How to vectorize an image

The first thing that comes to your mind when think­ing about a vec­tor image is Adobe Illus­tra­tor. This pro­fes­sion­al graph­ics soft­ware is used by almost every design­er on the plan­et and can seem a bit intim­i­dat­ing to any new users who want to learn some basic tasks like how to vec­tor­ize an image.

A pic­ture cre­at­ed by a dig­i­tal cam­era is called a raster or bitmap image. Those images are made out of a rec­tan­gu­lar matrix of pix­els (points of col­or), and a pix­el is the small­est pic­ture ele­ment on a dis­play screen.

Vec­tor images are graph­ics made up of points, lines, and curves  that are built by math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las. Vec­tor graph­ics are res­o­lu­tion-inde­pen­dent and you can do unlim­it­ed resiz­ing with­out los­ing any of the image qual­i­ty in the process. It comes quite handy when you want to print an image in dif­fer­ent sizes or make some dig­i­tal art graphics.

This tuto­r­i­al will show you how to turn pix­elized image for­mat to vec­tor image in Adobe Illus­tra­tor. And you can check some of our oth­er tuto­ri­als on how to use Adobe Pho­to­shop.

Creating a Vector in Adobe Illustrator

Step 1. Open raster image

Open your image file (JPG, PNG, etc.) in Illus­tra­tor by click­ing File > Open. 

Screenshot showing how to open an image in Adobe Illustrator
To insert an image in Adobe Illus­tra­tor, go to “File > Open” but­ton and select the loca­tion of your image

We choose this ice-cream image, but you can check mil­lion of oth­er free high-qual­i­ty pho­tos on Wun­der­stock website.

Image: Alex Jones

Step 2. Open Image Tracing Workspace

 Illus­tra­tor has a spe­cial tool called Image Trace for vec­tor­iz­ing images. You can find it by fol­low­ing these nav­i­ga­tion steps:  Win­dow > Work­space > Tracing

Screenshot showing how to open Image Trace option in Illustrator
To open Image Trace option in Adobe Illus­tra­tor, fol­low these steps: Win­dow > Work­space > Tracing

Step 3. Select the image and check the Preview button

It will now open a new work­space tab which will become active once you select the insert­ed image. The icon is in the top right angle of the Con­trol pan­el and looks like this .

In the Image Trace pan­el click on the Pre­view but­ton (bot­tom-left cor­ner).  This way you can see the out­line of an image in vec­tor format.

Screenshot showing how to click on Preview button in Illustrator
To see an out­line of vec­tor­ized image, click the Pre­view button

Step 4. Choose Preset option

Now it is time to play around with pre­sets depend­ing on the effect you want to achieve. Check out the Pre­set drop-down menu and choose the one that fits your need. Pre­sets are the pre-deter­mined con­fig­u­ra­tion of set­tings that will auto­mat­i­cal­ly be applied to the image after choos­ing one.

These are your options:

  • Cus­tom - if you are a begin­ner in using Illus­tra­tor, we sug­gest you some of the oth­er pre­set options from the list until you get the feel of what effect you want to achieve.
  • High Fideli­ty Pho­to — pho­to­re­al­is­tic high-qual­i­ty vec­tor reproduction.
  • Low Fideli­ty Pho­to - fair­ly sim­i­lar to High Fideli­ty effect but cre­ates a sim­pli­fied vec­tor outline.
  • 3 Col­ors, 6 Col­ors, and 16 Col­ors — pret­ty much self-explana­to­ry pre­sets.  The vec­tor image will have a range of three, six, or 16 colors.
Screenshot of 3 Colors, 6 Colors, and 16 Colors preset
Dif­fer­ence between “3 Col­ors, 6 Col­ors, and 16 Col­ors pre­set” presets
  • Shades of Grey - grayscale vec­tor­ized image
  • Black and White Logo - basi­cal­ly what the name is say­ing. Cre­ates a sim­ple logo in B&W colors.
  • Sketched Art, Sil­hou­ettes, Line Art, and Tech­ni­cal Draw­ing — cre­ates sim­pli­fied B&W draw­ings out of a pho­to for­mat. If you are, or plan­ning to become a sten­cil artist this option will def­i­nite­ly make your life much easier.
Screenshot showing Paths, Corners, and Noise options in Adobe Illustrator
Advanced Image trace options include: “Paths, Cor­ners, and Noise adjustments”

Step 5. Adjust Paths, Corners, and Noise

You can fur­ther advance your vec­tor image by adjust­ing Paths, Cor­ners, and Noise.

  • Paths - Drag­ging the slid­er to the right makes the vec­tor with more accu­rate cor­ner points, while drag­ging it to the left/lower val­ue will cre­ate smoother edges.
  • Cor­ners - This option will make image cor­ners sharp­ened in case of high­er val­ue and smoother in case of low­er value.
  • Noise — if you drag the slid­er to the left, the vec­tor will pick up most of the details from the orig­i­nal image. If you drag it to the right/higher val­ue most of the image areas will not be vis­i­ble in the out­look. The low­er the num­ber, few­er pix­els need­ed, so there will be a more detailed (or noisy) trace. The high­er the num­ber, the more areas of an image will be ignored, and the vec­tor will be in much less detail.
Screenshot of making final steps in vectorizing an image in Adobe Illustrator
To vec­tor­ize an image, uncheck the “Pre­view” and click on “Trace” button

Step 6. Click the Trace button

Once you are sat­is­fied with your vec­tor result, uncheck the Pre­view option (this is a real­ly impor­tant step, oth­er­wise the Trace but­ton will not be active) and click the Trace in the bot­tom right cor­ner of the Image Trace panel.

Screenshot showing final step of vectorizing an image
To con­vert your image into a vec­tor click on the “Object > Expand” button

Step 7. Expand the image

The last thing you need to do before Illus­tra­tor starts con­vert­ing your image into a vec­tor is click­ing on the Object > Expand but­ton, and you will see the blue lines that Illus­tra­tor rec­og­nized as the vec­tor image. It looks some­thing like this:

Screenshot showing vector image
Image show­ing Final vec­tor­ized image

Step 8. Save the vector image

If there are some areas or an object you want to delete before sav­ing the image, you can select the path you don’t like and hit the back­space but­ton.  In the end, all you have to do is save the image by click­ing on File > Save As and choose a vec­tor image for­mat. There are a vari­ety of vec­tor image for­mats (PDF, AI, EPS, SVG). The most com­mon ones are PDF for print or SVG for web. We choose SVG format.

If you haven’t done any heavy edit­ing in the pre­set sec­tion, your vec­tor­ized image will look pret­ty much the same as the raster image. Only when you zoom in the image and check for details, you will notice that the vec­tor will not pix­e­late no mat­ter how many times you enlarge the image, while the raster image will lose res­o­lu­tion qual­i­ty when enlarged.

Screenshot showing difference between raster and vector image
Image show­ing dif­fer­ence between raster and vec­tor image

Now you have learned how to vec­tor­ize an image. You may not be able to do it per­fect­ly in the first time, but don’t get dis­cour­aged. After cou­ple of “tri­al and error” you will be sat­is­fied with the final result.

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