Images, Formats and Applications

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This week we’re going to examine the relationship between images, formats and applications.  (Note that in this four-part series of posts we use the terms “image” and “photography” in a very expansive sense. It can include both still and moving images, 3-D, and computational imaging.)

It’s essential to separate your understanding of an image from the file format that may be used to save the image data. While the image is dependent on a file format to exist in digital form, the underlying image is really independent from the file that houses the bits at any particular time. This has been a part of photography since the advent of printable negatives.


We’ve long understood the photographic image to be distinct from any particular reproduction of that image. The same image may be embodied as a slide, a print or printed in a book, to name a few. 

The negative, slide or print is a copy of the image, but it’s only one possible copy. It may represent an optimized copy, or a degraded copy, or it may have some special purpose, but the image itself can have an existence that is independent of any single copy. 

In the digital world, the relationship between the underlying image and the digital media object is more complex because the digital image, when stored, is unrendered. It’s just a set of 1s and 0s. In order to understand how formats relate to images, it’s essential to look at the evolution of three interlocking parts: the image, the formats we use to store the images, and the software that creates, displays or edits the images.

In most cases, the evolution of images, formats and software environments does not mean the old ones are obsolete and useless. Quite the contrary. Most of the evolution outlined above can be seen as the creation of new uses for images, in addition to the existing ones. As the import and use of images in all forms of communication expand, the traditional uses expand as well. 

The fact that people have become accustomed to engaging visuals in their web and mobile communications means that they also demand excellent visuals in print communications. Those tools developed for high quality and consistent color in print usage therefore continue to have a high level of importance. 

In the following posts, we’ll outline the evolution of this three-part relationship of image, format and application.

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