When & How to Use Illustrator’s Live Trace Feature

Illustrator’s Live Trace option came about with the release of Adobe’s Creative Suite 2, so it has been around for a while. Live Trace was designed as an easy way to convert raster-based graphics into vector graphics, be it either .gif versions of graphics or symbols or .jpg versions of photographs. Anything that involves pixels you can bring into Illustrator and use the Live Trace to produce some sort of vector graphic.

The Live Trace option can be great for many things, but can often be misused too. It is often used to achieve many different ends, such as quickly turning a graphic into a vector without having to redraw it by hand and taking a photograph and giving it an illustrative or graphic appearance. To me, these are often the two extremes on the uses of Live Trace, however, sometimes the result is amazing, other times the result requires some work.

Let’s walk through four situations in which Live Trace is often used, and how you can use Live Trace to help you in those situations.

Typography

If you have a raster-based image that has quite a bit of typography that you are wanting to convert to vectors, Live Trace is not your tool. Since often in raster images, any fonts or letters that were originally produced using a font will not keep their crispness and exact lines, even though to our eyes it appears that way.

thenewyorktimes

Take for instance the logo of The New York Times. The left version looks very clean and crisp, however an up-close inspection on the right shows that it actually isn’t as clean and crisp. Live Trace often has a hard time figuring out which of the pixels should be included and which pixels shouldn’t.

Unless you are working with hand-drawn type that you would like to eventually polish on the computer, using Live Trace to capture type that was computer-generated to begin with is only going to cause you headaches. Live Trace will produce uneven results, often resulting in curvy lines that should be perfectly straight, circles and ovals not perfectly symmetrical that should be, and often an overall rough appearance. You can see this in my attempt to vectorize a .jpg version of The New York Times logo.

times

The top one is the .jpg version and the bottom one is my best attempt to replicate the logo using the basic Live Trace features. In cases with alot of computer-generated type, you are best off finding the font and regenerating the typography yourself.

Let’s try this out using Live Trace. I am using Fuel Your Creativity’s logo (minus the flame) for this example. Opening the bitmap logo in Illustrator, select the logo and look for the option in the option bar at the top for “Live Trace.” For more Live Trace options, we are going to select the down arrow beside the Live Trace button and select “Tracing Options.” You can see this in the example image below. I have two copies of the FYC logo so that the one on the left will be the original as we use Live Trace to vectorize it.

Screen Shot 2012-11-01 at 4.22.37 PM

Once you select “Tracing Options,” a dialogue box will appear with several options. To make it easier for you to see what is going on, you can select “Preview” on the right hand side of this dialogue box. Also, for this example it may be best to select “Black and White” from the “Mode” drop box on the left hand side of the dialogue box. You can see a screenshot of what you should be seeing now below.

Screen Shot 2012-11-01 at 4.40.43 PM

As you can see, you will need to make some tweaks to the default settings in order to get close to the original on the left hand side. We now know that Live Trace isn’t very good at handling typography, however, adjusting settings on the Live Trace dialogue box (hovering over each option will tell you what each one does) will allow you to get close. Once you have changed the options to produce a result you are ok with, then press “Trace” in the top right corner of the box. To make the tracing a vector, you will need to select “Expand” in the top options box in order to see the vectors. There may be some needed clean up after doing the Live Trace.

Basic and Simple Shapes

Live Trace is ideal for turning bitmap simple shapes into vector shapes that can then be manipulated using other Illustrator tools. Taking the idea of using Live Trace to take bitmap images and making them into vector images, let’s use the flame portion of Fuel Your Creativity’s logo and go about the same process we did above.

Going to the Live Trace options dialogue box and doing the same above, you can see that you can get closer to the actual flame shape than you can with typography. I followed the same idea above and below is my result:

Screen Shot 2012-11-01 at 4.51.34 PM

You can see that I was able to get fairly close, although not exact, to the original flame that is on the left. More vector manipulating using the direct select tools and pen tools may be needed to make it exact, but as you can imagine, doing this can save time compared to using the pen tool to just simply trace it.

REAL Hand Drawn Elements

I hinted at this above, but if you have something hand-drawn that you are wanting to convert to vectors, then Live Trace is a great starting place to do this. Although it won’t give you an exact replica of your hand-drawn masterpiece, it is a great way to get all the vectors in place so that you can then go in and make changes as you need.

In order to do this, you will need to scan in your artwork and open it in Illustrator before you can use Live Trace. You can then follow the same steps above for “simple shapes” to help you save time in converting your handwork into vector art that you can use in your designs.

Some tips to make this much easier for you:

  • If at all possible, make your artwork as contrasted as you can. Draw your work on a white sheet of paper and draw in a black marker or Sharpie to allow for maximum contrast. The higher the contrast you use, the better your scanner can scan it for you.
  • Take your scanned image into Photoshop to clean up things such as stray scan marks and anything else you may not want Live Trace to find. You can also up the contrast here as well.
  • When using Live Trace on your hand-draw image, select “ignore white” so that Live Trace does not unintentionally trace large areas of white space.

Manipulating Photographs

If you are needing to change an original photograph to give it a more graphic or illustrative look, Live Trace can help you with that. Since the object is not to produce an exactly replica, some minor changes are acceptable in this process. Live Trace is often used as well to achieve many different effects instead of using things such as Photoshop and Illustrator effects, with the added benefit of being able to manipulate the pieces later.

My favorite thing to do is to take a photograph and manipulate it using Live Trace to give it a nice, illustrative feel. Let’s take for instance the below sunrise (in which you can download for free here)

sunrise

Opening in Illustrator and the Tracing Options dialogue box, some notable changes you can make includes switching to “Color” for the mode and changing the “Max Colors” count to achieve the effect you want. You can also change other options in that dialogue box, but I find that the color options are the best ones to change to achieve great effects. You can see what I was able to do with the above image below:

Screen Shot 2012-11-01 at 5.08.23 PM

It is worth noting that different options produce different results. For instance in the above example, I changed the max colors from 20 to 40 and it produced a drastically different image. The one on the left is with 20 max colors, the one on the right is with 40 max colors.

Screen Shot 2012-11-01 at 5.11.29 PM

Conclusion

Live Trace is one of those tools that takes practice before you can really know what all it is capable of. However, with the above examples, you can not only get started using Live Trace, but also know what its expectations and limitations are when working with this powerful tool.

A word of caution: lots of designers get in trouble for taking others’ works and using it with little to no change. Live Trace is often the tool behind such problems, as they feel that if they replicated it through Live Trace than it is theirs. It should be said that you should only use Live Trace on your own elements. I used bitmap images in this example, but to avoid possible copyright claims, you should use your own elements.

 

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