How To Use Trace Bitmap In Inkscape | The Complete Guide

How to Trace Bitmap in Inkscape

One of Inkscape’s many handy uses is having the ability to auto generate vector tracings of any raster image you’d like. In this tutorial we’ll be going over how to use Trace Bitmap in Inkscape so you can create quick and simple vector tracings of photos. This can be really use for making silhouettes, vector textures, and colorful cartoon-like renderings from your photographs.

What Is A Bitmap?

In order to truly appreciate the usefulness of Trace Bitmap in Inkscape, we first have to recognize the difference between two different types of graphics — raster and vector.

Raster Images

Raster images — otherwise known as bitmaps — are images that are comprised of lots of little colored boxes known as pixels. Zooming in on a bitmap will reveal all of those little colored boxes:

Pixels
Bitmap is the ideal format for photographs due to its ability to retain fine details.

Bitmaps are typically used for any type of image or graphic that has lots of fine details. Common bitmap formats are as follows:

  • JPG
  • PNG
  • TIF

Vector Graphics

Vector graphics, on the other hand, are an entirely different imagery format. Unlike bitmaps (or rasters,) vector graphics are a series of coordinate points that dictate the properties of a graphic on an X and Y axis.

The benefit of working with vectors is that, unlike bitmaps, they can be scaled up infinitely without quality loss. Common vector formats are as follows:

  • SVG
  • EPS
  • AI
  • AFDESIGN
Vector example
Vector graphics can be scaled infinitely without quality loss

This is where Inkscape comes into play. As you may already know, Inkscape is a vector graphics editor; meaning it functions in a vector environment. Because of this, the ways in which you can work with rasterized bitmaps in Inkscape are limited.

Tracing Bitmaps

Although Inkscape is not meant for working with bitmaps, that doesn’t mean bitmaps don’t have a place in a vector application — especially when it comes to creating vector tracings.

Vector applications (like Inkscape) allow you to generate vector tracings of bitmap images, which can be useful for:

  • Creating silhouettes
  • Generating vector textures
  • Creating simplified cartoon-style tracings of images
  • Creating logos from images
  • And more
Vector image tracing
Tracing software automatically generates vector tracings of raster imagery.

Generally speaking, there’s two ways to trace a bitmap in Inkscape — manually, by drawing a tracing over it with the Bezier Pen; or automatically, using the Trace Bitmap feature.

Trace Bitmap In Inkscape

To use the Trace Bitmap feature in Inkscape, select your image and choose Single Scan for a monotone tracing, or Multiple Scans for a color tracing. Tweak the settings until you reach the desired result, then press OK to generate your tracing.

Built within Inkscape is a handy tool called Trace Bitmap, which uses an algorithm to automatically generate a vector tracing of a selected image. You can access the Trace Bitmap tool by navigating to Path > Trace Bitmap, or by pressing Shift + Alt + B on your keyboard.

The following video tutorial will walk you through the process of using Trace Bitmap in Inkscape:

To see how the tool works, paste a bitmap image onto your canvas, select it with the Select Tool, then open the Trace Bitmap menu.

When you first open the Trace Bitmap menu, you will see two different options — single scan and multiple scan.

Trace Bitmap scans
There are two different types of tracings you can make — single scan and multiple scans.

Single Scan is used to create a single monotone tracing over your image, whereas Multiple Scan can be used to create multiple tracings in multiple colors.

Single Scan

The Single Scan setting will generate a single vector object, in black, over your image.

Monotone tracing
An example of a single scan tracing.

This setting would be ideal for:

  • Creating silhouettes from your images
  • Creating vector textures from photographs
  • Turning photos into logos
  • And more

To use the Single Scan tracing feature, click the Update button on the right-hand side of the menu to generate a preview of your tracing:

Single Scan preview
A preview of the tracing will populate in the window to the right.

Just beneath the Single Scan setting, you will see a dropdown menu containing five different settings:

  1. Brightness Cutoff
  2. Edge detection
  3. Color quantization
  4. Autotrace
  5. Centerline tracing (autotrace)
Single Scan options
Each of these five options will trace your bitmap differently.

Each of these settings uses a different algorithm for tracing your bitmap.

Seeing as how every image is different, the setting you should use will be determined by the composition of your image. In order to get the best results from Trace Bitmap in Inkscape, it is recommended that you cycle through each of these presets to see which one provides the result you’re looking for, based on your image.

Once you’ve chosen your desired preset, you can then adjust some of the finer settings of that preset. This will allow you to tweak the tracing further to improve the results.

Each preset has its own settings that can be tweaked, which include:

  • Threshold
  • Colors
  • Error threshold
  • Filter iterations

Finally, you can enable the Invert Image setting to reverse your tracing:

Invert image
Inverting the tracing will make the subject into negative space, and the negative space of the image into the tracing.

In this example, the subject becomes the negative space, and the negative space of the image becomes to traced vector when Invert Image is enabled.

Once you are happy with the tracing in your preview window, you can press the OK button to generate your vector tracing.

Multiple Scan

The Multiple Scan setting will generate multiple vector tracings of your bitmap, which would be ideal for creating vector tracings in full color. This could be useful for creating a simple, cartoon-style tracing of an image.

Color tracing
The Multiple Scans preset can be used to trace your bitmaps in color.

To use the Multiple Scan setting, select it and choose one of the four settings from the dropdown menu beneath it. The settings include:

  • Brightness steps
  • Colors
  • Grays
  • Autotrace (slower)
Multiple Scans options
Each of these four options will trace your bitmap differently.

As is the case for the Single Scan option, each of these settings will trace your image differently, so it is recommended that you cycle through each and click the Update button to see which one produces your desired result.

Beneath each of these presets you will see a series of settings that can be adjusted to tweak your tracing further, including:

  • Scans: this is the number of scans that are generated, or the number of colors.
  • Smooth: enabling this setting will apply a Gaussian blur to your bitmap before tracing.
  • Stack: this will stack scans on top of each other, without gaps, instead of tiling them.
  • Remove background: this will remove the background of your image from your vector tracing, assuming the software is able to distinguish a background.
Scans
Increasing the scans will increase the number of colors used in the tracing, whereas decreasing it will decrease the number of colors.

Once you are happy with the tracing in your preview window, you can press the OK button to generate your vector tracing.

Options

Finally, at the bottom of the Trace Bitmap menu, you will see a section titled Options. This section applies to both single scan and multiple scans:

Options menu

These settings can be used to dictate certain properties of the vector tracing you generate. The setting include:

  1. Speckles: this tells the software to ignore small spots of the bitmap image, like fragments and textures.
  2. Smooth corners: this tells the software to smooth out sharp corners of the tracing
  3. Optimize: this will try to optimize paths by joining adjacent Bezier curve segments, which could be useful in reducing CPU load when generating your tracing.

Each of this three settings can be adjusted further by increasing or decreasing their designated numerical values.

Once you are happy with the tracing in your preview window, you can press the OK button to generate your vector tracing.

Tip & Precautions

There’s a few things you should always keep in mind when using Trace Bitmap in Inkscape:

  1. It should be noted that despite the usefulness of these settings, using an auto-trace feature like Trace Bitmap in Inkscape will never produce a perfect tracing. For that, you would need to trace your image manually.
  2. The advantage of using the Trace Bitmap feature is that, although it may produce suboptimal results, it doesn’t require the time and expertise needed to make a manual tracing.
  3. The Trace Bitmap tool has the capacity to crash Inkscape if you attempt to trace an image with too many details, so always be mindful of the size of your tracings, and be sure to save your work before proceeding.

Conclusion

The Trace Bitmp feature in Inkscape is a useful tool that will certainly come in handy for you at some point. I’ve been using it for years personally. And considering that certain premium vector editors (like Affinity Designer) do not come with an equivalent, it’s quite impressive that the Inkscape team was capable of producing such a powerful feature.

Despite its utility though, Trace Bitmap is not without its disadvantages. Unfortunately, the feature isn’t optimized to make proper use of your hardware, so it will crash Inkscape if you trace an image with too much detail. This will happen regardless of how powerful your computer is. This is an area where Inkscape falls short to Illustrator, which possesses a similar image tracing feature that runs much more smoothly.

If any part of this lesson was unclear, or if you have any questions, simply leave a comment below.

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