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What is a PNG File?

Last Updated on June 13, 2022 by Devaun Lennox

Today’s digital world has plenty of file formats, all with different file extension names to let you know the file’s contents. The PNG, or Portable Network Graphic, is one such file. And while it’s fairly standard online, it’s not surprising if you’re still unaware of it.

PNG-file-Illustration

With that, in this post, we’ll define the file itself, its history, how it differs against other formats, and its advantages and disadvantages. So, in the end, you’ll have some helpful insight into whether it’s a good option for workflow.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • What is a PNG file?
  • History of the PNG file
  • What are PNG files used for?
  • Pros and cons of PNG files
  • How to open a PNG file
  • How to create and edit a PNG file
  • Frequently asked questions

What Is a PNG File?

The Portable Network Graphic (PNG) is a type of raster image file initially designed to fix the shortcomings of the Graphics Interchange Format or GIF. And today, it’s a widely accepted file used for digital images, web graphics, and text files, second to only the JPEG format. So much so it’s now arguably the most frequently used raster file for displaying images on the Internet. And many argue it’s entirely replaced GIF altogether.

PNG-Folder

Even so, the PNG format does inherit several features from GIF.

Namely, it uses lossless compression, which stores all the original image data to maintain maximum quality. And it too can display transparent or semi-transparent backgrounds, making it an excellent option for logos, video overlays, and embedding graphics on web pages.

Yet, unlike GIF, it also can contain 24-bit RGB color and grayscale images. The result is a much broader gamut or color palette that can handle up to 16 million colors. And, crucially, it’s also an open-source format that’s free of copyright limitations. So there’s no need for specific licensing, and that’s made it widely compatible with most image editors.

History of the PNG File

During the 90s, the GIF format was already well-established and the de facto industry standard. However, Unisys, the IT company behind the file, patented it. So, it required licensing to use its LZW compression scheme.

Sadly, that meant software developers struggled to build around this format, even though consumers could freely make, view, and send these files. And that frustration is what ultimately led to the creation of PNG.

The PNG or PING file first debuted on the market in 1995. It then received a W3C recommendation the following year and eventually became an international standard in the early 2000s.

Note: it was originally called “PING,” but was later renamed and shortened to PNG as operating systems changed their file naming conventions.

The main intention for this format was to create an open-source alternative to GIF. But, it also wanted to increase color support when transferring images on the web. GIF offers a limited color palette, maxing out at 8-bit RGB color or 256 possible colors. And developers felt that wouldn’t be sufficient long-term. So fixing these issues would create a more modern format that would keep pace with the ever-improving screen technology.

Why Use a PNG File

There are many reasons we use PNG files today and why they’re a popular choice for sending images online. But, the two reasons below are the most important ones by far. 

Lossless Compression – These files use lossless compression, meaning they maintain their image quality when saved, re-opened, or resized. The result is you have higher quality images than other formats since you keep all of the original data. And that’s why this file is a go-to for detailed graphics, fine print, and text art.

save-as-PNG-file

Transparent Backgrounds – These files include an 8-bit transparency channel, unlike GIF, which is only on or off. So, instead, you adjust the image colors to fade from opaque to fully transparent. And this functionality makes this file perfect for graphics, illustrations, or logos since you can cut out subjects easily. And you also don’t have a distracting white box around them either.

What Is the Difference Between PNG and JPEG?

If you’re curious how PNG and JPEG files differ, below are the key reasons.

PNG-vs-JPEG-Illustration
  1. Image Compression – JPEG files use Lossy Compression, while PNG files use Lossless Compression. Lossy compression means a JPEG file permanently throws away valuable image information during the export process. And unfortunately, that ends up reducing its image quality and detail since you lose low-order pixel data. On the other hand, PNG files use lossless compression, the same method used for RAW files. And that lets them capture and restore all of the original image data at a pixel-for-pixel level since this compression is reversible. Thus, there is no loss of quality.
  2. Transparent Backgrounds – JPEG files don’t offer any transparent segments. Instead, each image must have color from corner to corner. That means you always have a colored or white background around the main subject with these files. And that can make it challenging to embed them into complex logos and graphic art as overlays.
  3. File Size – these files also differ in file size, primarily due to their compression methods. But this is an area of strength for JPEG, as these files are about 30% smaller than a similar PNG file. Thus, they’re better for sharing images across digital platforms, as the smaller size provides quick uploading or downloading speeds. And that difference can help improve a web page’s performance. In comparison, PNG would be better for archiving and backing up images.

Overall though, the PNG file isn’t here to replace JPEG. Instead, it offers users the option to trade added file size for better image quality and resolution. But, given the added transparency functionality, it’s a popular choice amongst professionals, especially web developers and graphic designers. At the same time, JPEG is more of the go-to for consumers.

But, admittingly, JPEG is the default standard for storing images from digital cameras and uploading them online. So I must point that out. While we use PNG files when there is sharp contrast, text, animation, solid colors, or when images need transparency.

How to Open a PNG File

With the broad adoption of this format, you can view it in almost any graphic editor, viewer, and even a web browser. And you shouldn’t have any issues opening it on most devices.

Nearly all image editing programs can open a PNG file, be they free or paid. And that applies to both Mac and Windows computers. In fact, you likely have at least two installed already. So you can merely double-click one of these files (if you have one) and open it using a default bundled program. These programs include:

  • Microsoft Paint
  • Microsoft Photos
  • Apple Photos
  • Apple Preview

You can also open PNG files with many image editing applications. This list is nearly endless. But, here are some of the most popular options:

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Lightroom
  • IrfanView
  • GIMP
  • Microsoft Paint

Plus, most of the major web browsers can open these files too. Merely drag and drop the file into your browser to preview it. Or use CTRL + O to prompt an open file dialog, then browse for it on your computer. The browsers that support this functionality include:

  • Google Chrome
  • Microsoft Edge
  • Apple Safari
  • Mozilla Firefox
  • Opera

How Do I Convert a PNG File?

While this format is common enough to avoid difficulties when viewing or sharing, you may want to convert it eventually.

Thankfully, you can convert PNG files to other popular formats like JPEG, PDF, or TIFF with most editing applications. And in fact, most graphic editors that support PNG files outright will also let you convert them.

PNG-Export-Dialog

You can also use one of many free online converters, including:

  • Adobe Creative Cloud Express
  • Zamzar
  • Convertio
  • CloudConvert

Advantages

This format has many advantages and upsides. Below are the most notable ones.

Image Quality

Since these files use Lossless compression, they maintain the original color information and fine detail present in the file. The result is a higher quality image since all the crucial image data is retained during export or saving. Plus, given the fact that these files include a 24-bit RGB gamut, they also store millions of colors rather than just 256 like GIFs. Together, they’re far better suited for detailed images with solid colors, making them perfect for text art or graphics.

Compatibility

Since PNG is an open source format, anyone can develop a viewer or editor program that can support it without having to acquire a license. In fact, that is exactly what happened since the file became standardized in the early 2000s. Today, a vast range of programs support this file, and it has excellent compatibility amongst both computers and mobile devices. Not to mention, it’s also a standard file on the web, and many websites embed images using it.

Lossless Compression

With JPEG, you lose some critical image color data when it’s compressed. But worse, when the file is re-saved, it starts the cascade of generation loss. Generation Loss refers to the reduction in image quality that occurs over time when you edit a file then save it again and again.

Thankfully, the lossless compression algorithm used by PNG doesn’t suffer from generation loss. And thus, this format is far better suited for repeated editing since it doesn’t lose image quality. So if you plan on re-editing an image over time, saving it as PNG is best.

Additionally, the lossless compression also helps these images retain their scalability. So they don’t lose image quality if you resize or enlarge them.

Transparency

This format also supports transparent color and grayscale images, letting you make any part of the image fully transparent or opaque. And this functionality is a must for illustrators or graphic designers, as it enables them to overlay these images onto other designs neatly. It also helps designs or logos look clean and sharp on the web.

Downsides

But, while there are many advantages to this file format, there are also some disadvantages to consider beforehand. Below are the most important ones.

File Size

Unfortunately, these files take up more storage space than their peers. And they tend to be quite large, given they have 24-bit color and high-quality Lossless compression. Sadly, we’re talking about twice the size of your average JPEG file. And most PNG files will be around 20 MB per file rather than 10 MB like a JPEG.

So, if you’re low on storage or disk space, using a PNG file when not necessary would end up wasting quite a bit of space, especially if you store them alongside RAW files. And in this situation, using JPEG or another format would be best.

Website Loading

Unfortunately, their large file size also means more demand on web pages. And that could end up slowing down your website’s loading time and general responsiveness if you store lots of images on a single page. So in these situations, resizing PNGs to a smaller size or converting them to JPEG would be best.

Printing

These files were designed with the internet in mind from their initial creation. However, the internet relies on the RGB color space, while CMYK is the default color space used in printing. Sadly, that means printing a PNG file with 1:1 color accuracy will be difficult since this format doesn’t support the CMYK color space altogether. So, if you’re printing professional-level graphics or artwork, you may want to consider using another format as the color translation will be a hassle.

Lacks Animation

PNG is a single image format, so it doesn’t support looping animations like GIFs, which support multiple images. So, if you want to create looping animations, then using the GIF format is best.

Conclusion

The PNG is an essential file format in today’s digital world, and they’re here to stay. Considering the improvements made and the added functionality over GIF, it makes sense why they’ve reigned supreme for transferring images on the web.

Of course, the format does have its downsides, namely its color space and heavy file size. But, as it stands, it’s an excellent option for photographers who also work with digital graphics, say composites or NFT art. But, it’s likewise helpful for creating logos, charts, website banners, and various other web elements since they support transparency. And having transparency is a must in graphic design, despite the larger file size required.

But ultimately, whether the PNG file will provide a meaningful addition to your workflow depends on your preference. While limited in comparison, JPEG remains the current standard amongst digital cameras and most editing software. And it does so for a good reason. So, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest converting your entire photo library just yet. Instead, use the PNG format for your graphic art and design work.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Which is better JPEG or PNG?

JPEG is best for images with fine colors and soft gradual transitions, while PNG is best for digital artwork. JPEG is also best for printing photos since PNG files don’t support CMYK color. However, PNG files are best to create logos with transparent backgrounds since JPEG requires color throughout the entire image.

What is the meaning of PNG image?

PNG or Portable Network Graphic is a type of bitmap file designed to transfer images on the web. And it became so popular that it eventually went to replace GIF since it improved on its limitations and lacked any copyright.

What is the difference between a PNG & JPEG?

PNG and JPEG are both popular bitmap image formats used to store images. But, their main differences are: the compression algorithm used, transparency support, and the color gamut. And these changes end up also affecting their final file size and storage requirements.

What is a PNG used for?

PNG files are commonly used to store graphics, texts, charts, logos, and images with transparent backgrounds.

Is PNG good for photos?

No. While PNG offers lossless compression, so it doesn’t lose quality when opened and saved, the color gamut isn’t great at handling the gradual color transitions of most photos. Instead, this format is best for artwork or images with solid colors rather than fine shades of color.

Which is smaller PNG or JPEG?

JPEG is smaller, and roughly by 50%. PNG files average around 20 MB/file, while JPEG is 10 MB/file.

Should I use PNG or JPEG on my website?

Use PNG for logos or graphics since it supports transparency, and it can help your images cleanly blend into the webpage. But, use JPEG for pages with many images, so the webpage loads quickly.

Is PNG video or image?

It’s a raster image file, not a video file format.

Photo of author

Devaun Lennox

I'm a fashion, beauty, and commercial photographer turned impromptu photojournalist. Based in Las Vegas, my images are graphic, bold, and full-on contrast.