Essential raster data vocabulary

This topic provides an overview of some of the terminology you are going to encounter when working with raster data in ArcGIS. Not all of these terms are specific to ArcGIS.



Raster versus image

Raster and image are two terms that are often interchanged.

An image (or imagery) is a two-dimensional, pictorial representation. It is not dependent on a wavelength or remote-sensing device, such as a satellite, aerial camera, or terrain sensor. An image is displayed on your screen or printed. You view images.

A raster is the data model that describes how an image is stored. A raster defines the pixels (cells) in rows and columns, the number of bands, and the bit depth that compose the image. When you view a raster, you are viewing an image of that raster data.

You might also hear rasters being referred to as cell-based datasets, but this is not typically used within ArcGIS documentation.

Learn more about raster data

Cells and pixels

Pixel is often used synonymously with cell. Both cell and pixel refer to the smallest unit of information in raster data. Pixel is an abbreviation for picture element and is often used when describing imagery, whereas cell is often used when describing raster data.

Cells and pixels have a dimension and value. They represent information, such as temperature, soil types, elevation, and real-world features, such as parks, lakes, and buildings.

Learn how features are represented in raster data

Resolution, scale, and cell size

Resolution, scale, and cell (pixel) size can all refer to how large a feature is in raster data, but it's not that straightforward. For example, there are four types of resolution:

  • Spectral—Describes the wavelength within the electromagnetic spectrum used to create the image.
  • Temporal—Refers to the frequency at which images are captured over the same place on the earth's surface.
  • Radiometric—Describes the ability of a sensor to distinguish objects viewed in the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Spatial—The only one that relates to scale and cell size. Spatial resolution (also known as cell size) is the dimension of the area covered on the ground and represented by a single cell. Scale is the ratio or relationship between a distance or area on a map (or image) and the corresponding distance or area on the ground, commonly expressed as a fraction or ratio. The spatial resolution or cell size affects the level of details represented by an image at any scale.

Learn more about raster resolution, scale, and size


Rasters can have one or more bands. Multiband rasters are often referred to as multispectral images, and rasters with up to hundreds of bands are often referred to as hyperspectral images. A single-band raster dataset represents a single phenomenon, such as elevation, or only one wavelength range within the electromagnetic spectrum, such as a black-and-white aerial photograph.

Bands often relate to spectral resolution.

Learn more about raster bands

Raster format versus raster type

A raster format defines how pixels are stored, such as number of rows and columns, number of bands, actual pixel values, and other raster format-specific parameters. The raster type helps identify metadata, such as georeferencing, acquisition date, and sensor type, along with a raster format.

See the list of supported raster dataset formats.

Learn more about raster types


Raster datasets can be displayed, or rendered, in your map in many different ways. Rendering is the process of displaying your data. How a raster dataset is rendered depends on what type of data it contains and what you want to show. Some rasters have a predefined color scheme—a color map—that ArcMap automatically uses to display them. For those that don't, ArcMap chooses an appropriate display method that you can adjust as needed.

Learn about renderers


Functions allow you (or the software) to define processing that will be applied to one or more rasters, but this processing is not permanently applied to the rasters; it is applied on the fly as the rasters are accessed.

Learn about functions

Methods of storage: Data models Learn about raster data models

Raster dataset

A raster dataset is any valid raster format organized into one or more bands. Each band consists of an array of pixels (cells), and each pixel has a value. A raster dataset has at least one band. More than one raster dataset can be spatially appended (mosaicked) together into a larger, single, continuous raster dataset.

Raster datasets are represented with the Raster dataset icon icon.

Mosaic dataset

A mosaic dataset is a collection of raster datasets (images) stored as a catalog and viewed or accessed as a single mosaicked image or individual images (rasters). These collections can be extremely large both in total file size and number of raster datasets. The raster data is added according to its raster type—which identifies metadata, such as georeferencing, acquisition date, and sensor type, along with a raster format. The raster datasets in a mosaic dataset can remain in their native format on disk or, if required, be loaded into the geodatabase. The metadata can be managed within the raster record as well as attributes in the attribute table. Storing metadata as attributes enables parameters such as sensor orientation data to be managed easily as well as enabling fast queries to enable selections.

Mosaic datasets are represented with the Mosaic dataset icon icon.

Raster catalog

A raster catalog is a collection of raster datasets defined in a table format in which each record represents an individual raster dataset in the catalog. A raster catalog can be large and contain thousands of images. A raster catalog is typically used to display adjacent, fully overlapping, or partially overlapping raster datasets without having to mosaic them into one large raster dataset.

Raster catalogs are represented with the Raster catalog icon icon.

Managed versus unmanaged

There are two ways of storing the raster data within a geodatabase—either managed or unmanaged. A managed raster dataset is stored within the geodatabase, whereas an unmanaged raster dataset is not.

Using mosaic in ArcGIS

There are several ways in which the term mosaic is used in ArcGIS:

  • Mosaic dataset—A data model within the geodatabase used to manage a collection of raster datasets (images) stored as a catalog and viewed as a mosaicked image (this is further described above). It is created and edited using geoprocessing tools in the Mosaic Dataset toolset.
  • Mosaicked image—The image or raster displayed in your view that is derived from two or more images. Generally you view the mosaicked image when viewing a mosaic dataset; however, the image could also be from a raster catalog.
  • Mosaicking—Describes the actions of combining or merging multiple raster datasets. For more information, see What is a mosaic.
  • Mosaicked raster dataset or raster dataset (mosaic)—These mean the same thing. Both are raster datasets. Using the word mosaic or mosaicked describes how the raster dataset was created or will be created.