Image tracing presets

Learn about different kinds of presets that you can use to generate good-quality image trace results.

Article contributed by: Monika Gause

Monika Gause is a freelance Communication Designer, Technical Writer, and teacher based in Hamburg, Germany. Vector graphics has been the constant in a career that led her from desktop publishing to multimedia, web design and - currently - writing. She has built 3D animations for museums, designed small companies' websites, and illustrated countless office supply items. As a teacher and an ACP in the Adobe forums, she loves to dive into her clients' and the forum participants' workflows and problems and develop solutions for them.

Several options determine the result of your image trace. To give you a start, some presets offer solutions for different kind of results. You can apply them and then fine-tune to suit your needs. There is no one-size-fits-all, you always need to find out what's suited best for your type of image. Select a preset by its name based on the result you want to get, so for example, apply the black and white preset to a color photo to get a black and white reduction of the photo. 

Select the Auto-Color preset  (only available directly from the Image Trace panel) to let Illustrator figure out the nature of the source image and apply what's suited best. This option is based on artificial intelligence. 

Here are some examples of image types:

Cartoons

Of all kinds of imagery, cartoon characters work best with the Image Trace function.  

  1. Select the source artwork and select the Auto-Color Preset to trace them. Often you get a result where there's not much left to adjust. 

  2. To further adjust the result, you should check how exact the paths follow the source. Press and hold the View Source button to switch temporarily to the source image to identify the areas that need improvement. Notice that the trace result always moves slightly down and to the right. This can’t be corrected. 

  3. In the Image Trace panel’s Info area, you should also check how many different colors have been created. Does that match the number of colors in the source image

  4. Next, open the Advanced area by clicking on the little arrow to the left. To get a more detailed result, move the Paths slider to the right. Note that paths might also get more bumpy then. 

  5. To get sharp corners, move the slider Corners to the right. With the slider, you define that you prefer corner points even if the angles in the source file are not too sharp (note the left inner part of the bone). 

    Note that once you change the options from what was originally set up, the menu listing in the "Presets" menu changes to "Custom".

  6. To get rid of small shapes or dust from a bad scan, move the slider Noise to the right. With this slider, you specify the minimum number of neighboring identically colored pixels that are traced as a shape.

Brush or pencil strokes  

Brush strokes are difficult to vectorize because you need a lot of detail and smooth paths.

  1. Start off with the Black and White Preset. Press the View Source button to check the result. 

  2. To further adjust the trace, use the Threshold slider to darken resp. lighten the result. Moving the slider to the right get you the lighter strokes, but sacrifice the detail in the areas that are already dark. With this image it’s difficult, because you want to have both the slight black strokes and the tiny white details.

  3. Use the Noise slider to try and catch some more of the intricate detail.

  4. To balance the smoothness of the paths against the accuracy of the trace, adjust the Paths slider. 

  5. Check the Ignore White box, so that Illustrator only generates black shapes and you can create a brush out of this right away after expanding.

To get good results with this kind of intricate black-and-white artwork and to match the results with the new Image Trace module, the balance of accuracy with the Paths slider and Noise is important. 

1-Color stencil artwork (Che Guevara)

To do this kind of artwork automatically, you need matching source photos and you need to have the portrait isolated in the photo. If you don't have appropriate source images, you'd better do a manual vectorization.

  1. Start off with the Black and White Preset. Press the View Source button to check the result. 

  2. Adjust the Threshold to balance the dark and light areas. 

  3. Now it’s also important to reduce the amount of detail by adjusting the Noise slider. Especially when you want to actually get this vinyl-printed on a T-shirt. 

  4. Afterwards adjust the Paths slider to control the smoothness of curves. Usually you want to make them smoother.

  5. Using the Corners slider you could try to get nicer curves by decreasing the number of corners.

  6. Check the Ignore White option to only generate black shapes. 

Most likely you get better results when vectorizing this manually or when spending a lot more time on lighting in the photo studio and on image preparation in Photoshop.

Photorealistic

A small photo does not get infinitely scalable by autotracing it. But if you don’t enlarge the artwork too much, you might not even notice that it’s not a photo anymore. The Image Trace module can capture hundreds of thousands of colors contrary to the old Live Trace, which could only do 256 colors.

  1. To get a photorealistic autotrace, start with the High Color Preset. In the Info section, notice that your trace has thousands of colors.

  2. To improve the result, try to get even smoother color blending by increasing the number of colors: move the Colors slider to the right. 

  3. As in almost any trace you also need to balance detail and smoothness by using the Paths slider.

  4. The preset has a low Noise value thus tracing a lot of small detail. Increasing it might cause some abstraction of your image, so this option needs to be treated with caution.

Posterized photo  

This Pop Art like effect can be easily achieved with Image Trace.

  1. Start off with the Low Color Preset. It vectorizes the photo using a limited number of colors. 

  2. You can further decrease the number of colors by using the Colors slider. When doing so, you actually determine the number of colors you want to have in the result. You can check in the Info section that the number of colors matches your input.

  3. Next reduce the accuracy of the trace by moving the Paths slider to the left. 

  4. Also reduce the amount of detail by increasing the Noise value.

  5. Next comes the fun part: applying different colors to the artwork. To do so, open a swatches library that contains the colors you want applied, e.g. by selecting it from the Swatch Libraries menu in the Swatches panel. The library needs to be open. 

  6. Then in the Image Trace panel you can select your library from the Palette menu. Illustrator assigns the colors from the library to the original colors by its own algorithms – you don’t have an influence on that.

  7. In case your library contains a number of color groups, you can select one of them from the Colors menu.

  8. If you want to assign colors differently, you need to Expand the Image Trace and then use the Recolor Artwork function to exchange colors. 

Gradients

Gradients can be split in many solid colored shapes, so your effort in this case must be to adjust the options in a way that you get a single shape instead of multiple ones. The first step is to try and adjust the source image in Photoshop in a way that eliminates the gradients.

  1. Start off with the Auto-Color Preset.

  2. The goal must now be to unite as many of the gradient colors as possible, because this gives you smoother paths and causes therefore less work than editing afterwards. Try and move the Colors slider to the left to reduce the number of colors.

  3. When done with optimization, you need to Expand the Image Trace and apply a gradient to the shapes.

Mechanical drawings

Mechanical drawings and clean, reduced maps can also be autotraced. The results hugely depend on the quality of the source image and in case the line weight varies a lot, don’t expect a result that makes any sense.

  1. Start off with the Outline Preset.

  2. It creates a completely different trace than the other Presets by tracing not with shapes, but with strokes. You can check that by selecting Outlines with Source image from the View menu. 

  3. To further adjust the result, check the option Snap Curves to Lines.

  4. You should also try out if increasing the Corners value improves the result. 

Optimize results with low resolution images

The human mind can interpret detail in images that actually isn't there – computers are limited in that regard. The minimum size you need for a decent result depends on the nature of the image. A cartoon sketch works in smaller sizes than a lettering. 

  1. Again you start off with the Auto-Color Preset.

  2. The result needs a lot of adjusting. Start off with the Noise slider and decrease the value. Then increase the accuracy of the Paths. Don’t move it to the far right, because paths get bumpy then.

  3. The trace still needs some editing, which most likely can only be done manually. To prepare this, you need to change the Method to Overlapping. This creates stacked shapes where possible. If it’s not possible to stack them, Illustrator at least overlaps their edges. 

    Overlapping shapes, moved apart after expanding the image trace (left); Outline view (right)

    Abutting shapes, moved apart (left); Outline view (right)

This example image and many images like it, it would possibly be much more efficient and of course give you better results to trace the image manually. 

Using and editing the generated paths

After having completed the trace if you want to edit the paths, you need to Expand the Image trace artwork. Hit the button named Expand in the Control panel or the Properties panel. You then get editable paths that you can further edit. It's always better to optimize the Image Trace options than to edit the paths afterwards. Especially for many multi-color artworks editing is close to impossible. For other types of images, it might be time-consuming.

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