Images cover every nook and cranny of the internet. Unfortunately, most of them are very low-quality. If you want to start an art project, or play around with the Adobe suite, without having to rely on crappy online images, you’ll need to convert an image to a vector graphic.
Read on to turn any JPG or PNG image you find online into a crisp, scalable vector image (which you can use and reuse with projects of any size) using Illustrator.
If you’re not familiar with Illustrator, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to Illustrator.
What Is a Vector Image?
A vector image is a scalable image comprised of values rather than pixels.
Most images found online are raster images (see different file types explained). Raster images use square pixels (bits of color) to convey an image. Vector graphics convey color using scalable color polygons. Since vector images use dynamic color sections as opposed to static squares, they provide perfect lines and crisp colors.
The geometry which comprises vector images is formulaic, making them resolution-independent. That means images don’t lose quality when they’re scaled up or down, since the color polygons in a vector image will always maintain their shape. The same is not true for raster images, since the color information of these images is stretched when scaled.
Once you know how to convert an image to a vector in Adobe Illustrator, you’ll be able to scale anything you find to the size you want — without losing image quality.
Step 1: Pick an Image to Convert to Vector
The image you use won’t matter when using the following process, except for the fact that larger images will take longer to edit. There are some images, however, which work better as vector images than others.
It’s best to edit a single subject than a landscape or the like. Preferably, the image should have a white or transparent background and have a relatively low resolution.
I’ll be using the image of Ryu from the Street Fighter series above. It works as a perfect example for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s a single subject. It also lends itself to a vector image format well, as it’s a recognizable character. The vector images format is typically used for logos or recognizable images.
Step 2: Trace the Image
The Image Trace tool allows you to take the color information of an image and create a traced duplicate. The duplicate image, a close replica, can be used to create a vector.
First, open your image in Illustrator. Select the image to activate image options. These options should be present on the top of your Illustrator window. Then, click on the dropdown menu beside Image Trace and select either High Fidelity Photo or Low Fidelity Photo.
In my experience, the low-fi option works best with very low-quality JPG and PNG images, while hi-fi works best with high-quality and high-resolution images.
Your image will go through the tracing process automatically. You’ll note several changes to your image, but overall it should remain much the same. For example, the following is a closeup of my image before the tracing process.
Note the pixelation. Here is the image after the process:
While much of the detail has been stripped from the original image, it also appears much sharper. You’ll note the color shapes do not pixelate no matter how close the image is zoomed. Nevertheless, the overall image should remain the same. Here is our overall image before editing.
Here is our image after editing:
While the top image may appear sharper in some instances, the overall image is preserved.
Step 3: Ungroup Colors
Your image has now been ordered into colored shapes fitting the original raster image. In order to finish your vector, you’ll need to separate these color groups to edit them. To do so, select your traced image and click on the Expand button on the top of the window.
This will allow you to view the composite shapes which make up your image. Your image should now have a blue outline when selected. Next, right-click the image and select Ungroup in the following menu. This will allow you to separate your color shapes into individual parts.
In your Layers panel, you’ll note your color groups have been separated into layers.
Step 4: Edit Your Vector Image
After converting a raster image to a vector, you have free range to edit the image. Begin by deleting whatever color groups you desire. You can select whole color groups by clicking on a shape and heading to Select > Same > Fill Color. This will select all groups with the same color as the one selected using your Direct Selection tool (A).
Then, hit Backspace on your keyboard to delete the shapes. If you’d like to modify or expand a particular color group, you can do that as well by selecting a layer using the Direct Selection tool. After you’ve selected a layer, fill in empty spaces or add additional colors to your design using the Pen or Brush tools.
Step 5: Saving Your Image
Here is the my original image after deleting the pesky white background and modifying the image slightly using the method presented above.
Now we’re ready for the final step in converting an image to a vector in Illustrator: saving the image in a vector format to preserve its quality. There are a variety of vector image formats to choose between: PDF, AI, EPS, SVG, and others. We’ll use the SVG format. When you’re finished with your image, head to File > Export > Export As.
In the following window, title your file and select SVG in the drop down menu beside Save as type.
That’s it! Your scalable vector file should now be saved onto your PC.
Don’t Compromise, Vectorize!
Now you know how to convert an image to a vector in Illustrator! Scale your new creation to whatever dimension you wish.
Keep in mind that vector files can be significantly larger than their raster counterparts. That means they may take longer to load and edit. Nevertheless, your vector image will maintain its quality no matter the scale.
And remember that Illustrator isn’t the only program that works with vectors. You can convert images to vectors in other apps as well, including this vector software for Mac designers on a budget. If you happen to be a beginning designer, also check out how to change image DPI and why you need to know.