How to Trace an Image in Illustrator: Step by Step Guide

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(Last updated on March 7th, 2023)

While it is possible to fix your photos in illustrator, there isn’t much you can do with them as raster images. That can also change if your image is traced. I will show you how to trace your images in Illustrator and how best to use this technique.

pen drawing with colored ink
Learn how to trace images in Illustrator automatically so you won’t have to do it by hand like this pen. Pixabay

How Illustrator Handles Images

Most images are raster-based if they come in JPG and PNG file types. Illustrator is a vector-based program that can’t perform as many raster-based functions as Photoshop. The good news is that it’s possible to turn your raster-based images into vector-based artwork.

Illustrator raster image of bird
This is how an image of a bird appears in Illustrator when dragged into the program. Mark McPherson

This conversion process in Illustrator is referred to as tracing. As the name implies, this technique traces over a raster image to produce vector art that reflects it. It’s ideal for taking something like a pencil sketch you scanned in on paper and transforming it into artwork you can more easily manipulate in Illustrator.

How to Trace an Image in Illustrator

Here’s how to trace an image once you’ve brought it into Illustrator:

  1. Place your raster image on the Illustrator canvas.
  2. Select the image and trace it using one of the following methods:
    • Make the trace by selecting Object > Image Trace > Make. This will trace based on default parameters and turn out a black-and-white trace.
    • Click on the Image Trace button in either the Control or Properties panel. You can also select a tracing preset from the Tracing Presets button, looking like a triangle.
    • Navigate to Window > Image Trace to open the Tracing workspace and select either one of the tracing presets or use the tracing options to create a trace of your own.
Illustrator bird image traced for low fidelity
This image of a bird has been traced using the Low Fidelity Photo preset. Mark McPherson
  1. Open the Image Trace window by navigating to Window > Image Trace (if it isn’t already open) and make any necessary changes to the tracing results.
  2. Convert the traced image into vector artwork that you can edit by navigating to Object > Image Trace > Expand.

These are the basic steps of getting your image traced. Don’t worry if the trace takes a few moments to generate. Depending on your computer and the image you’re converting, you may have to be incredibly patient waiting for the trace to finish.

How to Use the Tracing Options

When tracing, you should see the Image Trace panel when the image is selected. There are a few basic controls to use in this panel for manipulating how your image will be traced. Here’s what each one does:


This dropdown menu has a handful of specific trace presets to choose from. You can additionally create and save your own presets. Here are the presets you can select from:

  • High Fidelity: Generates a trace with many colors at 85.
  • Low Fidelity: Generates a trace with a lower number of colors at 20.
  • 3 Colors: Reduces the trace of the image to three key colors.
  • 6 Colors: Reduces the trace of the image to six key colors.
  • 16 Colors: Reduces the trace of the image to sixteen key colors.
  • Shades of Gray: This is essentially a grayscale mode of tracing with an even distribution of grays.
  • Black and White Logo: This option creates a harsh black-and-white trace with heavy contrast.
  • Sketched Art: This option transforms your image into a sketched artwork, with transparency for the white spaces.
  • Silhouettes: This preset can recognize the silhouettes of the image, akin to a negative of the Sketched Art preset.
  • Line Art: This preset will read and draw only the lines of your image.
  • Technical Drawing: This is a more advanced version of the line art preset that is ideal if you’re bringing in mechanical specs or blueprints that need to be converted.
Illustrator bird image traced for black and white
The bird photo has now been traced with the Black and White Logo preset, making the bird look more like a simple sketch. Mark McPherson


From this dropdown menu, you can choose how you want to view your traced image. You can use this menu to easily switch between the tracing results, tracing outlines, and the source image.


This is where you’ll select the type of color mode you want to use, selecting from the options of Color, Grayscale, and Black & White.


  • The palette dropdown determines the colors used for the trace.
  • Automatic: Creates an even tone and best guess of how the image should be traced with an accurate selection of colors.
  • Limited: Creates a small set of colors for the tracing palette.
  • Full Tone: Uses a full range of colors for a more detailed assortment of colors.
  • Document Library: Choose this option if you want to customize the palette by selecting the precise colors you want or loading up your palette through the Swatches panel.


This slider determines how many or fewer colors will be added. When a color preset is selected, this slider alters color levels. When a grayscale preset is selected, it determines how much gray will be in the trace.

Located below the Basic tracing options are the Advanced features. Here’s what these options do:


Use this slider to determine how many paths will be created with the trace.


This slider determines how sharp or rounded the corners will be for the trace. The higher the slider goes, the sharper corners there will be.


When this slider is turned up, it can reduce the noise of the image trace as it ignores pixel size. Having the noise slider set high for more high-quality images is ideal for preserving the details.

Illustrator bird image traced for black and white with lower paths
The bird image now has fewer paths, making the bird’s outline much simpler. Mark McPherson

Remember that when you change any of these options, the image trace will need to be generated again. The heavier the colors and corners, the longer you’ll have to wait. Keep this in mind when making changes.

Saving a Preset

You can easily create your own if none of the presets look good. Here’s how to create a custom tracing preset in Illustrator that you can save for future projects:

  1. If it’s not already open, make the Image Trace window viewable by navigating to Window > Image Trace.
  2. Set your tracing preferences using the tools above.
  3. When you’re ready to save your current preset, click the three-line button for the presets menu and select Save As New Preset.
  4. Name your preset and then click Ok. Your preset is now saved.
Illustrator bird image traced for black and white saving preset
This preset for a blocky black-and-white trace has now been saved. Mark McPherson

The tracing presets can also be managed from the same menu for creating presets. This includes the ability to rename your preset or delete it.

Editing Your Tracing Results

After tracing an image, you might want to edit it on a more micro level. A few pixels might look off or a color you’d like to change. To do this, you’ll need to ungroup your paths created for the image and then group them into a Live Paint group. Here’s how to do just that:

  1. Trace your image and complete it by clicking the Expand button in the properties panel or navigating to Object > Image Trace > Expand.
  2. Now you’ll have to ungroup the paths to make edits. You can do this by clicking the Ungroup button in the properties panel or navigating to Object > Ungroup.
  3. If you’d like to simplify the paths and remove some excessive anchor points, navigate to Object > Path > Simplify.
  4. To start changing the colors of your traced object, I will convert the paths to Live Paint Groups. Select the paths you want to change the colors of and then navigate to Object > Live Paint > Make.
Illustrator dog image trace color change
With this traced image ungrouped, the color of this dog can easily be changed path by path.
Mark McPherson

With Live Paint enabled, you can make easy color changes to the traced image. If you’d like, you can also add a drop shadow.

When to Trace

It’s important to know when it’s best to trace an image in Illustrator. Consider what you need the image converted for and how it will fit into your designs. Here are some typical image insertions that are ideal for tracing:


Most logos are made to look simple with a limited palette of colors so that they can print easily. Most logos are easy enough to trace in the various presets in Illustrator.

Scanned Pencil Drawings

Sketches you create on white paper that are scanned into your computer can easily be traced in Photoshop to become vectorized. The presets for Sketched Art and Line Art is ideal for these images.

Small Images

If your image is small, without as many pixels as a high-definition photo, tracing that image in Illustrator can be a great way to bring out more detail. Traced images turned into vector graphics can easily be enlarged without losing detail. Use a preset with heavy detail to get the most out of these images.


Line Art and Technical Drawing trace presets can easily transform blueprints into vector graphics. This is ideal if you want to create a new blueprint by working on top of an existing one and manipulating the lines to make easy edits.

Pixel Art

Images created with pixel art usually have fewer pixels and are much easier to trace. You can trace these images using the High Fidelity preset to retain all the detail while making the pixel art editable in Illustrator.

Black-and-White Images

If you have old illustrations or photos in black and white or in a grayscale format, these can easily be traced in Illustrator. Use the black-and-white preset.

Illustrator baseball traced with grayscale
This image of a baseball can be easily traced with a grayscale preset and be fitted for any black-and-white publication. Mark McPherson

When Not to Trace

Not every image is ideal for tracing in Illustrator. Tracing an image often leads to creating a lot of extra information. The vector graphic you create from an image could be too much for your computer to handle or too many pieces worth editing.

Here are some examples of images that you may not want to trace:

HDR, 4K, and 8K Photos

Photos with a heavy pixel count may not translate well when tracing them. Expect Illustrator to struggle to trace these images much longer, especially if you select a high-quality tracing preset. Try shrinking these photos down before tracing them in Illustrator.

Heavy Pixel-Count Drawings

Even if you’re tracing a sketchy pencil drawing you scanned, that image might be scanned with many pixels. Like photos, trim the size down so it’s easier to trace.

Illustrator city traced
There is way too much going on in this HD photo of a cityscape that it took quite a bit of time to trace and will be a real challenge to edit. Mark McPherson

Alternative Software

Illustrator is not the only software to rely on when it comes to transforming your images into vector graphics. Here are a few other applications to consider for this process:

Adobe Animate

Animate is a vector-based animation application from Adobe that can also trace over raster images. To do this, import an image onto the Animate canvas, select it, and then navigate to Object > Trace Bitmap. The tracing specs resemble Illustrator, including presets ranging from ‘High Fidelity Photo’ to ‘Black and White Logo.’ While there are few trace editing tools in Animate, it is an easier interface to work with and ideal for creating animations from your images.

Adobe Capture

This mobile app can turn photos on your phone into vector graphics. Use this app if you need to convert photos into vectors quickly if you’re shooting at locations.

Vector Magic

This website can quickly convert your JPG, PNG, and GIF files into PDF, SVG, and EPS vector formats. There are no tools for controlling the type of trace as it’s more of an automated system. There are limits to how often you can use the website and it requires a subscription to have unlimited conversions.

Tips & Tricks

Edit Ahead of Time

When converting a raster image into a vector one, you could save yourself some time fiddling with options by simplifying the image ahead of time. Use Photoshop or a similar program to facilitate the pixel size, making the tracing options in Illustrator easier.

Consider its Use

When tracing your image, be sure you know where it will choose the right preset. Is it going to be placed on top of a background? Make sure it’s preset with transparency. Is it going to be for a logo for print? You might want to use a high color count for that tracing.

Raster Edits First

If an edit needs to be made, which would be easier with the image being faster than vector, consider editing your picture before bringing it into Illustrator for vectorization. This can save you a lot of time when it comes to making edits after tracing.


Illustrator’s many options for tracing an image work can aid in the smooth transfer of raster-based images to vector-based drawings. The app can work wonders for your pictures with the right presets chosen for the right image. If you’d like to buy Illustrator for this purpose, check out these articles on buying Illustrator and Illustrator’s pricing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you quickly trace an image in Illustrator?

A: Images can be quickly traced in Illustrator using the Make option for Image Trace. You can find this option by navigating to Object > Image Trace > Make. This option will automatically trace your image using the default settings.

Q: Can Illustrator auto-trace an image?

A: Yes, Illustrator can automatically trace a raster image into a vector graphic without drawing over it. After bringing an image into the program, select it and go to Object > Image Trace > Make. This will instantly trace your image, which you can edit the specifics of in the Image Trace window. Finish it by clicking the Expand button in the properties area.

Q: How do I trace an image into a vector in Illustrator?

A: Tracing an image into a vector can be accomplished by enabling the Image Trace option. This can be activated by either navigating to Object > Image Trace > Make or clicking the Image Trace button in the image properties. From the Image Properties window, you can change the specifics of how your image is traced before it is finalized as a vector graphic when you click Expand in the Image Trace properties.

Q: How do I trace an image in Illustrator without losing quality?

A: When tracing an image in Illustrator, you can prevent the loss of quality by playing with the tracing settings in the Image Trace window. Select High Fidelity Photo as the preset that preserves the most detail. You can also create your own presets if you want to add even more detail. Be aware that more detail can strain how long it takes to generate the vector graphics.

Q: How do you outline an entire image in Illustrator?

A: The best way to make your image an outline in Illustrator is to trace it with either the Lined Art, Sketchy Art, or Technical Drawing presets. These presets will look for the lines in the image and only trace those into Illustrator as vector objects.

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