know their utility. Vector graphics are generally better suited for from-scratch illustrations, logos and icon design. They’re also necessary for certain specialty print jobs.Why not just opt for Illustrator?There’s no question that Illustrator is the leading vector graphics tool and the choice of professionals. However, Adobe’s purchasing model can be a deterrent to many hobbyists: Illustrator is only available from Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription service starting at US$20 per month. There is no one-time purchasing option, and if you let your subscription lapse, you’ll be locked out of the paid features.Illustrator is also an incredibly complex and powerful tool. Many straightforward illustration projects never touch its more advanced functions, so it may not be necessary to opt for a professional program for your creative experimentation. To that end, we’ve identified the following alternatives to help you get a taste of vector graphics manipulation without committing to another monthly bill….