Are there any better ways of vectorizing photos than Illustrator's Trace? I don't have one of them Wacom boards so I can't really do this by hand.
I just used http://vectormagic.com and it works really well. The downloaded Mac app Vector Magic v1.8 costs $295 (last modified August 2010) but the online version is $7 per month. Here is the result I got from tracing a 450px wide line art drawing. You do need to see this test image at full screen to appreciate the nice work vectormagic did on the curves.
You don't have to have a tablet to create paths with the pen tool. Thousands of users never touch a tablet, but still use Illustrator.
The best method for any vector art is to draw it yourself. It does take practice, but that is the best method by far. People spend years learning how to create vector art properly. It's simply not something any automated tracing tool can do with a click of a button. In most cases, tracing provides adequate results at best. In many cases, and for many user, "adequate" is just that for them and they are happy. If you want more refined artwork with better control over anything, you really have to create the paths yourself.
If you are using any automated tracing tool, you need to familiarize yourself with how it works. It may help to tweak values or sharpness of an image in a raster editing app, such as Photoshop, before trying to trace it. You may need to draw with pen rather than pencil if you are scanning artwork. You may need to adjust settings in the tracing tool to get the exact trace you are looking for.
There is no "magic" button anywhere which will make any tracing tool work for everyone in every circumstance. There are additional tools such as vectormagic.com. However, as with any tool and stated earlier, even that may not yield the result you want if you are unfamiliar with it.
Vector magic is awesome as far as one click tracing is concerned, far better than Illustrators image trace, but isn't perfect all the time. Especially if contrasts are low etc. A very cheap source I have found is a site/app called fiverr. It is not a one click solution but for $5 USD someone in Indonesia (that's the fellow I use) will completely redraw it for you in .eps.ai etc formats. I have used them many times. Its obviously a lot of work for five bucks so I leave a tip as well. Usually within 24 hours. I have nothing to do with this company but I am a multimedia designer who is not very comfortable in the vector world. Vector magic and Fiverr have saved my sanity many times. You get two free traces with Vector magic ( per email address ).
it's true that there's no magic, it doesn't exist any perfect tracer, but, for example,in http://vectormagic.com/home , they have an online free auto tracer much better than Illustrator's one, at least for tracing black and white logos, that's a proven fact
Different programs have different strengths. Depending on what you're working with you may want to choose a specific program better suited for your task. I will go step by step and compare Adobe Illustrator, Vector Magic, Graphic Tracer and Inkscape. I may add Corel Draw later, but based on what I've seen, it isn't better than the other options in any aspect.
Importing image files
All applications support popular formats, so you'll always be able to load your image, however usability varies.
- Adobe Illustrator ignores image size and always creates canvas of the last used size.
- Vector Magic can randomly crash when trying to resize an image to the "recommended size".
- Graphic Tracer is the worst of all, it doesn't support dropping a file on the application window. Frequently randomly closes on crash testing.
- Inkscape is surprisingly the most user friendly. When asked to open a file, it just opens the file.
IS is the best, VM and AI are close (points deducted for minor issues), GT is mediocre.
- Adobe Illustrator supports various modes of automatic palette generation, however giving it a specific palette is pure pain and requires creating a color library. This feature was designed for a very different purpose, so prepare to be asked for a name of every color you pick. All colors are considered opaque. If you want transparency, you'll have to manually delete background parts later.
- Vector Magic supports somewhat similar palette generation options. Creating a palette manually requires many extra clicks unfortunately, but it's possible. If you want a custom palette, you can let the app create a palette automatically and apply little fixes. Not only transparency is fully supported, but you can have colors with different alpha values in your palette. VM specifically supports taking anti-aliasing into account when generating a palette.
- Graphic Tracer has by far the most user-friendly palette creation and by far the worst palette utilization. It supports adding colors with a single click, supports gradients, but automatic palette generation isn't customizable. However, all usability issues are minor compared to two massive problems. First, alpha channel is ignored and white is always considered fully transparent. Second, it doesn't support close colors at all. If your image has black and dark gray in it, you better increase contrast before vectorization and fix colors later, because GT supports only very distinct colors.
- Inkscape doesn't support palettes at all. Its support for colors is very limited in general, because it relies on an external app for tracing which supports only grayscale images.
VM is the clear winner here, AI is very close (points deducted only for the interface designed for aliens). GT is in a weird spot of being user-friendly, but doing a terrible job. IS is unusable.
- Adobe Illustrator doesn't display this stage to a user at all, so there's little way to affect it. You can affect segmentation with the noise slider.
- Vector Magic allows configuring complexity, min segment size, can take anti-aliasing into account and cluster similar colors. After automatic stage is finished, you can "zap" unneeded segments and edit pixels using pencil and paint bucket tools.
- Graphic Tracer displays segments as a preview while working with the palette, however editing segments isn't supported. If you have close colors (see previous section), this is when you start noticing that they're ignored.
- Inkscape doesn't display this stage at all. Maybe it exists somewhere in Potrace.
VM is the clear winner as the only app that supports this stage fully. Note that it's optional as you can always use a raster image editor and reduce colors manually yourself. Unless you're using GT, because it'll ignore close colors even then.
- Adobe Illustrator allows configuring complexity of lines and sharp corner detection. You can enable snapping curves to lines (produces more straight lines built from multiple curves) and overlapping (makes shapes overflow under other shapes a bit, which allows simplifying curves without immediately ruining the result). Anti-aliasing in the source image causes random "round pixels" to appear. You can reduce the effect, but you'll never get rid of it. Thin anti-alised lines will become a mess. Generated vectors use lots of redundant points, so if you care about complexity, make sure to simplify later.
- Vector Magic allows configuring smoothness and number of nodes with sliders. You can enable detection of sharp corners and taking anti-alising into account. Anti-aliased images are handled really well, you can expect blurry 1-pixel-wide lines to resemble lines. Corner handling is mediocre. You can get decent results, but there will always be too many or too few detected corners. VM produces the cleanest lines by far. They use very few points, so simplification becomes unimportant. Shapes are always cut-out.
- Graphic Tracer allows configuring detail/complexity, corner detection and proportion of straight lines with sliders. GT ignores close colors, so anti-aliasing can't cause any issues (one way to solve the problem is to ignore it). GT probably detects corners correctly the most often as all key aspects are controlled with precise sliders. Generated lines use many unnecessary points even in the least detailed mode, as the user is expected to simplify lines manually. GT tries to stack shapes, but it does duplicate underlying lines, just on the opposite side of the shape below.
- Inkscape generates some sort of mess with colored splotches. With crazy amounts of points that will make IS itself crash. Very stylistic, but unusable.
VM and GT are the winners here. They both have advantages and disadvantages. AI is mediocre and can work fine in some cases. IS is literally unusable.
- Adobe Illustrator doesn't generate the cleanest lines, but its stacking mode allows built-in curve simplification tool to work. It's very configurable and optimizes shapes well, however every shape may require different options. And be careful, it can cause holes if you simlify too hard. The best part of AI is surprisingly its usability. It displays the exact number of vertices at all stages from tracing to simplification.
- Vector Magic doesn't have built-in simplification tools and its inability to stack shapes (despite this being an option during saving) makes using external simplification tools impossible. However, the algorithm generates lines so clean that simplification is often just unnecessary.
- Graphic Tracer has all sort of tools for simplifying lines manually. You can fix corners, you can simplify curves, convert to arcs and everything else imaginable in a very user-friendly interface. Automatic simplification is also available. Note though that simplification doesn't in fact interact with vectorization, so you can get holes in your image.
- Inkscape at this point is either laggy or has already crashed. In case it's still alive, simplification is impossible because there're no shapes, just thousands of random stacked splotches. And even if we want to use simplification alone, its only configurable parameter is "threshold" hidden somewhere deep in the options dialog.
IS is a failure, but every other app won for a different reason. GT has the best tools for manual simplification. VM produces lines so clean that it doesn't need simplification. And finally, AI has really solid general-purpose simplification tools which can work in tandem with other software.
Deep understanding of content
- Adobe Illustrator — doesn't exist.
- Vector Magic — doesn't exist.
- Graphic Tracer has fantastic tools for detecting fonts in the vectorized text. Not only it supports huge databases and your own installed fonts, but it can handle all sorts of distortions and replace the vectorized letters with perfect letters from the font.
- Inkscape — doesn't exist.
GT's killer feature is its font detection. If you need it, get GT.
Exporting vector files
- Adobe Illustrator, being the industry standard, supports everything. Files it produces can be read by other apps, especially other Adobe apps, which is often what's needed.
- Vector Magic kinda supports various formats, but note that most of its save options don't work and the files it produces may require resaving to be used by other apps. Notably, .AI files can be read by AI, but not other Adobe apps.
- Graphic Tracer supports more formats than VM. What's more, it supports directly transfering data into many apps (they call it "ClikLink").
- Inkscape is the closest competitor with AI in terms of supported formats. I haven't really tested how well they're supported though, for reasons mentioned in the previous sections.
AI is the winner, being the app that a lot of people use anyway, which means less need for finding correct file formats. GT is as close to having the best export options as it gets for an app that isn't AI. IS is probably close to AI, to be fair (the problem being is that it doesn't matter at this point). VM is mediocre, but still usable (you'll find what works for you, but it may be not the cleanest option).
- Vector Magic supports batch processing and saving options (without the palette). No scripting, no command line. Batch processing requires only a few clicks if you have multiple configurations saved, but it's still manual clicks. Can probably be automated with AutoIt or something, if you're into that. Options are stored in the Registry (on Windows).
- Graphic Tracer has no automatization of any sort. It really expects you to do every step manually, including simplification of every line. Writing an AutoIt script would be completely impractical.
- Inkscape has command line and python extensions. Scripting like in AI is impossible, if I understand correctly. Tracing relies on external command line tool, Potrace, which can be called directly, but color support can't be interacted with, if I understand correctly.
AI is the clear winner. VM is far behind, but still has a solid functionality. GT and AI can't be automated.
Depending on what you need, the best tool is probably Vector Magic or Graphic Tracer. There're also specialized tools for maps, for example, so don't forget to Google if you need something very specialized.
If you need general-purpose tracing that handles all sorts of craziness like anti-aliasing, alpha channel, blurriness and close colors, while producing relatively clean lines that require little manual work, then Vector Magic should be your choice.
If you need to trace images with very limited colors, detect fonts and reach absolute perfection in every vertex, then Graphic Tracer should be your choice.
If you don't care about quality and ready to write scripts to fix a mess, then Adobe Illustrator should be your choice.
If you hate autotracing and believe manual tracing is the only way to perfection, then Inkscape should be your choice.