Adobe Illustrator Image Trace Tool

Adobe Illustrator is the most popular graphic software because it is user-friendly and versatile. One of Adobe Illustrator’s standout features is the Image Trace Tool. This unique tool allows you to convert raster images into editable vector artwork. In this article, we’ll explore the capabilities of Adobe’s Image Trace Tool and learn how to make the most of it in your design projects.

What is a Raster Image?

In simple terms, a raster image is a type of digital image that is made up of a grid of small colored squares called pixels. Each pixel contains specific color information, and when these pixels are arranged together, they form the complete image. Raster images are commonly used for photographs and complex illustrations, and they are often saved in formats like JPEG, PNG, or GIF. One important thing to note about raster images is that if you try to enlarge them too much, the individual pixels become visible, leading to a loss of image quality.

That is why you can’t take a company logo off of a website, and use that same logo on a billboard, or even on a flier, without the image being blurry and pixelated. Instead, you would need to have a vector file for that logo that will maintain its quality no matter how big or small you make it.

What is a Vector Image?

Vector images are a bit complicated to understand. Just know that vector images are a type of digital graphic that is created using mathematical formulas and points instead of a grid of pixels like raster images. Vector images use lines, curves, and shapes defined by mathematical equations. These mathematical formulas allow vector images to be infinitely scalable without any loss of quality.

Now that you understand the difference between a raster and vector image, let’s talk about how Adobe Illustrator makes it easy to turn a raster image into a vector graphic using the Image Trace Tool.

Comparing Raster Images to Vector Images

Before we dig into Adobe Illustrator’s Image Trace Tool, let’s do a quick side by side comparison of raster images to vector images so that it’s easier to understand why the Image Trace Tool is such a useful feature of Illustrator.

Raster images and vector images are two different types of digital image formats, each with its own characteristics and applications, as described below.

Raster Images

  • Raster images are made up of a grid of individual pixels or dots.
  • Each pixel in a raster image contains specific color information, contributing to the overall appearance of the image.
  • Common raster image file formats include JPEG, PNG, GIF, and TIFF.
  • Raster images are resolution-dependent, meaning they have a fixed number of pixels and are created for a specific size or resolution.
  • When a raster image is scaled up, its individual pixels are enlarged, which can result in a loss of clarity and visible pixelation.
  • Raster images are ideal for representing complex and detailed visuals, such as photographs or highly realistic digital paintings.
  • Editing raster images often involves modifying individual pixels or applying effects to the existing data.

Vector Images

  • Vector images are created using mathematical formulas that define geometric shapes, lines, and curves.
  • Rather than being composed of pixels, vector images are made up of scalable objects, such as points, lines, and curves, which retain their characteristics regardless of the image size.
  • Common vector image file formats include SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), AI (Adobe Illustrator), and EPS (Encapsulated PostScript).
  • Vector images are resolution-independent, allowing them to be scaled up or down without any loss of quality or detail.
  • They are particularly suitable for graphics that require smooth lines, crisp edges, and easy scalability, such as logos, icons, and typography.
  • Editing vector images involves modifying the mathematical properties of the objects, such as adjusting their size, shape, or position.

There are benefits of representing images in either format, but it’s good to know what the purpose of each format is. Raster images consist of pixels and are suitable for representing realistic visuals, while vector images are made up of mathematical formulas and are ideal for graphics that require scalability and precision.

Understanding the Image Trace Tool

The Image Trace Tool in Illustrator enables you to transform pixel-based images, such as photographs or scanned artwork, into scalable vector graphics. By doing so, you gain the ability to edit and manipulate the image with precision, change colors, adjust paths, and apply various effects—all while maintaining the scalability and flexibility of vector graphics.

1: Open Your Project in Adobe Illustrator

Once you have opened Illustrator, you can either go to File>Open and select the file from your computer you want to work with, or navigate to File>New and select a template to work from. The size of the artboard you select does not matter as you can easily change the size later, so don’t get hung up on this step. After you open an empty artboard, you can paste an image on your artboard to work with. Now that you have the raster image, you are ready for the Image Trace Tool.

2: Locate the Image Trace Tool

To access the Image Trace Tool, navigate in the toolbar at the top of your screen to Window>Image Trace. This will bring up the Image Trace panel, where you can fine-tune the settings to achieve your desired result.

Image Trace Settings

The Image Trace panel offers several options to customize the tracing process according to your specific needs. Here is a detailed explanation of what each of the setting options does:

  • Presets: Illustrator provides a range of preset options that offer different artistic effects and tracing styles. These presets can be a great starting point for your project, allowing you to experiment and find the look that best suits your vision.
  • View: You can select how you would like to preview your image results.
  • Mode: You can choose between different tracing modes, such as “Black and White,” “Grayscale,” or “Color.” Each mode has its own advantages and is suitable for different types of images. Select the mode that best represents your image and the desired outcome.
  • Threshold: The threshold setting determines the level of detail and accuracy in the traced image. Adjusting the slider allows you to simplify or preserve intricate details based on your preference. Find the balance that maintains the essential elements of the image while minimizing unnecessary complexity.
  • Paths, Corners, and Noise: These sliders give you control over the smoothness and sharpness of the resulting vector paths. Adjusting these settings allows you to refine the traced image, ensuring clean lines and precise shapes.

We’ll talk more about fine-tuning these settings as we go.

3: Select Your Image
For now, make sure your image is selected. If the options in the Image Trace Window are grayed out, your image is not selected. Select the black arrow “Selection Tool” from the tool menu and click on the image to select it.

4: Check the Preview Box
Check the Preview box located at the bottom of the Image Trace Window. This will allow you to see the results you will get as you make changes to your settings. Note that the Trace button will be grayed out if the Preview box is checked. That is because the program automatically traced your design as settings are updated.

5: Select A Mode

In the Image Trace Window, select the mode that most closely matches your design. The options are color, grayscale, or black and white.

6: Adjust the Mode Slider

The name of this slider will be based on your selection in Step 5. You will see one of the following:

Colors – This specifies the maximum number of colors used for tracing. This option helps simplify the color palette of the traced image. By reducing the number of colors, you can achieve a cleaner and more streamlined vector representation. However, if you adjust the number of colors down too low, you image will be too simplified. Adjust the slider to control the level of color reduction.

Grays – This slider specifies the grayscale accuracy used and can be set from  0 to 100.

Threshold – Pixels darker than the threshold value are converted to black.

You’ll want to experiment with this slider until your image looks good based on your desired outcome.

Here are some examples of images and the settings used to get the desired outcome using the Image Trace Tool.

Color ModeGrayscale ModeBlack and White Mode
ColorGrayscaleBlack and White

Advanced Settings

If you click on the arrow next to the word Advanced, you will see that there are even more ways to tweak the outcome you achieve using the Image Trace Tool. It is not necessary to adjust each of these options, but we’ll go over each one to help you understand what they do.

  • Paths: The Paths slider allows you to control the complexity of paths in the traced image. Higher values result in more paths and anchor points, offering finer details but potentially increasing the complexity. Lower values simplify paths, reducing the number of anchor points and creating smoother, more streamlined shapes.
  • Corners: Corners control the sharpness or smoothness of corners in the traced image. Higher values produce sharper corners, while lower values create smoother, rounded corners. Adjust this setting to achieve the desired aesthetic and level of detail.
  • Noise: The noise setting helps reduce random pixel noise in the traced image. Higher values filter out more noise, but be cautious as it may also remove some desired details. Adjust this setting according to the specific image and level of noise present.
  • Snap Curves to Lines: This option forces curves to be converted into straight lines where possible. It can help simplify the traced result by reducing the number of curves and anchor points.
  • Ignore White: Enabling this option instructs Illustrator to ignore white areas during the tracing process. This is useful when you want to exclude white backgrounds or transparent areas from the final traced result.

It’s a good idea to spend some time playing around with these settings so you can get a feel for how they affect the outcome of your image trace.

There is an informational section at the bottom of the Image Trace Panel that shows you how many paths, anchors, and colors are being used in your results.

Expanding and Editing the Traced Image

Once you’ve customized the settings to your satisfaction, expand your image by navigating to Object>Image Trace>Expand in the navigation menu. This action converts the traced image into editable vector artwork, giving you complete control over each anchor point, path, and element. You can now freely modify the artwork, change colors, apply gradients, combine elements from different traced images, and even incorporate it into larger design compositions.

Additional Tips

To make the most of the Image Trace Tool, consider the following tips:

  1. Experimentation is key: Don’t be afraid to try different presets, modes, and settings to achieve the desired outcome. The Image Trace Tool provides a wide range of possibilities, and exploring them will help you discover unique artistic approaches.
  2. Consider file size and complexity: Tracing highly detailed or complex images can result in large file sizes and intricate vector paths. Be mindful of the impact on performance and editing capabilities, especially when working on larger projects.
  3. Save multiple versions: It’s always a good practice to save multiple versions of your artwork at different stages of the tracing process. This way, you can easily backtrack or compare different iterations if needed.
  4. Combine with other Illustrator features: The Image Trace Tool works seamlessly with other features in Illustrator. Experiment with blending modes, layer styles, and additional effects to create stunning compositions that incorporate both raster and vector elements

The Image Trace Tool in Adobe Illustrator is a powerful tool used to transform raster images into editable vector artwork. With its customizable settings, precise control over paths and details, and the ability to maintain scalability and quality, the Image Trace Tool opens up a world of creative possibilities. As you explore the world of graphic arts, you are sure to be able to find several chances to use the Image Trace tool. In fact, it will likely become one of your “go to” tools in Illustrator.

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