By Alex Walker

Tracing in Illustrator CS2

By Alex Walker

Although I’ll be covering Adobe’s Creative Site 2 in more detail in the Design View, I thought I’d take a look at a new feature that grabbed my attention — ‘Live Trace’.

Till now, I’d have to say that automatic tracing tools have always sounded like a great idea, but have never been truly useful. My experiences generally went something like:

1) Fiddle with colors, sensitivity sliders, and other more mysterious options.

2) Trace picture.

3) Be generally impressed but not really satisfied.

4) Fiddle with colors, sensitivity sliders, and other more mysterious options.

5) Trace picture.

6) Be generally impressed but not really satisfied.

7) Repeat steps 1 thru 6 four or five more times.

8) Obtain a raw vector graphic I’m happy to start working with.

9) Begin working with an insane hornet’s nests of tangled and interwoven vector shapes. Squeal as cleaning up stray points mysteriousy deletes huge chunks of the graphic from time to time, forcing a backtrack.

10) Admit defeat and hand trace it.

The good news is Adobe may have nailed it now with Illustrator’s new ‘Live Trace’ drawing mode.

Here’s a quick test I ran a test using our CSS super-guru, Rachel Andrew’s pic from her CSS Anthology book cover.

After placing the image in Illustrator, I selected it and switched on ‘Live Trace’. From this point on you are working with what Adobe refer to as a ‘Live Trace Object’, — this is no longer a pure raster image, nor a pure vector object — it’s something else again.

You have complete freedom to ‘tune’ the artwork during this phase, with control over the number of colors, line and edge quality, and the size of the smallest rendered object. There is also a comprehensive set of presets, including ‘Photo High Fidelity’, ‘Comic Art’, ‘Technical Drawing’ and ‘Hand Drawn Sketch’. These are usually good places to begin your tuning.

When you’re happy with your artwork, you need to convert it back to a pure vector object by switching out of ‘Live Trace’ with the ‘Expand’ button.

So now we have a vector drawing. Big deal, right?

The major difference between ‘Live Trace’ and previous built-in auto-trace features is simply the quality of the artwork it churns out. The vector shapes it produces look as if they were made with a ‘cookie cutter’. None of the shapes overlap and they fit perfectly together like a brand new jigsaw. This is a screenprinter’s dream.

Of course, you’re always going to want adjust, edit and change the raw conversion, but it’s still a very effective way to get that raw image quickly.

All in all, seriously useful and a very handy addition to Illustrator.

  • Looks very impressive, I’m keen to see some Photoshop CS2 tutorials soon on the new features too so hopefully you’ll be giving us some details soon ;)

  • Now if only I had the money for Adobe’s Creative Suite 2. Illustrator is one of my favorite graphic program (although I’m awful at vectors, but I’m learning). This looks like it would make everything more interesting.

  • Nicely explained.

  • Great tutorial!

    Now I need to upgrade my crusty Illustrator 9 :(

  • alexsaves

    I think Xara X is better for this kind of stuff. No cheaper though.

  • heh, I’m still using Illustrator 8.0! I think it’s about time to upgrade. ;)

    Thanks for the tutorial, Alex…I concur with the above comments; look forward to seeing more!

  • Bob

    I have it and it is totally worth the upgrade. Don’t forget we can also finally save our workspaces in illustrator!

  • Hmm, I’m still going to stick with my CS. Not really in much demand of the new featuers yet for me. :) Cheers.

  • Jeff

    Nice concise tutorial Alex. Makes a refreshing change from all the wordy ones I often come across. Does Sitepoint often make tutorials on this sort of thing?

  • Jeff, certainly with CS2 being brand new, there are lots of new features that are well-suited to this kind blog format tutorial. My next post is a demos a new Photoshop feature called ‘Vanishing Point’. I’ll do more whenever I spot a good subject.

  • DONMAC17

    Nice as it is, I’m going to stick with the original CS package for now. Since Adobe and Macromedia are to become ‘one’ fairly soon, I see some major changes coming to Photoshop/Flash/Illustrator/GoLive/Dreamweaver/Freehand. I think I’ll let Adobe and Macromedia do their ‘thing’ and revisit upgrading a year from now.

  • Ron Leishman

    I don’t like the cookie cutter effect of tracing in Live Trace. Although the options in Live Trace are improved over Streamline, I lke the old way of tracing with objects layered. Editing control points now leaves ‘holes’ behind.
    I don’t suppose there’s a method to recreate that effect?

  • D H Wire

    nice n easy
    one of the best autotracing i’ve seen

  • Jane

    Nice Tutorial, Can you tell me how long it took to convert the above photo to Vector image (Raw image)?

  • Jane, probably 2 minutes. You tend to twiddle the dials to get just the look you’re after, but you get a usable result in minutes.

  • Pingback: dots AND lines » Bitmap to Vector image conversion()

  • Mark

    Hi I have been looking for this Live trace button and can’t find it??

    Help already lost 1.5 hrs looking ekk!!!

    I have AI and AP and APR that’s illustrator photoshop and Image ready and I have done all that was listed in all 3 and It still does not come up with the live trace button


  • Hilly_2005

    Select the object and the button is on the top bar. I found it in 10 seconds!

  • benny

    once expand and get the vector lines…i want that only and want the image behing to disappear…how do i get only the imagines so i can do do a basic line connect the dot afterwords…ya im a noob

  • Anonymous

    my illustrator cs2 is missing the top toolbar with the auto trace modifiers in etc.. is there anyway i can get this back?

  • Joe

    To get the missing live trace tool bar back, goto Window >> Workspace >> [Default]

    This will reset your lost tool bar. Enjoy


    IS there any way to reset the saved presets for Live Trace?
    Could you answer to my email

  • Blueweb

    It’s amazing with Live trace in Illus CS2. But I have a big problem with the lines or the shape. It looks not smooth, it’s jagged lines or shapes. How can I change it smoother ?

  • It’s amazing with Live trace in Illus CS2. But I have a big problem with the lines or the shape. It looks not smooth, it’s jagged lines or shapes. How can I change it smoother ?

    Blueweb, there is a ‘blur’ control that simplifies some of the finer detail in the original. That would be my first try.

  • Blueweb

    Thanks so much, AlexW. I set the blur is 0.4, maybe I’ll try some another level

  • Nice article. Very useful. I’ve used the ‘live trace’ before but I never noticed it at the top, lol. Easier access. Well, that was my ‘duh’ moment for the day.

  • Anonymous

    I have no object button at the top.

    It is supposed to be beside the File button, I know, however, I have none.


    Really. Really. Annoying.

  • Yap

    WOW….wat the nice tutorials… keep it up.. ^^

    i can understand without reading the explanations, thanks ..

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