(Last updated on November 19th, 2021)
Are you ready to use Illustrator to create some great art with your images? Do you know how to use the image tracer tools? If that’s the case, don’t worry about it. We’ll show you how to do that with our in-depth tutorial.
You may be familiar with Adobe Illustrator as an application for creating art. Specifically, Illustrator creates vector artwork. These are illustrations that contain extra information for making easy edits.
Now let’s say you want to take your favorite photo and bring it into your Illustrator project. How do you get it to look the same as your Illustrator artwork? Well, you could try to copy that photo if you’re handy with a stylus pen.
However, if you’re not that artistically willing, Illustrator has some valuable tools for tracing in a photo. The image tracing techniques available can quickly transform your photograph into an editable piece of Illustrator art. No stylus pen is required!
Tutorial Rundown of Image Tracing in Illustrator
- Importing an Image
- Tracing the Image
- Editing your Tracing
Step 1: Importing an Image
The first thing we’re going to do is open Illustrator and bring in a photograph. You can bring in any image you like but it’s preferable to use a photograph. This is because photographs usually have raster colors.
We want to bring in a raster-colored image to turn into vector artwork. This essentially means any image that is a JPEG, PNG, or TIFF. Any image will work but it’s preferable not to pick an image that is smaller in size.
We don’t want too big of an image because we’re going to create a lot of information with this tracing method. The more detail there is in the picture, the more memory our computer will use to trace.
For this tutorial, we’ll be using a reasonably big photo. We’re going to use a picture of a kitten that is over 1600 pixels in width. With this image, you’ll be able to see just how much detail gets traced in Illustrator.
Step 2: Tracing the Image
Click on your image inside Illustrator to make sure it’s selected. We’re now going to apply the image tracer tool. There’s more than one way to do this, as we’ll show you both here.
The first method is to select Image Tracer from your top menu. On the top of your interface, find Object. Click that and navigate down to Image Trace and hover over it to open the submenu. Now click on Make.
Once you’ve clicked Make, your image will start tracing. Depending on how large your image is, this can take some time. With our kitty image here, the rendering of the trace took about 20 seconds.
Once the tracing is finished, you should be left with a black and white version of your image. This is the default preset for tracing an image. Notice how your image now not only has two colors but is more of a series of shapes.
What is happening is that Illustrator is taking the raster information of your image and turning it into a vector graphic for Illustrator. This means that you can edit your photo the same way you would edit something you drew in the application. Think of it as breaking your image down into puzzle pieces that are cut up and assembled.
The other method for turning on Image Trace can be found right in your sidebar. Hit Control and Z to undo the trace we just made. With the image selected, look at the properties toolbar on the right side of the interface.
Find the part of the properties toolbar that says Quick Access. In that section, you should find the button for Image Trace. Click on it, and you’ll open up a submenu, and you’ll have a variety of presets to choose from. For this tutorial, let’s start with High Fidelity Photo, as we’ll get the most detail with this option.
Once you’ve added the High Fidelity Photo image tracer preset, you’ll have to wait once more for the tracing to process. Once it finishes, you’ll notice a very different image than just the black and white we had previously.
It may not look like much at first, but zoom in a bit closer. The image looks less like a detailed image and has more of a blocky look, as though it were more of a painting with brushstrokes. It seems this way due to the color and detail being broken up into shapes for Illustrator.
High Fidelity Photo is one of the more detailed filters. You can change this though. Under presets, you can change the type of preset by clicking the dropdown menu and clicking on a different set of presets.
You’ll notice that you’ll have to wait for the image to render again anytime you select a different preset. You can choose such presets as grayscale to turn the image into a series of gray colors or even line art if you want only to trace the lines of your photograph.
Step 3: Editing your Tracing
Now let’s say you want to customize your traced image. You may like having all the colors, but perhaps you want to make the shapes simpler. You don’t just have to settle for what the presets give you.
In your toolbar on the right, you’ll notice there’s a button with a mini-window next to the preset dropdown menu. Click that button, and a new pop-up menu will open. You’ll use this handy menu to customize how your image will be traced.
In the Image Trace window, you’ll find a few options for tweaking your photograph’s tracing. We’re going to focus on the Colors slider for right now. Slide the color down, so we have fewer colors. Once you move the slider, get ready to wait for another render.
Once your tracing finishes, notice how the colors have less detail and are a little blockier. You can tweak the colors to be as many or as few as you wish. Remember that the higher colors, the longer the render and the more taxing it will be on your machine. Don’t push it too high, or you could crash the program.
Now let’s change some more settings. In your Image Trace window, click Advanced to expand the tools. This will open up more of the menu, giving you more options to edit how the trace will appear. Don’t let the Advanced title fool you. These are pretty easy tools considering they’re primarily sliders.
You’ll notice the sliders for Paths and Corners. Paths control how much distance is between the colors. The lower the paths, the closer the colors will bleed together. Corners determine how sharp these colored shapes will appear. A higher amount of Corners will lead to pointier colored shapes.
Once you make changes with these sliders, you’ll once more have to wait for a render after dragging. It’s essential to show some restraint as well. Don’t make the Colors, Paths, or Corners too high, or you could risk Illustrator crashing.
In this tutorial, you’ll notice we’ve turned the Colors, Paths, or Corners down. When your render finishes, zoom in to see just how different your image will appear. Play around with the settings and find out what works best.
The last thing to mention is that the Image Trace window has some buttons at the top. These are buttons for presets. You can easily switch to any preset at any time with these buttons. You can even start with a preset and edit the details from the same window.
With some tweaking, you should have a photograph ready for your Illustrator artwork. The image can then be edited with all the other art tools you use for crafting shapes. Just remember not to push the tracing tools too hard, and you’ll be able to develop Illustrator projects with an astounding amount of detail.
Frequently Asked Questions
Images can be traced using the Image Trace tool inside Illustrator. After bringing your photograph into Illustrator, select the image and look on the right toolbar for the Image Trace button. Select a preset, and your image is now traced into Illustrator as an editable piece of vector artwork.
Illustrator offers plenty of tools for customizing how your traced image will appear if you go the automatic route. However, if you’d instead trace the old-fashion way, you can just draw over an image. Simply bring an image into Illustrator, lock it in a layer, and start drawing over it on a new layer with the freehand tools of the pencil or line tools. You can change the opacity of the locked layer or turn it off while drawing to see how close you’re matching the image.
You can export a JPEG into Illustrator the same way you bring in any other asset. Simply import the picture onto your canvas. Then, with your JPEG selected, click Image Path from the toolbar on the right. You’ll then select a preset that suits your picture best, though High Fidelity Photo will give you the most detail.
The method for converting a PNG into a vector within Illustrator is the same procedure for any image. Simply import the photo onto your canvas, select it, and click Image Path from either the right toolbar or your Object menu. If you’re trying to create a PNG vector with a transparent background, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Corners and Paths to make sure you don’t have any blobs of white around the subject of your image you wish to isolate.
Mark McPherson has been working as a video editor and content writer for over ten years. His background started in animation and video editing before shifting into the realm of web development. He also branched out into content writing for various online publications. Mark is an expert in video editing, content writing, and 2D/3D animation.