Adobe Illustrator – Live trace


This is a quickie tutorial about how to use the trace tool. This is based on my knowledge and I was never able to figure out some of the presets so some info may be lacking but for the most part this is a fairly simple thing to do in illustrator so I’m sure you are able to figure the missing parts out yourself.

The Adobe illustrator trace action is a very useful tool if you know how to use it. It’s by no means a perfect tracing option but for it’s perfect for creating certain effects and doing things on the fly or even tracing substantial lineart if you aren’t to concerned with 100% accuracy.

For the purposes of this tutorial I’ll be using either generic drawings I had lying around or used for projects I was involved in. Result may vary for your own illustrations, photos and designs.

When you place an image (file/place) on an artboard you get a trace option in the upper tool bar.

At this point you can just simply press image trace and Adobe Illustrator will try to find the best possible option for your placed image. Through time this option has gotten pretty accurate and I find it works best with simple thick lineart.

If you are trying to achieve anything specific with the tracing option you can also press the little arrow on the right side of the live trace icon and select one of the many presets. There is also a way to set the trace manually. More on that in a later part of this tutorial.

Manual set trace

Not every preset does exactly what you would assume from the names. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

High fidelity

This option is useful for tracing most photographs. Again! This will not create a perfect trace. Rather it will dissect the image in to shapes and assign the shapes a color closest to the one from the original photo. If you zoom in to the photo, after tracing it, you’ll see blobs of color that comprise the newly traced image. Looking at the image from afar the blobs usually meld and the image looks like it should.

This will not magically make a logo you designed in to a perfect vector logo you can sell a client. There is just no way that can be achieved using live trace.

Low fidelity

Using this on a photograph will produce the same result as with high fidelity but the color blobs will be more inaccurate and bigger.

Low fidelity
Low fidelity

3, 6 and 16 colors

I’ll unite these because they are basically the same but just vary in color range. This is a simple option. If you have an image with very little color. The blobs will be more accurate but will not work with an image with a wide color palette.

Shades of grey

Don’t let the name fool you. You can use this on a color image as well to achieve certain effects. A good use for this is emulating the famous Che Guevara portrait, you just have to set the threshold manually (more on that later).

Shades of grey
Shades of grey

Black and white logo

This can make a vector of a black and white logo with great accuracy but definitely not perfectly. Again… you can still use this on photos and lineart. I find it works great for lineart drawings.

Sketched art

I’ll be honest. This preset is a puzzle to me. I never figured it out. The name is probably a red herring. I tried tracing sketched art multiple times with this option and all it produced was a white square every time. This is why you really need to learn how to setup your live traces manually. Sometimes the presets just don’t work the way you expect them to.


Ever wondered how you could make a poster similar to the apple iPod commercials? If you have a shape (person, object, etc.) cut from the background you can use this preset to fill in the entire shape without having to trace it in illustrator.


This is another preset I can’t get a hang of. It states it’s for lineart yet I never managed to get a single successful lineart trace with it. All I ever got was a mess of lines with sharp corners.


Technical drawing

This is thankfully one that is named as what I expect it to do. This preset is used for technical drawings. I don’t know what else to tell you here to be honest :P.

Manually setting the live trace

To set up the live trace manually you need to open the image trace panel (window/image trace).

Looking at the panel you’ll see that you can choose the presets here as well. Above the presets is a section where you can determine what kind of an image you are tracing.

Manual image trace
Manual image trace

View determines what you’ll see as the preview on the artboard.

Mode determines what color mode the image will be in after it is traced.

Pallete determines the color range for the trace. There is a slider under this options that can manually limit the colors used. If black and white is selected in the mode option the slider determines the threshold of the trace.

There is also an advanced section under the slider that contains even more sliders. Here you can determine the number of paths that the trace needs to use, the number of corners, and the noise threshold. There are also some other basic options that aren’t that hard to figure out.

After you have traced your image you need to expand it in order to edit it (changing colors, paths, etc). You do that by clicking on the expand icon in the top menu bar when your expanded image is selected. When the image is expanded you can use the direct selection tool (the white arrow) to select areas of the traced images and edit them like you would normally.

When tracing lineart you can also delete the white surfaces and use the live paint method to color your images. More on that in the next tutorial.

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