Adobe Illustrator – What is it, what does it do?

As photographers we have some understanding of Photoshop, what it is and what it does, and how it integrates with Lightroom if you use that too. The two of them work together to enable us photographers to work with what are known as ‘raster’ images, that is images made up of lots of dots. Zoom into a photograph enough and you will see the individual dots, or pixels, that comprise our image.

I have drawn a circle in Photoshop and then zoomed in – you can clearly see the jagged edges of the circle as it is made of pixels. This is a problem if we want to make a small image much larger, or if we want to crop an image too much.

Illustrator is what is known as a vector image tool. It doesn’t use pixels so much, but instead vectors, a technique where shapes are drawn mathematically instead so they can be resized infinitely without any loss of detail. In this example I have drawn a circle and zoomed in at 800%

As you can see the lines are perfectly smooth and it doesn’t matter how large or small we make them, or how we manipulate the shape from say a circle to an oval the lines will always be perfect.

Photoshop has this feature too with Smart Objects, but they are a small part of what Photoshop can do as it is primarily used for raster objects. Illustrator is the opposite, it can manipulate raster images, but it’s really intended to deal with vectors. Photoshop and Illustrator are designed to complement each other and are in essence opposites. But with libraries and other features within the Adobe creative suite they integrate very well – change an image in one tool and it automatically updates in the other.

Like Photoshop, Illustrator has the following concepts: –

  • Canvas / Artboard as the basis of a project
  • Layers
  • Multiple selection tools, and in the case of Illustrator tools to select a single point in an object and move it.
  • Pen and curvature tools
  • Shape tools
  • Text
  • Gradients

Illustrator also has some unique features such as the Shape Builder tool, which allows you to combine multiple shapes into one and create something that would be quite difficult to draw otherwise.

In this example I have two shapes, a circle and a square

Simple, easy to draw shapes. I can use the Shape Builder tool to create a different, more complex shape. I have overlapped the two shapes and want a square with a circle on one corner. Dunno why, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

I select both objects and then the Shape Builder and it allows me to combine, add or remove parts of the two objects to create something new.

In this case I am going to combine both objects to get my weird circle square thingy.

Now this is all one shape and I can resize it, recolour it, basically anything I want. I can even split it up further with more shapes and the shape builder.

So why would we want to do this as photographers. Well, many reasons. It allows us to incorporate our photographs together with graphics for a poster banner with better control over the text and vector graphic elements than you get in Photoshop. I can allow you to use your photographs as the basis for another piece of art. For example, imagine I had taken a seaside photo and wanted to turn it into an illustration. I could place my photo on one image, lighten the opacity and then trace over it on another layer with lines as the starting point for my illustration.

You are then free to resize that as much as you like, recolour it and even put it back into Photoshop to add shading, etc. Check out ‘vector seascapes’ on google. It is this partnership with Photoshop that makes Illustrator so powerful. Yes there are other vector illustration applications, such as Infinity Designer and Inkscape. Both are very good, Designer is a one-off fairly cheap payment and Inkscape is free.

I am doing a lot of illustrations at the moment and after using all three apps I have found that, for me, it is worth just paying the extra each month for the full Adobe suite as the integration between them is great and features such as libraries and fonts just aren’t as good on other platforms and overall it’s just much quicker working in Illustrator compared to the others..

If you just want to try out vector drawing, I’d suggest downloading Inkscape as it is free and is good enough just to understand how it can work for you. It’s a different direction for those of you wanting to create art from your photos. YouTube is your friend here for ‘how to’ guides for each of the apps – just choose one and go play, it takes a couple of hours to learn the basics of each.

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  1. very interesting Shaun, I used smart objects in PS to create photo filled letters to use as banners on card, etc but like the idea of being able to do this with weird shapes such as circle square thing!

    • There’s a masking tool that you can use to put photos into words, etc. The shape builder tool is brilliant. I used it to create this book cover for my dad – he keeps pigeons and wanted a log book. This is nothing more than a few simple shapes and some text

  2. I’m trying to get my head around Illustrator at work at the moment and this was really clear and helpful. Definitely going to have a play with the shape builder. Thanks.

    • Happy to share ideas if you want, or do. follow up blog with more detail. It’s an app that I’ve found I quite like using.

      • Thanks, that would be amazing! This just helped a few things click into place.

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