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There are lots of reasons to trace an image in Photoshop or Illustrator. You may be cutting out one part of an image, trying to manipulate certain parts of an image without altering the original, or converting images into vector files. Maybe you just want to practice your digital illustration skills. Tracing your own favorite images yourself is a much more valuable learning tool than using auto trace features available in Photoshop CC or live trace in Illustrator.

How to trace an image in Photoshop using pen tool
How to trace an image in Photoshop using pen tool

So what is image trace? It’s essentially the digital version of the tracing many of us used to do as kids. We take one image that we want to trace and create a new layer that allows us to trace the original image without editing it. There are many different tools to use for an image trace, but we’ll be covering how you can use the pen tool to trace an image in Photoshop.

  1. Create your layers

Start by opening the image you want to trace. Duplicate this layer, set it to 50% opacity, and lock it. (You’ll know the layer is locked because a padlock icon will appear next to it in the layer menu.) Take your duplicate layer and erase it to a white background using CTRL+BACKSPACE (CMMD+DELETE on a Mac). Lock this layer as well.


Finally, create a new, transparent layer for your tracing. Make sure your layers are ordered with the transparent, tracing layer on top, followed by the image you’re tracing at 50% opacity, with the blank white background on the bottom. We recommend naming each layer for ease of use: Tracing, Image Copy, and White Background work fine, but feel free to come up with your own.


  1. Set up your pen tool

Select your pen tool and look at the options. Make sure you’ve selected “Path” in the main drop down box. You can also decide between creating curves or straight lines. It may be harder to use the curve tool if you’re new to the pen tool, so we recommend starting with straight lines. You’ll be able to adjust each node later to help create a more precise copy.


  1. Start tracing

If you haven’t used the pen tool before, each click creates an adjustable node that connects along a straight line to the one before it. Click along the outline of the image you’re tracing to create your path. You’ll need more clicks/nodes as you move around curves. To complete the shape you’re outlining, make sure to circle around to the original node you started on and click on it.


To check on your progress, hide the Image Copy layer to see what your traced image looks like.


  1. Save your image

Once you’ve finished tracing your image, make sure to save it. From here, you can use your new traced image in any number of ways, and with this working file saved you’ll be able to continue using it in the future.


Tracing images is a valuable technique to know since many auto-trace or live trace features aren’t exact. They can be convenient to use to reduce your total work time, but these skills will help you adjust what automation misses.


What are you planning to use image trace for? Let us know in the comments so we can make sure this walk-through is helpful for you.