How to Convert a Picture to Vector in Photoshop CS5

By Elizabeth Mott

When you want to create vector artwork, Adobe Photoshop CS5 offers a narrower set of tools than a dedicated illustration program provides, but that doesn't mean you can't create a vector-based interpretation of a bitmapped image entirely within Photoshop. Its shape and fill layers use vector paths to reveal areas of color. You can use path-drawing tools to build up your vector image version or create selections that you convert into vector objects. Which methods you use may depend on how readily you can select discrete color areas and whether you prefer drawing tools' precision capabilities to selections' ease.

Pen-Based Shapes

Step 1

Activate the Freeform Pen tool in the Adobe Photoshop toolbox. Click on the "Shape Layers" button in the Options bar so the tool creates vector shapes on a solid-color layer.

Step 2

Click on the color swatch in the Options bar to bring up the Color Picker and set the shade for the shapes you draw. You can click on the image to sample your color directly from it.

Step 3

Click and drag to draw around an area of color in your image, creating a vector shape that defines the area you outline. To follow around the confines of a defined area of color, activate the "Magnetic" check box in the Options bar. Draw closely around image content or use a loose drawing style for a more interpretive result.

Step 4

Draw multiple shapes on the same layer or create a new layer for each shape. The buttons on the Options bar enable you to make each new path add to existing shapes, carve areas away from them, create a new path that represents the intersection of an existing shape and one you draw, or omit the overlap between an existing and a new path.

Create shape layers that define each significant area of color in your file. Drag your layers in the Layers panel to change the order in which they stack.

Selections & Paths

Step 1

Activate the Magic Wand tool in the Adobe Photoshop toolbox. Adjust the Tolerance setting in the Options bar to a higher value to make the tool include a broader range of color variations or a lower value to restrict its selectiveness.

Step 2

Click on an area of color in your image to create a selection that encloses the area filled with that color. Turn off the "Contiguous" check box in the Options bar to select all areas of that color within the bounds of your image.

Step 3

Open the "Paths" panel. Select "Make Work Path" from the fly-out menu at the panel's top right corner. Set the Tolerance value to the minimum of 0.5 to make a path that closely follows your selection. Click on the "OK" button to create your path.

Step 4

Double-click on the "Work Path" name applied by default to your new path. Rename the path to describe the selection and the color areas it represents.

Step 5

Leave the path selected in the Paths panel. Open the "Layer" menu's "New Fill Layer" submenu and choose "Solid Color." Name the layer in the "New Layer" dialog box and click on its "OK" button to reveal the "Pick a Solid Color" dialog box.

Step 6

Set the Color Picker to your desired shade or click in the image on the area you selected with the Magic Wand tool to pick up the color directly from image. Click the "OK" button to create your layer.

Create additional fill layers for each of the color areas in your image. To arrange elements of the same color in front of and behind areas of a different color, create more than one layer filled with the same shade and organize them in the desired order in the Layers panel.