How to Make a Photo Into Vector Art

Digital images come in two basic types: rasters or vector images. NightCafe’s photo to painting application can work with either if you're ready to begin turning a photo into canvas art. We'll explain the manual route to make a photo look like pop art, but it's also worth having an idea of what it all means and why it's sometimes a little tricky to edit a high-resolution photo into a cool graphic.

Why Transform Your Favourite Photos Into Artwork?

Whether you have a treasured family memory, a gorgeous snap of your pet, or want to immortalise a special moment, a personal piece of art is pretty priceless. There are also a few practical reasons you might want to reformat a photo–those raster images we mentioned are massively detailed and contain lots of pixels. The drawback is you can't expand your image (say, print it on a canvas) without damaging the image quality.

Vector images are less detailed and contain lines and shapes, with the advantage that you can blow up your image as big as you like without losing any of the intricacies of expression, shade, or light. If you have a small raster image, you can convert it into vector art and then get the freedom to play with your photo, adjust the colours, or simply replicate a perfect shot.

What Is Vector Art?

From a creative perspective, vector art doesn't have to conform to those pesky laws of physics! You can unleash your imagination, add or remove details, or re-style your photo in any way you can think of. 

Most images you'll see online are rasters, whereas vector art uses scalable colour polygons. But, because a vector graphic is built of dynamic sections of colour–not square pixels–you get incredibly sharp lines and bold hues.

Unsure what type of graphic file your photo is saved as? Just take a look at the file type:

  • If it's a JPG or GIF, it's a raster image.
  • Files in SVG, AI, or EPS format are vectors.

The takeaway is that you can't expand a raster image exponentially, so your creative options are limited–but you don't need to be a graphical expert to develop your own vector art. 

The Hard Way to Create Vector Art From an Image

In the interest of transparency, you can manually transform a photo into vector art with Adobe Illustrator, although the process is a bit long:

  • Pick your picture: it's much easier to work with a smaller low-res file size and a file with a white or transparent background and formatted as a PNG, GIF, or JPEG.
  • Next, you'll need to find the Image Trace tool and pick a pre-set that looks close to the graphic you'd like to create.
  • You'll want to vectorise your image, which means the program strips out most of the detail, giving it some time for the pixelation to clear up.
  • Then, you open ‘Image Trace’ and fine-tune the graphic, switching between colour modes and fiddling with the Colours slider.
  • When you're happy, you need to separate your colour groups by clicking on ‘Expand’ to see the shapes within the image outlined in blue. Right-click and select ‘Ungroup.’
  • Now you can start with the edits, filling each colour group or deleting shapes you'd like to remove. You can also use the Pen and Brush to add more features.
  • Finally, you can save your image as SVG, PDF, EPS, or AI.

NightCafe is on a mission to make the craft of digital artwork more accessible, and we're all about delivering simplified, fun AI resources. If you'd like to make a photo into vector art and this all sounds a little complex, you can use any image as your source, filter between countless art styles, and generate beautiful, quirky, and unique vector art in just a few clicks.