How Photoshop Auto Tracing Works

Photoshop does not have an auto tracing feature like Adobe Illustrator’s Live Trace tool or a shape capture feature like Adobe Shape CC. What Photoshop does have however, is a vector Pen tool which many designer’s use to manually trace out shapes in a photo or trace out scanned sketches — but most designers do not want to spend time manually vector tracing shapes that may only be required for pre-visualization stages.

Stipplr fills those tracing needs using features already available within Photoshop.

Stipplr is a collection of Photoshop Action Scripts that simulate results commonly found with Illustrator’s auto trace or Capture CC’s features, automatically.  The Stipplr Actions do not offer the same level of control as those found in Adobe Illustrator and are not meant to replace them — however, Photoshop is quite capable of rendering some breathtaking results when a specific workflow is cobbled together using Photoshop Actions. All without having to use the Pen tool to manually create shape layers.



The majority of Actions on this site follow a near identical process which can be generalized through a single post, the one you are currently reading. By examining the process here, once, we can avoid repeatedly explaining it within each subsequent tutorial.  There is no magic in how the Stipplr Actions achieve their results other than the time that was put into creating each one.

In the future there may be additional posts about the Actions themselves, however, the core focus of the site is to help designers achieve graphical results quickly — the fact that we are using Photoshop Actions is considered secondary to the process (ie, creating graphics) and therefore out-of-scope within the majority of posts on this site.


Tutorial Assets

Source Photo

  1. Auto Trace Action Sketch
  2. 1954 Chevy Truck

Stipplr Actions




Stipplr Actions require that the content to be traced exist within the Photoshop document — Stipplr does not batch process external image files. There are other limitations to Stipplr Actions but in general if you follow the steps listed below it will result in the creation of a successful vector smart object:

  1. Select a single source image from Photoshop’s Layers panel
  2. Make sure the layer is visible
  3. Playback the desired Stipplr Action
  4. Instant vector shape result

Don’t be afraid to experiment with the Stipplr panel. If something goes wrong while shape tracing your image layer we will pass you along to an error page explaining why the process failed to complete.


Setting Expectations

Stipplr Actions generate vector shape objects. Period. (Whoops! We now support raster effects!)

These Actions are not a magic bullet to passing an art class or creating a specific style with a single click. Stipplr Actions simply generate solid form vector shapes from the selected source image.  The results are obtained by executing a series of preset filter gallery and layer effects on a copy of the selected image.  After the shape is created, the designer (that’s you!), is expected to know how to use those vector shapes to create a further result.

There are tutorials on this site that walk through the the process of simulating particular graphic styles. However, these are provided as a courtesy in order not leave designers completely stranded, and they by no means represent the only possible solutions.

If you do not have a natural gift for graphic design, or lack schooling in graphic design, or are unaware of popular forms of graphic design/style then Stipplr Actions may not live up to your expectations.

This tutorial assumes you have already read the Getting Started tutorial as well as the Panel Overview tutorial.


The Illustrated Process

Create Artwork

The following figure is an example of a pencil sketch made for this tutorial — the characters were subsequently filled in as solid black with a marker and scanned in.

Stipplr Auto Trace Action From Sketch To Scanner


Import Scans

In this next image, the scanned lettering is placed on the topmost layer in the Layers panel which already has content imported.

Stipplr Photoshop Layers Panel With Scanned Lettering To Be Vector Traced


Execute Stipplr Action

With the imported sketch layer selected we can start tracing this layer.  All that remains now is finding the AUTOTRACE001 Stipplr Action in the Action Panel…

  1. Open the AUTOTRACE001 Details Page
  2. Press the playback button

Stipplr panel AUTOTRACE001 Details Page

Note: The preview included on every Stipplr Details Page is simply an example of what the Action is capable of.  It is not a live trace preview.


Vector Shape Result

Within a few seconds a vector shape layer appears above the source image layer with the traced results stored within a Smart Object.  Stipplr Actions typically treat the colour white as transparency, this is intentional in order to simulate the ignore white option in Adobe Illustrator’s trace workflow.  The preview icon in the Layers panel (image below) clearly shows that the vector shape layer has a solid black fill but is transparent everywhere else.

The newly created vector shape Smart Object is always placed above the layer which was traced.


Stipplr Is Non-Destructive

Stipplr Actions do not modify the source layer in any way. Stipplr always works with a copy of the selected source layer to ensure that your content is never damaged.


Hide Scanned Lettering Layer

At this point it may not be obvious that a vector shape exists, the underlying layer often makes seeing the result difficult if the vector shape exactly matches the source layer.  To fully appreciate the vector shape we need to hide or delete the scanned lettering from the Layers panel in order to clearly see the vector shape layer.

Stipplr Layers Panel with Lettering Layer Hidden

Importance Of Unique Layer Names

It is recommened that the vector shape layer be given a unique name to prevent problems when running the same Stipplr Action a second or third time.


Final Result

With the scanned lettering layer now hidden we can clearly see the vector traced Smart Object containing the vector shape lettering.  The lettering still contains all the imperfections along the border of the marker filled sketch, however, the white background from the original scan is now fully transparent leaving us with a very crisp border.


Shape Trace Complete

At this point Stipplr’s involvement with your content is done — you can now treat the vector shape layer like any other graphic element in your Layers panel.


Applying Layer Effects

Because the Stipplr Action creates a vector shape, it can easily be transformed and have layer effects applied to alter its appearance without fear of damaging the integrity of the traced element.

In the image below we have scaled the Smart Object, given it a white fill and black outside stroke.

Stipplr Photoshop Vector Shape Layer Effects

It’s that easy.


Stipplr Actions such as AUTOTRACE are not meant to replicate the quality of high end vector tracing solutions — they are a means to an end.  A way to quickly go from raster to capture shape vectors in seconds for the purpose of blocking out a layout for a last minute presentation or for a proposal. However, it is very possible to create entirely unique graphic designs through the composition of several Stipplr Action results.  For more details on creating graphic compositions unique to your style please browse through our tutorials category.

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