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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.
First off let’s launch the program. When it loads you will get a splash screen like such.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
If you are confronted with the following message you are working with a high resolution image.
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.
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.
This dialog box will pop up.
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.
[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] Preview – MOST 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.
Here are the settings I used to get the result shown.
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.
Now 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.
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.
Hope this guide has taught you a thing or two about Adobe Illustrator and Live Trace!