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Web Graphics 101

Which Format?

If you've done much surfing you've noticed web graphics can enhance the experience or make it a nightmare depending on how they are used. As an effective web designer you need to be very careful about your graphics decisions.

One of your first and most basic decisions is choosing the right graphics format. In this article we are going to cover 4 common graphics formats (BMP, GIF, PNG and JPEG) and their place in the world.


Bitmaps have a place in the world just not on your web page. Bitmaps are uncompressed which means they are much larger than their compressed counterparts. The larger size translates into slower loading graphics when placed on a web page. You may want to use bitmaps for your master copy of a graphic (especially if you will be editing it) but you should save it in a web friendly format before unleashing it on the Internet. Fortunately most web designers know enough to stay away from bitmaps, however, deciding what to use instead is the real obstacle.

Graphics Interchange Format (GIF)

The GIF format is one of the fundamental building blocks of web graphics (the other is JPEG discussed later). GIF works best on images with limited colors and large blocks containing the same color. Drawings or cartoon images for example work well in this format. GIF files are compressed resulting in graphics that are smaller and faster than bitmaps. As long as you have a small number of colors (say < 256) the GIF format uses a lossless algorithm which retains high quality. However, if you have a large number of colors (like in a photo) the GIF format is usually not a good choice since it will need to reduce the number of colors used.

Portable Network Graphics (PNG)

PNG (pronounced ping) was born to replace GIF due to licensing issues. I only mention it in case your graphics package does not support GIF, however, I do not recommend using it. The PNG format itself is fine and some would argue it is better than GIF. The problem however is it might not be fully supported by your visitors web browser. Many Internet users will have a browser (maybe not the latest version) that does not support PNG or only supports it partially (ex. doesn't handle transparency right). If you have an e-commerce web site then it is not worth the risk... use GIF instead. If you are just putting up a family web site or are on a corporate Intranet where you know the exact browser and version used then PNG may be an option.

Joint Photograph Exchange Group (JPEG)

JPEG is the other staple of web graphics. It works best with photos where millions of colors may have been used. The JPEG format uses a lossy algorithm which means smaller files are achieved by leaving out (losing) some of the data. This works great in real world photographs since colors in nature tend to change gradually. For example, a picture of the forest may have several shades of green. Although, your digital camera and computer may see the difference between millions of colors, the human eye is not quite as picky. If two adjacent green pixels are just 1 shade different, then changing them both to the same shade (loss of quality) is not noticeable to the eye but will make the file smaller. This is a very simplified and technically inaccurate explanation but the bottom line is that the JPEG format is designed to exploit the characteristics of photographs and the human eye to achieve amazing compression results.

Quality / Compression Settings

If you made the right choice between JPEG and GIF then you are off to a good start. The next thing you should learn is how to adjust the quality level in your graphics program. This is the topic of a whole other article so I am just going to quickly mention it here. By reducing the color palette in GIF files or using a more aggressive compression setting in JPEG files you can often get a smaller/faster file without a noticeable loss of quality.

Copyright 2001 Rob Yaggie ** Our FREE Cover Art Tutorial ** uses a powerful combination of GIF and JPEG graphics with layering. See it as an example of optimized graphics use and learn how to create covers that will explode your sales.

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