Image Trace in Illustrator: turn photos into vector graphics with a few clicks!

Title Image. A bunny under a table sketched using image trace.

One of my favorite features of Illustrator, dating all the way back to Illustrator CS2 (when it was previously called Live Trace), is Image Trace.  Image Trace allows you to take a raster graphic (or bitmap graphic, if you’re more familiar with that term) and turn it into a fully editable vector graphic with just a few clicks.  It’s especially fun to use on photographs that you can then tweak as you like to create interesting works of art or incorporate into other vector graphics like logos.

Using Image Trace is pretty easy, but getting your new vector graphic to a state where you can edit it takes a little work.  In this blog post, I’ll be taking you through the process of creating and editing an image via Image Trace.  I’ll be using this rabbit photo, which is a .jpg file, to start with.

A rabbit sitting underneath a table.
For those of you who’ve taken Creating Graphics for the Web, this little guy should look familiar!

I’ll be using Illustrator CC 2017 in this blog post for demo purposes, but you can use any version of Illustrator and achieve the same results.  (For versions of Illustrator older than CS6, look for Live Trace instead of Image Trace.)  The first thing I’ll need to do is, of course, open up Illustrator.  Once Illustrator is open, I can open up my photo and Illustrator will put it on an artboard for me.

The Illustrator 2017 interface, with the rabbit image mentioned previously opened.

Now that I’ve got my image in Illustrator, I’m going to get ready to trace my image.  I’ll first need to click on the image with the Selection tool active, then look up at the Control Panel and look for the following button:

The Image Trace button in Illustrator, with a red rectangle highlighting the button.

There’s our Image Trace button!  Before you click on the button, though, you’ll want to think about what you want your image to look like when it’s done.  Do you want it to look photorealistic, even though it’s a vector graphic?  Do you want it to have fewer colors and look more like a painting?  Do you want just a black and white image or a sketch?  You’ve got a choice to make before you jump right in and click the Image Trace button – and that’s what preset we’ll be using.  If you couldn’t resist and clicked on the Image Trace button anyway, you might get some strange results – Illustrator will automatically choose the last used preset to trace your image if you click the Image Trace button without choosing a preset first.  Let’s take a look at the different tracing presets before going on.  We can view those presets by clicking on the little drop-down arrow next to the Image Trace button.

The Image Trace Presets menu in Illustrator.
We’ve got a lot of presets to choose from!

We’ve got lots of choices here!  I won’t go into too much detail on every single one, and some of them have names that are really obvious as to what they’ll do to your image (for example, 3 Colors will limit your image to just three colors, and Shades of Gray will turn your image into a grayscale vector image).  The ones I tend to stick with for my personal use are High/Low Fidelity Photo (which results in a more photorealistic image than the other presets), 16 color (for a more artistic, painting-like graphic), and Sketched Art (if I’m trying to make a vector graphic from a pencil and paper sketch).  I’m going to go with the 16 Colors preset for our bunny here – when we click on the selected preset in the drop-down menu, Illustrator will get right to work on making your image into a vector graphic.

Something to note about the Image Trace process: the bigger your image is, the longer it will take Illustrator to turn it into a vector graphic.  Illustrator analyzes your picture to choose colors and create paths based on your chosen preset – and if your image is very large, or you’ve got an older computer, it’ll take quite some time for Illustrator to turn your image into a vector graphic.

Once Illustrator is done working, we’ll see the image in its new vector form!

The rabbit image after image trace has been used on it.
Here’s our rabbit in 16 colors!

Now we’ve got a vector graphic based on our original image, but in 16 colors.  What if we wanted to make some changes to our rabbit image, though, like change where some of the paths are going or change the colors of our image?  Those are all things we can do now – but we’ll need to change a few things with how Illustrator handles our graphic first.  To do that, we’ll have to first go up to the control panel and look for the Expand button.

The Illustrator interface, with the Expand button highlighted with a red rectangle around it.

The Expand button will make it so all the paths for your traced image are now editable by you.  If you like your image as it is, you don’t have to click Expand – you can save it and go on your way.  However, if you want to make changes to your new vector graphic, Expand will allow you to do that.  Once you press the Expand button, your image will look like mine does below:

The rabbit image from Illustrator, with blue lines illustrating where paths are in image.

All those blue lines should look familiar to you if you’ve worked in Illustrator before – that indicates where paths are present in your artwork!  There’s one last step we’ll have to take in order to start making changes to our image – and that’s to ungroup all the pieces that make up this image.  Right now, they’re all grouped together as one piece, but in reality, all those pieces of color are shapes in Illustrator – and they can be edited individually.  To ungroup our paths so we can edit the rabbit, with the rabbit image still selected, head up to the Object menu and then click Ungroup.  You can then click on an area of color and see its shape, and edit it if you want to!  We can easily go from a rabbit with a brown highlight on its face, like the following image…

Close up of rabbit image in Illustrator, showing a single selected path filled with a tan color.

…to a rabbit with a pink highlight on its face!

Close-up of the rabbit image in Illustrator, with the path selected in the previous image filled with pink.
It’s not the best look for this rabbit, but it shows what you can do once you’ve expanded and ungrouped all your image trace paths!

Now you’ve got an idea of what you can do with Image Trace – why not experiment with your own images and see what awesome artwork you can make?

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