Two of the biggest names in graphic design software are Photoshop and Illustrator. These Adobe programs lead the industry and are staples for many designers. 

But if you’re newer to the field, or haven’t used the programs yourself, you might be wondering what the difference is, especially since they’re often used by professionals in similar roles. After all, how are you supposed to know what to learn if you don’t understand what makes the programs different? 

What is Photoshop? 

Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard of photo editing software.

Photoshop users who know how to use the software can edit existing digital or digitalized photos (also called raster artwork), combine multiple images, and even create digital paintings. More advanced users can create GIFs—the brief, looped moving images you often see on social media—or even edit simple videos. 

The most common use for Photoshop is digital image correction. Photoshop allows you to do anything from correcting color to changing the background to adding or removing people from images. It’s become such a common practice, there’s even an action named after it: “So-and-so Photoshopped that image.” If you can dream it, you can probably do it in Photoshop. 

Professionals across almost every industry use the software, and the key components are: 

  • Retouching tools
  • Adjustment tools
  • Compositing images
  • Masking & special effects
  • Layers
  • Creating Animated GIFs

What is Illustrator? 

Adobe Illustrator is the industry-leading vector graphics and illustration app. This versatile program is great for creating many kinds of artwork, most notably logos, icons, patterns, and product packaging. 

The most common uses for Illustrator are to create company branding and intricately detailed or patterned designs. Its biggest strength, and what sets it apart from other design software, is the fact that it’s vector-based, which means that your designs are completely scalable. It also does extraordinarily well with pattern creation and minute details. 

Professionals from many industries use Illustrator to create branding assets, web graphics, and even fashion designs. If you want your design to be intricate and beautiful no matter what size, Illustrator is the perfect tool for you. 

The most essential features are: 

  • Vector-based
  • Image scalability 
  • Artboards
  • Patterns & detailed illustrations

Major Differences between Photoshop & Illustrator

Photoshop and Illustrator are undoubtedly related, and work together well. Many professionals, especially designers, use the programs together because they complement each other. 

They aren’t the same, though, and that’s a good thing because both bring strengths to the table. These are the three primary differences between the programs. 

Raster v. Vector

The biggest difference between Photoshop and Illustrator is that one is raster-based and the other is vector-based. 

Photoshop creates images in raster form, with pixels. As you’re working with images and artwork, you can make edits down to a single pixel of color, which is great for working with small details. Raster images are one size, though, which means if you want to make them bigger, the details will begin to appear blurred and the image as a whole won’t appear crisp. 

On the other hand, Illustrator is vector-based, which means the shapes and lines are based on a mathematical equation. No matter what size vector image you create, it will always be able to scale up, or down, and look as sharp as when you designed it. This is perfect for designs that may need to change sizes at some point. As long as they’re designed as vector art, they can be transformed into any size without having to spend time redesigning. 

Professional Uses

Many professionals use Photoshop and Illustrator together, which makes sense since they’re both leading-edge graphic design softwares. Although they’re using both, each program can tackle different tasks. 

Because Photoshop excels at image manipulation, it’s most commonly used for correcting digital images. With functionality like red-eye removal and the healing tool, many photographers use the program to “clean up” their photos. 

Photoshop is also excellent for compositing images (combining multiple photos together to create a new image), “hiding” parts of an image with layers, working with filters, and adding special effects. You can use layers to do tasks like editing an image without changing the original file and changing the background of an image.

Meanwhile, in Illustrator you can create great, scalable images such as logos and icons. Since logos often need to be many different sizes, such as on a business card or a billboard, creating them in Illustrator as a responsive vector graphic is a no-brainer. 

Illustrator is also extremely important for product packaging design because it’s excellent at generating patterns and tiny details such as outlined text and dotted lines. It’s also prized in the fashion industry for the same reasons: patterns and detailed illustration capabilities. 

File Formats

Because each program works with different kinds of graphics, Photoshop and Illustrator create different file formats. 

Photoshop creates PNG and JPG files. These probably seem familiar if you’ve looked at photos on a computer. They’re standard raster file extensions. Photoshop also creates PSD files, which are specific to Photoshop and can be used in other Adobe applications. 

When they’re in PSD format, changes can still be made to the file. After they’re saved as a PNG or JPG, all layers in the image are combined into one image and you can no longer edit individual aspects of the saved file. 

On the other hand, Illustrator creates SVG and AI files. These are vector files, and they work a little differently. Unlike raster files, you can continue to work on any individual aspect of the graphic after it’s been saved. The work in progress file is the same type as the “finished product” so to speak. 

You can also save PNG and JPG files from Illustrator, too, which turns them into raster files. The ability to save as a vector file is an important difference between the two programs.

Which Program to Use

Which program you want or need to use largely depends on the goals for your project.

Here are some questions to help you decide which program might better suit your needs. 

  • Does my image already exist? Photoshop is probably your best choice for editing.
  • What do I want to do with my image or graphic? If you want to edit and manipulate it, or composite it with other photos, you’ll want to use Photoshop.
  • Will my graphic always be the same size? If yes, Photoshop is a good choice for design.
  • Do I want to create something brand new? Illustrator is a good choice for creating new designs.
  • Will my graphic need to scale to fit different size formats? If yes, the best choice is Illustrator.
  • Where’s the best place to create a logo? You can create logos in either program, but Illustrator files allow you to scale to whatever size you need without redesigning.

Photoshop may be more flexible, but there are some tasks Illustrator does that Photoshop doesn’t. In the end, you may not need both. Every designer has a different workflow and uses the tools in their own way. When you get to know the tools well, you’ll be able to more easily identify which will work best for your project.

How to Purchase Photoshop & Illustrator

To use Photoshop and Illustrator, you’ll need to purchase an Adobe subscription. You can purchase the apps individually, or in the Creative Cloud all apps package. 

For professionals needing the full set of features, Photoshop is the way to go. As part of the Creative Cloud, Photoshop is the most powerful version of the software—the one professional photographers and photo editors use. It requires a subscription of about $21 per month if you purchase the program on its own. 

Photoshop Elements is a simplified version of Photoshop which includes important elements like the ability to colorize images, adjust facial features, smooth skin, and remove subjects from images. For less than $100, and no required subscription, you can get the Photoshop essentials.

Photoshop on iPad is part of any Adobe plan which includes Photoshop. The iPad app allows you to do the same edits and adjustments as you would on a desktop or laptop, with the flexibility of using a tablet. 

Professionals who do a significant amount of design work should also consider Illustrator. It requires a monthly subscription fee of about $21 if you don’t opt to purchase the whole Creative Cloud. 

Illustrator for iPad is available on any plan that includes Illustrator. The app has the same tools as the desktop version but includes special features designed specifically for the Apple Pencil and iPad. Users can work from almost anywhere, and there’s even an option to work offline. 

If you need additional Adobe applications, the Creative Cloud subscription may be a smart choice. At about $53 per month, the investment may seem pricey; but, if you use several tools on a regular basis, the all apps plan will save you money in the long run because you won’t have to pay separate subscription fees each month.

How to Learn Photoshop & Illustrator

Ready to learn Photoshop, Illustrator, or both? 

Noble Desktop offers several great Photoshop courses in-person at their campus in New York City. 

Some of the most popular classes are:

  • Adobe Photoshop Bootcamp (18-hour deep dive course)
  • Photoshop Advanced Retouching (18-hour specialty course) 
  • Photoshop in a Day (6-hour fundamentals course)
  • Graphic Design Certificate (72-hour comprehensive set of courses, including Photoshop)

If you’d rather learn from the comfort of your own home or office, Noble also has a Classes Near Me tool that compares reputable training programs hosted live online. You can look for live online Photoshop courses from training schools offering similar classes. 

Noble also offers Illustrator courses. The most popular include: 

  • Adobe Illustrator Bootcamp (18-hour deep dive course)
  • Illustrator in a Day (6-hour basics course)
  • Graphic Design Certificate (72-hour comprehensive set of courses, including Illustrator)