Have you ever seen a graphic and wondered how it was made? We design custom graphics in Adobe Illustrator almost every day, and one of our favorite methods of making graphics is using the Image Trace feature in Illustrator. Using this tool, you can turn any photograph into a completely customizable set of vector objects. Read on to find out how!

FYI – vector objects are polygons and what give vector graphics their name. Put a bunch vector objects together and you can make nicely detailed graphics. This is different than raster graphics (think photographs) which are made up of a grid; each cell in the grid is called a pixel.  The more pixels per square inch in your picture, the more detailed it will be. One of the big differences between vector and raster graphics is that vector graphics are infinitely scalable whereas raster graphics will start to look blocky if you enlarge them too much.

The Image Trace Method

What it works well for: Vegetation, background imagery, things that you want to look more realistic

One way to create a different style of graphic is to use the Image Trace function in Illustrator. This amazing tool lets you make a vector graphic out of any image. First, click the image you want to use the tool on, go to the Object tab, then click “Image Trace” > “Make”

Step 1


The graphic will automatically appear in only black and white…

Don’t panic!

…but you can change that in the Image Trace window (Window > Image Trace). In the Image Trace window, where it says “Mode”, choose “Color” and then next to “Palette” choose “Full Tone” so that you get the most colors available and can work down from there. Here’s the results of those steps:

Step 2



Now you can play around with the number of colors. For this example, we’ve chosen 34 colors, but play around with the slider until the graphic looks the way you like it. For trees and other larger objects, using just a few colors looks really cool. For landscapes, adding in a few more colors might be necessary. Remember, the more colors you choose, the more realistic the graphic will look, and the fewer colors, the more cartoon-ish the graphic looks.

Step 3



At this point, you’re ready to “Expand” the graphic. This breaks the graphic up in to colored vector shapes. To do this, click the image, then go back to the Object tab, “Image Trace,” > “Expand.” This leaves you with a group of vectors of every color displayed in the image. Make sure you also go to the Object tab and click “Ungroup” so you can work with the vector shapes individually.



This means you can now change any shape in the entire image. You can change colors, take parts out, or completely change the shape of any part of the graphic. Let’s say I wanted to isolate one of the clouds to use in a landscape. I just selected all of the shapes around the cloud by clicking and dragging my mouse, deleted those shapes, and I isolated the lower cloud:


Notice that you can still see some of the grass around the clouds. Using the eyedropper tool, I can just select those shapes and make them the same color as the blues and greys in the sky. I used this exact method to create the clouds for this graphic:


Here are a few other example graphics made with the The Image Trace Method:



Want to see how Green Fin Studio can make graphics like these for you? Contact us and let us know how we can help. Stay tuned for more graphic design tips in future posts.