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Adobe Illustrator Tips: Live Trace

In this series, I’ll be sharing basic overviews of some useful tools in Illustrator with you. This article will show you how to use Illustrator’s Live Trace tool. Live Trace will allow you to completely convert photographs and other raster graphics into Vector graphics!

I will be using Adobe Illustrator CS3 for this tutorial. However if you have CS2, you should be alright following along. Earlier versions do not have Live Trace, but do have Auto-Trace, which is a different tool entirely.

Getting Started

First off let’s launch the program. When it loads you will get a splash screen like such.

Splash Menu

The nice thing about Illustrator is that it gives you a quick way to generate a workspace, based on what type of document you are working on.

For this tutorial choose print document. In the sub menu that pops up you can leave it as is, since it doesn’t really matter what size you choose for what we are doing. So just hit OK.

When it loads you will have a workspace similar to Photoshop. The large white area, with the box in it is the workspace. Some people might get confused by the fact that they can draw outside the limits of the document space. A good analogy is that the workspace is a drafting table, and the box is your piece of paper. Anything that is outside the box will not show up if printed. When I work I like to store things I am not immediately working on off to the side.

The Tools

Let’s break down the tool bar before we get into any of the advanced features. Illustrator is a very powerful vector illustration program, and as a result has a slight learning curve if you’re not familiar with it.

Here are some of the tools we will be using in this tutorial.

Tool Bar

[A] Selection Tool: This is the same old selection tool that has been around since the beginning of time. (Which I have been subjected to many of my co-worker‘s “back in the days of Photoshop 1.0” rants. . .)

[B] Direct Selection Tool: This allows you to change the actual paths by moving the vertices around.

[C] Pen Tool: This where the magic happens. Used for creating vector paths.

Automated functions are just that, automated. The computer is not an artist, and doesn’t know what “looks good”. As a result it is the artist’s job to create interesting shapes and forms. Live Trace will rarely look as good as something that has been “Hand Vectored“. I have found that Live Trace is great for quick jobs where you don’t have much time, or as a reference tool; otherwise it is best to do it the long and hard way: By hand.

We’re going to begin by importing an image into the workspace. Just drag the image from the folder it is in, into Illustrator. For this tutorial I will be using one of my own Photographs. This image will work great because it is high contrast. I encourage you to use your own image, but you can use this one if you need to (just don’t reproduce it, or any alteration of it without citation please!) I find that I get the most from a tutorial if I use a different image because it prevents you from just trying to imitate the examples.

Origional Image

Now on to Live Trace

Once you have loaded it into Illustrator find the Live Trace Button at the top of the frame. Make sure the image is selected or you won’t be able to see it.

Live Trace Button

If you are confronted with the following message you are working with a high resolution image.

Size Warning

Hopefully you’re computer can handle this, so ignore it and hit OK, otherwise I would recommend resizing the image to something smaller. Since we are generalizing the shapes it isn’t necessary to have ridiculously huge images. I have a Quad core and there are times when Live Trace will bog it down.

Vector Default

Now you should see a black and white version of your image, this is the works of Live Trace.

Looks great right… Hope you enjoyed this tutorial… pause…

Don’t worry, we’re not really done yet.

This is only the beginning!

Configuring the Trace

Click the options button at the top left of the screen.

Options Panel

This dialog box will pop up.

Dialog No Labels

What you are looking at is the default settings for live trace, which I would argue most designers recommend NOT to use. Let’s break down the setting one by one to help understand what they do for us.

Live Trace Options

[A] Preset – This changes between different preset’s that photo shop offers. Generally it is a good way to start, but will still require tweaking.

[B] Mode – This will switch from black and white, grayscale, or to color.

[C] Threshold – In black and White mode this changes the threshold between what is considered black and white.

[D] Palette – Either uses Automatic color selection or you can specify your own colors.

[E] Max Colors – Changes the maximum amount of colors used in the computations.

[F] Output to Swatches – Will output the colors used in the computations to your swatches palette.

[G] Blur – Specifies how much Gaussian blur is applied to the image before the computer tries and find edges. The more blur, the more general your shapes will become.

[H] Resample – Changes the resolution of the source image being used. This will help with performance and will change results in some cases.

[I] Fills/ Strokes – Toggles if fills or strokes are to be used in the render.

[J] Max Stroke Weight – Specifies that anything larger than this value will be considered a fill.

[K] Min Stroke Length – The smallest size of a stroke allowed, anything smaller is omitted.

[L] Path Fitting – Lower values create tighter maintained paths, higher values will create more relaxed paths.

[M] Minimum Area – You guessed it, the smallest detail that will be traced.

[N] Corner Angle – The sharpest corner angle allowed. (In degrees)

[O] Ignore White – It omits white from the calculations, and therefore leaves white areas transparent.

[P] PreviewMOST IMPORTANT OF ALL! If you can’t see what you are doing do you really expect it to come out looking ok? Toggling this on will allow a live preview of all changes made.

The Results

Here are the settings I used to get the result shown.

My Settings My Results

Live trace is one of those tools that you really need to play around with it for a while to get used to the way it works. I am usually never completely satisfied with what comes out from it, but rather than starting with a blank canvas we now have something to work with.

Expanding the Trace

If you want to reveal all the paths that make up this image, click on the Expand button on the top frame.


Direct Selection ToolNow you can use your selection tools to move/ change the actual anchors in the paths. Using the Direct Selection tool (A) you can select the shapes and change their colors and shapes. Below is a vary quick example of how I changed the colors.

Quick Concept

Some Examples Where I used Live Trace

With some time and pertinence you can come up with some cool stuff. Here are some other examples I’ve done.

Peace Poster 1Peace Poster 2Shogun Abe

Hope this guide has taught you a thing or two about Adobe Illustrator and Live Trace!


  1. Add point Subtract point
    aaron (-2 Points) April 6, 2011 at 11:26 am

    great tutorial! i was just looking for the basics of livetrace to get started with and this was perfect.

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  2. Add point Subtract point

    Really simple and easy to understand. Thanks

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    Blaire P. (0 Points) December 10, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    For those who cannot find the toolbar look in the top left corner and you will see two circular icons. Hover over the second with your mouse and you will see a description pop up saying “Edit Contents” click that and then you will find what you are looking for.

    Hope this helps!

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    when i change from default black and white to colour 6 or 16 is either doesn’t change or my picture goes blank. I notice down the side in the tracing option where it says paths, anchors, colours, there isn’t a number by them when i try and change to colour? am i missing a plug in? help me please!!!!

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    gibbs gibson (0 Points) October 1, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial. Question: I can’t even access the toolbar. Can anyone help me with bringing up the toolbar?. I went to “View” and “Window” and under both there is no “show toolbar option..

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  6. Add point Subtract point

    Excellent tutorial. Got one question. Does the original jpg file disappear when I click expand ?
    How do i keep it in the background so I can fine tune the trace.


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  7. Add point Subtract point
    poh hooi (0 Points) September 8, 2010 at 1:03 am

    Thanks a lot…very helpful

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    Nadim Khan (-1 Points) September 6, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Nicely explained… good one i found on live tracing… helped a lot… thanks

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  9. Add point Subtract point
    Arunabh Das (0 Points) August 20, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Amazing tutorial. Thanks for this. – Arunabh Das

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    m a r c o (1 Point) August 13, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Thank you for this tutorial! It may just help me get to bed “early”… Who am I kidding? It’s already 2:30 am…

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  11. Add point Subtract point
    Bomper (0 Points) July 15, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Very informative. At last I know how Live Trace works. Thanks.

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  12. Add point Subtract point
    Mike Hortens (0 Points) May 21, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Thank you for the tutorial. Helpful. Thank you for being all business, direct and concise.

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  13. Add point Subtract point
    Tejas (-1 Points) May 18, 2010 at 12:21 am

    nice tutorial
    like to learn more

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  14. Add point Subtract point
    “legitimate work at home jobs” : (0 Points) April 9, 2010 at 4:47 am
  15. Add point Subtract point
    “legitimate work at home jobs” (0 Points) April 9, 2010 at 4:46 am

    great tutorial . Thanks post to webmaster “legitimate work at home jobs”

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  16. Add point Subtract point
    Rachel (-1 Points) April 3, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I appreciate the tutorial. It helped with some of my issues but I also don’t have a bar at the top with buttons. I’m not sure if its a toolbar I turned off because I didn’t know what it was or if there is something else I did wrong. I found it through the drop list in Object but after tracing my design I wanted to move it to a different layer and didn’t know how to do that either. So now I’m stuck again.

    Still a good tutorial.

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (0 Points) February 3, 2010 at 3:37 am

    great tutorial . Thanks523

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  18. Add point Subtract point
    โหลดเพลงฟรี (0 Points) February 1, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    great tutorial . Thanks516

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  19. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (0 Points) January 31, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    great tutorial . Thanks

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  20. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (0 Points) January 30, 2010 at 7:01 am

    wow thanks so much.

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    this tutorial saved my butt (0 Points) November 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    thank you for doing this keep up the good work!

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  22. Add point Subtract point

    You rock!! Thanks for posting this tutorial. It’s clean, clear and easy to understand. I was able to scan your directions, and move forward with my project. Thanks & Keep it up! :-)

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  23. Add point Subtract point
    Nicats (-5 Points) June 1, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Well this is exactly what I hate about tutorials. What next? What is the point of showing us how to get to live trace and then end? how to do you get what your using live trace for to a layer by itself. You know some of us are just learning this program. You went in all the detail about the setting I wish you would have shown what next….I have no idea how to do anything with this image i just traced.

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  24. Add point Subtract point
    BmtHdenver (0 Points) May 29, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    i love you…
    thx for posting this..

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    Jacob Walker (0 Points) May 10, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for posting these. Great website!

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  26. Add point Subtract point
    Terrorspark (0 Points) May 1, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial, it’s quite interesting.

    Also, may I recommend this nice website to Illustrator users?

    It explains how to obtain two cool effects in Illustrator, and more might yet come!

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  27. Add point Subtract point
    George (1 Point) March 18, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Thanks for the tips on Live Trace. I had to whip together a logo for a header from a business card and it was either recreate the lettering or spend $140 on a commercial font. This helped immensely.

    @Art – seriously? “Artists” only use Macs, apparently … not any and all tools that work for them. Just Macs. Your fanboyism is noted, and I’m sure that PC users across the globe will scramble to appease you.

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  28. Add point Subtract point
    Chantal (0 Points) February 25, 2009 at 9:22 am

    I had to retrace an image very urgently, and this tutorial helped me so much, since I’m also new to Illustrator. Thank you SO MUCH!!!! :D

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  29. Add point Subtract point

    Nice tips…but seriously…what kind of “artist” uses Windoze? You sneaking some Illustrator time in at the Bank?

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  30. Add point Subtract point

    excelent. thank you explaın to…

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  31. Add point Subtract point
    Avneet Prahladi (0 Points) November 19, 2008 at 4:03 am

    Very Good, thanks. This can save a lot of time

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  32. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks for the tutorial! was very helpful!

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  33. Add point Subtract point

    Finally an excellent tutorial on the Live Trace feature which has plagued me for months! Thanks for writing this!

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  34. Add point Subtract point
    Josh C (0 Points) July 14, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Thanks for the information… I actually need to do this to an image and had no idea how. Fortuitous!

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  35. Add point Subtract point
    abbouh (0 Points) July 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    it’s just EXCELENT!!!

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  36. Add point Subtract point
    A. Madras (0 Points) June 26, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Hey, thanks for the tutorial. I was looking for a good explanation of the Live Trace feature in illustrator. This is great.

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  37. Add point Subtract point

    Oops, I meant it wasn’t included until CS2. Thanks for fixing that Beth.

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  38. Add point Subtract point

    PS – The option will be avaible in CS2 only when the image is selected by using the Selection Tool.

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  39. Add point Subtract point

    David wrote: “Unfortunately, Live Trace was not included into Adobe Illustrator CS2.”

    This is incorrect. There is a Live Trace in CS2.

    You must click on the image, and the when selected, the Live Trace option will appear at the top of your screen.

    Take a look and try again. Hope this is helpful!

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  40. Add point Subtract point

    Unfortunately, Live Trace was not included into Adobe Illustrator CS2. I guess Isaac didn’t realize that. There is an “Auto-Trace” feature, but it’s a completely different tool.

    Sorry Ray =(

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  41. Add point Subtract point
    Ray Hewett (0 Points) June 3, 2008 at 3:44 am

    Hi, this looks a great technique. However, you say ‘I will be using Adobe Illustrator CS3 for this tutorial. However if you have a previous version it shouldn’t cause any problems.’

    How does it work in Illustrator CS as I don’t seem to have a live trace button. Can you enlighten?

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  42. Add point Subtract point
    maddy (0 Points) May 22, 2008 at 10:35 am

    thanks so much Ive been trying to figure livetrace out for ages!

    great stuff

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  43. Add point Subtract point
    Kabeer (0 Points) May 19, 2008 at 4:27 am

    Excellent. One of the best tutorials that I saw for a while. I’m an illustrator virgin and I learned a lot from this one. Thank you so much

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  44. Add point Subtract point
    Tyler durden (0 Points) March 12, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    wow very nice i am glad to see some tutorials for other programs

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  45. Add point Subtract point
    Chris Henn (0 Points) March 10, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Great tutorial. I liked the explanation of each little setting (a,b,c, ect.), It can really help sometimes. Illistrator is very confusing to me, but is something I would like to learn.

    Thank you for another easy to follow guide to awesomeness!

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  46. Add point Subtract point

    Excellent Tutorial Isaac! Live Trace seems like an easy way to convert raster graphics into vector graphics.

    You must know some dinosaurs if your co-workers are going into Photoshop 1.0 :P

    Keep em coming mate! Looking forward to more in this series!

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