What is a PNG file?

We explain what a portable networks graphic (PNG) is, plus how to edit and convert this type of file

A PNG, or portable network graphic, is an image type that's commonly used in web design to provide a transparent background and/or a semi-transparent image.

PNGs are often used to design logos as the image can be easily placed over a background of a picture, block of colour or pattern. PNGs tend to be much larger than other image file types, such as JPG or GIF, and so it's usually a good idea to limit their use unless you have a large storage capacity or a lower-end PC.

However, it's best to use PNG if you're after the most detail as possible in an image. They also support both 24-bit RGB and 32-bit RGBA colour spaces, as well as grey scale, but aren't designed to work with CMYK modes and, as such, aren't the best when dealing with printed materials. Again, because of the wider range of support colour spaces, this further contributes to the file size of a PNG.

PNGs are also far more easily accessible in terms of copyright, as they exist as an open format and can be more widely used without the need for a licence.

The GIF file type has almost been entirely replaced by PNG within the publishing world, although GIF remains a highly popular format for moving images given its ability to compress down file sizes. However, even with moving images there are now better formats to GIF, such as multiple image network graphics (MNGs).

History of PNG

The PNG format was first developed in 1995, at a time when the GIF format was already well established. A more modern file format was needed to keep pace with screen technology, which was becoming capable of supporting a much wider spectrum of colours.

A group of developers then joined forces to create the PNG format and it was decided the new image file should only support a single, static picture. In October 1996, the first iteration of the file format was created, with further versions released in 1998, 1999 and 2003, when it became an international standard.

When to use a PNG

PNG files can sometimes be larger than a GIF and so it's worth considering whether the file format is definitely the best option for the use case. For example, if you have lots of images on one web page, you might want to consider either resizing the image so it's lower quality, or using an alternative image format that results in a smaller file size (for example GIF).

This conversion may result in stripping away the transparency of the image, so if you need to preserve the transparency, PNG is definitely the best option and worth using, even if it's a large file.

How to open and edit a PNG file

PNG files can be opened in any web browser, including Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari and Opera, as it's now the most widely adopted web image type. If you don't have an image viewer on your computer, you can even open it by dragging it from your desktop to your browser, although you won't be able to edit it this way.

A PNG file can also be opened and edited in the majority of image editing programs, including Microsoft Paint (despite Microsoft ending support for the bundled image editing program in the very near future), Paint 3D, GIMP, XnView and of course, Adobe PhotoShop.

If you're not sure if you already have an image editor installed on your computer, try double-clicking the image file and any supported program will open it up for you ready to edit.

How to convert a PNG file

You can, of course, convert a PNG file to any other popular format, including JPG, ICO, TIF, BMP and GIF if you wish. This can be done by a whole range of free online converters, including XnConvert, Zamzar, FileZigZag and Adapter.

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