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Working with Image Trace in Adobe Illustrator CS6

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Brian Wood, contributor to Adobe Illustrator CS6 Classroom in a Book, demonstrates how to trace raster images like the pros by using the Image Trace tool in Illustrator CS6.
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In Illustrator CS2, we were introduced to the Live Trace feature that allowed us to trace raster images and convert them to vector artwork. The tracing engine was useful in certain situations such as converting a hand-drawn sketch to vector artwork, but could prove trying when attempting to convert a raster logo for which your client “lost” the native .ai file.

Illustrator CS6 has a completely new tracing engine that makes the conversion of raster images to editable vector artwork easy and clean. You can get sharper lines, with better shape fitting and more accurate color selection, than with the Live Trace feature. Image Trace has taken the large—some would say complex—dialog box of options and transformed them into a more manageable panel that can be docked in the Illustrator workspace.

I’ve done a fair amount of testing and have a few examples (Figures 1 and 2) of the tracing difference between CS5 and CS6 on two types of images (a high-res photo and a raster logo off a website) using the same default settings. This is intended to show the results when using similar settings in Illustrator CS5 and CS6.

Figure 1 High-res image (300ppi, CMYK): CS5 on left (Photo High Fidelity setting) CS6 on right (High Fidelity Photo setting)

Figure 2 Raster logo from website (72 ppi, RGB): CS5 on left (Color 6 setting) CS6 on right (6 Colors setting)

In this article, I take you through the tracing workflow and discuss some of the new features along the way. I also set some expectations going into this article. While most of the tracing results in Illustrator CS6 are better, no tracing software can provide perfect results in every situation. That’s why at the end of the article I offer a few tips for “cleaning up” your traced artwork. Let’s get started.

Begin Tracing

The first step in the tracing process is to get something to trace. Because tracing is the process of converting raster data to vector data, you need a raster image open in Illustrator. For instance, this could mean that the raster artwork is a small part on a larger artboard, or you open a .PSD file using the File > Open command to trace it.

  1. Open an Illustrator document that already contains raster content, place a raster image into an Illustrator artboard using the File > Place command, or paste raster content you select from a program such as Adobe Photoshop.
  2. Choose Window > Image Trace to open the Image Trace panel. In previous versions of Illustrator, you had to apply the Live Trace command in order to see the tracing options in a separate dialog box.
  3. With the Selection tool, select the raster image on the artboard. After selecting raster content, the Image Trace panel will spring to life, and the options will no longer be dimmed (see Figure 3).
  4. Figure 3 The Image Trace panel in Illustrator CS6

    Notice in the Control panel the Image Trace button with an arrow to the right. By clicking the Image Trace button, you apply the default tracing option to the selected raster content. By clicking the arrow to the right of the button, you can choose a tracing preset with which trace the selected content. You can also choose Object > Image Trace > Make to trace selected raster with the default tracing options or choose Object > Image Trace > Make and Expand to trace and expand the content immediately (I discuss expanding shortly).

  5. At the top of the Image Trace panel, click the High Color button to trace the image using the default High Color settings. Depending on the speed of your machine and the image content selected, the time required to trace may vary (see Figure 4).
  6. Figure 4 Trace the raster content

At the top of the Illustrator Image Trace panel is a series of preset buttons that offer generic tracing options which most of us will use at some point or another, depending on the project. There is also a series of preset options in the Preset menu below the buttons. The buttons at the top of the panel (mostly) coincide with an option in the Preset menu. For instance, the High Color button is similar to the High Fidelity Photo option in the Preset menu, and the Low Color button is similar to the 16 Colors option in the Preset menu. The Preset menu offers more options.

When you trace an image using one of the tracing buttons or a trace preset, the raster image data is converted to an Image Tracing object. This means that you can adjust the tracing options, even trying different presets, but it is not editable vector. As a matter of fact, you will see Image Tracing on the left end of the Control panel with the newly traced content selected (see Figure 5).

Figure 5 The Control Panel options with the Image Tracing object selected

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