How to Use Image Trace in Adobe Illustrator CC

Convert images into vectors with ease

The Image Trace tool in Adobe Illustrator CC makes it possible to turn line art and photos into vector images. Learn how to convert bitmaps into vectors and PNG files into SVG files using Illustrator.

Instructions in this article apply to Adobe Illustrator CS6 and later, including Illustrator CC 2020.

What Is the Illustrator Image Trace Tool?

When converting an image into vectors, the areas of contiguous colors are converted into solid shapes. As you add more shapes and vector points, the file size becomes larger and it requires greater CPU resources to map those shapes, points, and colors to the screen. This process works best in images with a subject that stands out clearly against its background, such as the below image of a cow standing against the sky. 

A cow and a village. The village image has clutter and not a good candidate.

How to Trace Images in Illustrator

To trace images with the Image Trace tool in Illustrator:

  1. Open a blank document in Illustrator, then select File Place and choose the image you want to trace.

    If you mess up, you can undo recent changes by pressing Ctrl+Z or Cmd+Z. To restore the image to its last saved state, select File > Revert.

    The Place command
  2. After placing the image, click it, then go to the Illustrator Properties panel. In the Quick Actions section, select Image Trace.

    If the Properties panel isn't visible, select Window > Properties.

    The Image Trace button
  3. Select a trace method from the drop-down menu to begin tracing. When it's finished, the image converts into a series of vector paths.

    The trace methods menu
  4. In the Properties panel, go to the Quick Actions section and select Expand to see the series of paths.

    The Expand command
  5. Select Object Path > Simplify.

    The Simplify command under the Path submenu
  6. Use the sliders in the panel to reduce the number of points and curves in the traced image.

    The trace points slider
  7. With the trace completed, you may want to remove portions of it. In this example, we want the cow without the background. Switch to the Direct Selection tool and select the background shapes, then press Delete on the keyboard to remove those shapes.

    The Direct Selection tool
  8. You are left with a vector image that you can save as a PSD file or export in a format like SVG.

    A vector image of a cow in Adobe Illustrator

Trace Black and White Images in Illustrator

Another way of tracing an image appears in the Object menu. When you select Object > Image Trace, you have two options: Make and Make and Expand. The second choice traces and then shows you the paths. Unless you are tracing a sketch or line art with a solid color, the result is usually black and white.

The Make and Make & Expand options under Image Trace

Adobe Illustrator Image Trace Panel

If you want more control in tracing, select Window > Image Trace to open the Image Trace panel.

The Image Trace window

The icons along the top, from left to right, are the presets for Auto Color, High Color, Low Color, Grayscale, Black and White, and Outline. There's also a Preset drop-down menu where you choose the color mode and the palette to be used.

You can modify the tracing result in the Advanced options. As you fiddle with the sliders and colors, you'll see the values for the Paths, Anchors, and Colors at the bottom of the panel increase or decrease.

The Method options determine how the paths are created. You have two choices. The first is abutting, which means the paths bump into each other. The other is overlapping, which means the paths are laid over each other.