Image Encoding: Databending Digital Images

Module created by Alison Langmead of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh

The form of image manipulation we will practice in this module is sometimes called “databending,” which is the practice of taking digital data produced in one file format and manipulating it in an application designed for another file format. In this case, we will be taking a digital image, opening it up as if it were a text file, manipulating that data as text, and then rendering the file back to our senses as an image. By doing this work, we will not only produce fascinating visual spectacles, “glitched” by this workflow of digital transformations, we will also consider the role that file standards play in our ability to interact with data.



In this exercise, you will open up an image file in the online hex editor,, and manipulate the image data as text. Be sure to use a copy of an image for this exercise as you don’t want to glitch an image that matters to you. Or, you can simply use one of the sample image files listed below. You will then save that text as an image file and see what your textual manipulations have done to the image data. The results may surprise you! 

To complete this exercise you will need a computer with an internet connection, and an image file. This should take you about 20 minutes to complete.

Exercise Downloads

Sample Image 1: Can All You Can Its a Real War Job

Sample Image 2: Ladies Shooting from a Pavilion


Professional Artists Who Use Databending Techniques

Artists such as Rosa Menkman and Daniel Temkin do not tend to “take stabs” at this sort of image manipulation as we did here, although that remains an option open to them! This type of direct, non-standard, manipulation of data streams is more like a medium that these artists have mastered. There is a type of symphony performed by computer when it reads a file, and these experts can conduct whatever they choose.

Other Databending Techniques

The following websites offer other techniques that you might employ to manipulate files through databending practices. Such approaches include “Data-as-Sound Editing,” “Automated Glitching,” as well as “Datamoshing.”


  1. Files on your computer are strings of numbers that, in order to convey their meaning, require the intervention of an application to interpret them. For a human to fully engage with a digital file, the computer needs to perform the numbers.
  2. In order to render a digital file appropriately, knowledge extrinsic to the file itself is needed. This can come in the form of a standardized file format or another pre-existing data formatting expectation baked into a given application or operating system.
  3. However, this does not mean that the only applications that can open a particular data stream are those designed for its original formatting. You can choose to express yourself creatively by intentionally “misinterpreting” files with unconventional applications. You could call such work hacking or you could call it art.

Additional Resources

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.