What's the difference between a picture and an image?

I think this is the missing question as these have already been asked:




  • My first thought, based on computer systems work including imaging systems, was that a picture is taken with a camera, while an image can come from a camera or a scanner. That is not a definitive answer, of course.
    – JeffSahol
    May 4, 2011 at 3:43

5 Answers 5


The OED defines them as (note these are only partial entries, as both words have several meanings. However these seemed to be the ones more appropriate for this discussion):

picture: An individual painting, drawing, or other representation on a surface, of an object or objects; esp. such a representation as a work of art. (Now the prevailing sense.)

image: An optical appearance or counterpart of an object, such as is produced by rays of light either reflected as from a mirror, refracted as through a lens, or falling on a surface after passing through a small aperture.    Such an appearance may also be a mere subjective impression on the sense of sight, as an after-image (q.v.), and the negative image or accidental image seen after looking intently at a bright-coloured object, and having a colour complementary to that of the object. An image produced by reflexion or refraction is called in Optics a real image when the rays from each point of the object actually meet at a point, a virtual image when they diverge as if from a point beyond the reflecting or refracting body.

So I guess image refers more to the optical process, while picture is the actual painting/printed photograph etc.

Of course image is also used to refer to image files in informatics.

  • Dealing with light and optics, the only example of an Image I can thing of would be a Photograph taken with a camera (film or digital) as there are optics involved in both. What other types of images are are there?
    – Justin808
    May 4, 2011 at 9:03
  • If my understanding is correct, a Photograph (image) once scanned into a computer becomes a Image File (picture). But what of a digital photograph, it goes straight to an Image File, but it was made directly with optics. I guess all images are pictures but not all pictures are images?
    – Justin808
    May 4, 2011 at 9:06
  • @images: what you see with your eyes (which act effectively as your own "cameras") are images. Also what is projected from the projector in a movie theater. As I was saying there are also other meanings of the words (e.g. mental images) that I did not include. Maybe we could say that a picture is something more "tangible" than an image?
    – nico
    May 4, 2011 at 11:42

I think when people say "image" on the computer they're talking about any file that is a drawing/picture/photograph, basically any.. image (.png .gif .jpeg .jpg .bmp etc.).

Whereas when people say "picture", they're referring to an actual photograph.

So a picture is an image, but an image is not always a picture.

  • This makes sense to me from my limited knowledge of the words (ie. just every day usage) but was image used or even exits as a word before computers and file image file types listed? Also the file types listed are all of the raster type, none are a vector type, though that may not have any bearing on the answer.
    – Justin808
    May 4, 2011 at 6:19
  • 3
    I now have an image of how this works in my brain. I'm just trying to picture it in practice. :) Apr 26, 2012 at 19:11

Apart from the already mentioned answers, an image is also the impression that a person is leaving in front of others. So, we often hear statements to this effect- 'You have a good image in her eyes.' I don't think Picture can replace Image here.

A picture is also used to imply a movie. So, we have Oscar for Best Picture. Now, Image can't replace Picture here.

Moreover, Picture can also be used to represent a situation, when Image can't do that. Like, They used to great together. But now the picture is all changed. They are about to get divorced.


A picture is defined as "a painting or a drawing", with no other noun definition (although one of the sub-definitions is "the image on a television screen"). Meanwhile an image is just "a representation of the external form of a person or thing."

Basically, an image can be a photograph, a painting, or a drawing (or even an optical appearance like in a mirror, lens, or hologram), but a picture can only be a painting or a drawing.

  • 4
    I and others I know often refer to photographs as pictures. Is this wrong?
    – Justin808
    May 4, 2011 at 6:15
  • I take it back, "photograph" is listed in the sub-definitions. I missed that earlier. That means the major difference between the two would be the optical appearance, which covers reflections, lens images, and holograms. This would make my answer pretty much equivalent to @nico's
    – matthias
    May 4, 2011 at 7:18
  • @Justin808 As I understand it, photograph is actually both. It is a picture by showing objects (just as drawing, painting, etc.). But it is also an image (aka reflection or projection in a sense) of a person, situation, moment in time or whatever was photographed.
    – okolnost
    Apr 1, 2020 at 16:47

I think a picture is a still view of an object or a sight.

An image is a digitised form of any picture or some still view made on the screen by rays of light.

  • Is a traditional, analogue, printed photograph not an image? What about a mental image?
    – Hugo
    Dec 4, 2011 at 11:16

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