Using Adobe Illustrator with Lightroom

Lightroom is very flexible when it comes to working with external editors. You probably already know that it will automatically detect if you have Photoshop installed and make that the default external editor. If you have other image editors like Pixelmator or Photoshop Elements you can add those as external editors too. Most of these pixel based editing programs will easily roundtrip back to Lightroom with a simple Save command.

But sometimes you want to do things that most pixel based editors just can’t do (or at least can’t do well). One such artistic avenue is vector editing. That is where Adobe Illustrator excels!

The problem you face is that Illustrator Saves to an AI file by default. Lightroom doesn’t understand AI files and can’t import them into the Catalog so what can you do? As it turns out, with just a little bit of extra work, it is possible to roundtrip from Lightroom to Illustrator and back to Lightroom again! Intrigued? Then let’s get started.

You first need to add Illustrator as an external editor in your preferences.

The two important things to make sure you set are the file format and the resolution. Illustrator works very well with Photoshop PSD files and so does Lightroom so choose PSD as your file format. What the resolution is isn’t as important as you remembering what you set this to. You’ll need that number when it comes time to return from Illustrator to Lightroom. 240 is the Lightroom default so I chose to leave it there since I can remember that.

For this example I want to take an image from my Catalog into Illustrator so I can trace the image and bring back part of the image as a graphic trace while leaving other parts as an image. In this example the large tree will remain an image and the background will be converted to a graphic trace representation. So to start choose Photo…Edit in…Edit in Adobe Illustrator CC… (or whatever you named it when you set Illustrator up as an editor).

When you choose that you will be presented with some options.

To keep your Lightroom adjustments choose the first option (1). The File Format (2) and the Resolution (3) should already be at what you set them when you set up Illustrator. If not then change them to PSD and the resolution you want (I suggest 240 to keep it simple).

Press Edit and your image will open in Illustrator. Since I want to preserve some of the image I first drag the layer down to the new layer icon to make a copy.

Next I’ll lock the bottom layer to make sure it doesn’t change.

With the top layer active I use the Selection tool (black arrow) and click on the image to select it. From the Image Trace dropdown I choose 16 colors to do an image trace.

Once the trace is complete you will see an Expand button in the toolbar. Press that to set the paths. Switch to the Direct Selection tool (white arrow) and click outside the image to deselect the paths. Then draw a marquee around the portion of the image whose paths we will delete in order to retain the image.

Then press the Delete key.

Those paths are then gone and the image from the underlying layer shows through.

Normally at this point we would just save the file and it would be sent back to Lightroom. But since that would create an AI file we can’t do that. Instead we’ll use the Export command under the File menu. When you do you will first get the export dialog.

Illustrator should already have the correct filename in the Save As field and the folder will also be correct. Just be sure to change the Format to Photoshop (PSD) then click Export. You’ll receive a warning.

Go ahead and replace the file. Then you’ll get the Photoshop Export Options dialog.

Here is where you need that resolution number. Choose Other and enter the resolution you chose. I also choose a flat image option since the Illustrator layers won’t be readily available if you go back out to Illustrator again. Click OK.

Back in Lightroom you will now see your original image and the Illustrator enhanced PSD version.

In my example the background is the image trace and the large foreground tree is still a pixel based image. The version in Lightroom is all pixel based at this point of course.

Back in Illustrator you still have the file open and unsaved. If you want to preserve the vector characteristics then go ahead and save the AI version of the file. You can’t import it into the Catalog but you can do other work on it and export a format that can be imported into Lightroom is you like.

So as you see it really isn’t that much extra work to get Lightroom and Illustrator to play nicely together. It opens up some very interesting artistic possibilities.