Photoshop vs. Illustrator: Which Works Best for You?
There are tons of options to choose from when it comes to drawing and design applications, making it hard to decide which one is right for you. Adobe introduced Photoshop and Illustrator as stand-alone applications in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have since become two of the most popular and robust applications for creative design. In fact, recent analysis indicates that more than 90% of today’s creative professionals use Photoshop.
Despite its popularity, Adobe Photoshop does have a few limitations depending on the type of design work you do. Adobe Illustrator may be a better tool for some designers and artists. When analyzing these two applications, you must first consider the desired end product and what you hope to achieve. For example, do you need scalable files? Are you looking for the best application to design a logo or to create a website user interface? Will you be printing your work or using it primarily in digital form?
The answers to these questions and an understanding of the tools in each application will help you determine which product is best for you. Or, whether you can use the two together.
The purpose of each application
Photoshop and Illustrator are both intended for use by creative professionals. Yet, there are clear distinctions between the two.
Adobe Photoshop is an image editor, designed to help you work with photographs and create digital art. While creative professionals use Photoshop in many, many different ways for both print and digital mediums, the most common things created with the program include image editing, composite images (blending multiple images), website design, print collateral, and much more.
Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based drawing application. Like Photoshop, Illustrator can be used for a variety of projects, but usually graphic designers choose to use the program for creating logo designs and vector illustrations.
Each application has pros and cons when it comes to features and output. Adobe also offers the Creative Cloud suite, which includes more than 20 applications such as InDesign and Premiere Pro. You can use these products to complement Photoshop and Illustrator in your projects.
File formats and their benefits
One of the main differences between Photoshop and Illustrator is the file types used.
Photoshop produces raster images, which are grids based on pixels or points of color. Raster files are often referred to as “bitmaps” and include .bmp, .jpeg, .tiff, and .png options for file output. You may also export the work you create in Photoshop to PDF for distribution. Raster files are best for work with minimal upscaling. Any significant increase in size can cause blurred edges in these images.
Illustrator creates vector-based images. These are mathematically-defined geometric shapes, lines, paths, objects, and fills. This allows for better image rendering and scaling. One of the key benefits of using Illustrator is that you can create graphics that will not lose their quality when scaled. Vector-based images are ideal for electronic presentations, infographics, and intricate design work.
You may export files created in Illustrator as Photoshop (.psd) files or save them as one of Photoshop’s supporting file formats. So, you can start your project in Illustrator and transfer it to Photoshop in an editable format. Along with Illustrator’s basic file formats, you can export your work using the AutoCAD drawing options. Illustrator also offers the Enhanced Metafile (EMF), which is ideal for curves and large-scale drawings. Like Photoshop, you can export Illustrator files to PDF.
What does Photoshop do?
Because Photoshop is a photo editor, it has all the tools you’ll need to change almost anything about a photo. This includes resizing, cropping, covering blemishes, touching up imperfections, and so much more. You can also add graphic elements and text or merge photos using Photoshop’s layers.
Photoshop is a layered tool. Layers let you work on multiple files at the same time. With layers, you build on individual elements and then combine them into one cohesive image. Layers are beneficial because they allow you to isolate and work on projects one piece at a time rather than creating large, stand-alone files. They also make editing single images easier.
You can manipulate or layer photos for collage or custom designs. With the transparency tool, you can completely isolate a photo and remove the background. This allows you to view images on top of one another without any lines or obstruction to the background.
Photoshop integrates a slice feature that allows you to select portions of your design to “slice” into stand-alone images. These images are then used to create web designs or one large image. When using the slice tool for web design, you can assign each slice a different link or optimize the individual slices. This is useful when creating images for web navigation or user interfaces. Like the layering tool, using slices will save you time if part of the larger image needs editing later.
Photoshop also offers technical imaging features. Its animation tools include 3D painting and a preview service that allows you to animate characters. If you’re interested in this, you can utilize Adobe Sensei, an artificial intelligence tool added to Adobe’s Creative Suite. With Adobe Sensei, you can colorize black and white photos and even change your subjects’ expressions.
These are just a few of the features and functions Photoshop offers. The tools and techniques have endless options for those willing to learn the ins and outs of the program.
What does Illustrator do?
Illustrator includes free-hand drawing tools such as line segments, arcs, spirals, and curves. Illustrator also includes graphing tools, which make it ideal for reports and charts. Like Photoshop, Illustrator provides an extensive selection of brushes, including calligraphy, pattern, and art brushes. It also gives you the option to apply brush strokes, which use anchor points that Illustrator identifies as you draw. You can use Illustrator to create custom fonts and typography, as well as change the appearance of text characters. Illustrator’s smart glyph tool allows you to snap text and other elements into place within your design. This helps you to avoid guesswork or the need to meticulously measure your designs. You can also use stylistic sets within Illustrator to replace default characters.
Like Photoshop, Illustrator includes layering tools to create separate components and then pull them into the final product. The Artboard feature mimics an artist’s physical drawing space. You can also use it to create custom workspaces that reflect specific project needs. Illustrator also includes the slice tool, which allows you to identify and save sections of an image as individual components. You can also use Illustrator to apply both vector and raster effects. It’s important to note that adding effects on high-resolution bitmap images uses a lot of your system’s memory.
Illustrator’s auto-extract features let you select specific colors from a file and apply them to your work. Illustrator also allows you to create swatches and shift or blend colors within your design. The Adobe Color Themes panel ensures that the color palettes you choose for designs are appealing. This panel is available in Photoshop and other Adobe products. You can upload custom panels that you create to Adobe’s library for use in other projects or share them with your team members.
What makes one better than the other?
Let’s not say better, so much as equals – but in different ways. Photoshop’s editing tools let you crop, adjust lighting and coloring, mask blemishes, and add or remove backgrounds. Creative professionals also use Photoshop for user interface creation, website designs, and graphics with minimal gradient.
Illustrator’s advantage lies in graphics creation, as you sketch images and enhance this work through the application. Freehand drawing and coloring options, along with line drawing and typography features, make Illustrator ideal for artists, illustrators, and anyone who likes to draw. Illustrator is also beneficial for businesses that need to create logos and icons for their marketing materials. Web designers often use Illustrator to create logos and images for banners and websites. Artists use Illustrator’s line-drawing tools to create charts and freehand drawings.
One of Photoshop’s limitations is its raster file format, which causes images to turn grainy and lose their visual sharpness when scaled. Illustrator’s vector files, by comparison, adjust with little loss of quality. Because images in Illustrator print at a higher quality than Photoshop’s raster images, it is useful for projects with a lot of type or intricate designs. This includes marketing materials and business card creation. You can also use Illustrator for multi-page documentation such as brochures, reports, newsletters, and books.
Photoshop is most useful for photo manipulation, pixelated art, and web graphics. Illustrator is not as practical for photo editing. It is also not recommended for user interface creation or graphic animation. Some creative professionals use both Photoshop and Illustrator as part of their workflow, along with other tools in the Creative Suite.
Summarizing best uses
Although many creative professionals use them together, Photoshop and Illustrator were built for a unique purpose.
Photoshop was primarily designed for:
- Photo editing and enhancements
- User interface design
- Graphics composed with minimal gradient
- 3D painting and animation
Illustrator is considered the best application for:
- Freehand drawing
- Logo and icon creation
- Infographic creation
- Projects with extensive line drawing (for example, graphs and charts)
- Custom fonts and typography
- Print projects with excessive typography
- Custom font creation
- Work that needs to be scalable to accommodate a range of platforms and products
Web developers often adopt a blended strategy that uses both applications. They start by creating the initial web graphics and user interface design in Photoshop. They then use Illustrator to create logos, icons, and custom fonts. Likewise, a photographer may alter or improve the quality of a picture in Photoshop and then use Illustrator to add custom type or additional art flourishes.
File sharing and other team management tools are available through Adobe’s cloud environment. This makes Adobe’s Creative Suite ideal for teams that need to monitor progress. It also allows teams to incorporate feedback and updates while maintaining versioning details. Photoshop and Illustrator also work with productivity apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. This makes them essential applications in a creative team’s development cycle.
Photoshop and Illustrator work on Windows and Mac operating systems. Both applications are also available for the iPad. The iPad versions offer many of the same tools as the desktop applications. They also include Apple Pencil stylus support, as well as touch gestures and shortcuts. These applications work with the iPad camera, so you can snap photos and immediately use them in your projects. You can also livestream your creative work on both iPad applications and record this to share with others later.
Photoshop and Illustrator are available from Adobe with monthly, annual, or prepaid annual subscriptions. Both versions of the annual plan include a commitment. Adobe offers free trials so you can explore both applications before deciding which subscription you need. If you would like access to both applications along with Adobe’s other creative tools — InDesign, Premiere Pro, and Lightroom — you should subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud plan. Students and teachers can subscribe to this plan at a discounted rate. Businesses can subscribe with the benefit of additional applications such as Acrobat Pro. More details about pricing, including discounts and charts for comparing plans, are available on Adobe’s website.
Cloud features across the applications let you work from your mobile device and Windows or Mac operating systems and access files while at either location. The iPad versions of Photoshop and Illustrator are available through the Adobe page on Apple’s App Store. There is no additional cost for Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers. The desktop applications, including those for trial use, are available for download from the Adobe website.
Where to learn more
It is important to not only understand the requirements of your project but to also be aware of your own creative process. You can get a better feel for the applications by downloading trial versions of both.
Once you have tried Photoshop and Illustrator, ask yourself which application best meets your needs. Are there certain features of one that you prefer? If so, consider starting with that application and adding the other one at a later time. If you feel that you need tools from both applications to complete your work, the Creative Cloud Suite may be the best choice for you.
If you are still unsure which application best meets your needs, or you want to learn more about both applications so you can incorporate a blended approach, review the Photoshop User Guide or the Illustrator User Guide. They are available on Adobe’s website, along with information about the other available creative products. Udemy also offers several courses on both applications at beginner and advanced levels.
Graphic Design Bootcamp, or the
Adobe Illustrator Masterclass as part of your journey to deciding which tool is best for you.
Top courses in Photoshop
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