How to Make Vector Silhouettes from a Photo – Silhouettes are always a nice touch in any composition and they're actually really easy to create from a photo. To clarify for everyone, vector images are images that will scale to any size without losing their sharpness and clarity – some people refer to them as clipart. Make sure that you choose a photo that doesn't have a busy background and has a significant contrast between the item you want to convert into a silhouette and the background behind it. I'm using this tranquil heron photo I took this summer on a foggy day at the beach. I use this trick often in my work as a graphic designer and thought this would be a great design tip to share.
This tutorial requires a high resolution photo, photo editing software (I use Photoshop CS6) and Adobe Illustrator (CS6).
- Open your selected photo into Photoshop or some sort of photo editing software. Our goal is to make the photo have as much contrast as possible without totally distorting the image. There are a few different ways to accomplish this task and I'll show you two different methods. Feel free to use what you're comfortable with.
- METHOD 1: Go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > LEVELS. Grab the tiny triangular input sliders and slide them around until you have a very light background and a dark image that will become the silhouette. Generally that means that you'll move the sliders on the left slightly towards the right, the middle slider will go very slightly to the left and the right slider will move in to the left quite a bit. You’ll have to eyeball this a bit and see what looks best. The goal here is to make the background as light as possible without washing out any black while making the dark areas darker.
- METHOD 2: Go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BRIGHTNESS/CONTRAST. Move both sliders to the right until you achieve your desired outcome (high contrast without washing out the image you want to become the silhouette).
- Once you’re satisfied with the colour settings, crop your page to select the part of the image you want for your design. Save your image.
- Open Illustrator and open your photo. Select your photo using the SELECTION tool (black arrow) and you’ll notice that in the properties bar at the top, a LIVE TRACE button will appear (or IMAGE TRACE depending on which version of Illustrator you have). Click on the LIVE TRACE or IMAGE TRACE button. (If you’re not super happy with the results, you can click on the white arrow to the left of the IMAGE TRACE button and play around with the various settings – I find the Black and White Logo setting can work well too). Once you’ve clicked the LIVE TRACE or IMAGE TRACE button you’ll notice that it now says EXPAND. With your image still selected, click on the EXPAND button.
- With the image selected, right click your mouse and toggle down to UNGROUP and click on it. Now, click on a white area of the drawing so that it’s selected and then go to SELECT > SAME > FILL COLOUR and all the white in your image will be selected, hit the DELETE button. Your goal here is to get rid of all the white sections of your image.
- Select all the black items on the canvas, right click your mouse and toggle down and click on group. Now your sketch is all grouped together. (Don’t bother with this step if you’d like to move the various elements of the image around on the page or modify them individually).
- At this point you can get creative, add colour and use the vector on top of backgrounds, photos, etc. Use your silhouette to create or enhance your very own work or art.
I created this printable page for the tutorial and you're welcome to download and print it. Download here.