One of the very first craft projects many people try to make with a Cricut is a decal or stencil using a personal photo. A graphic of your dog or your kids on a coffee mug is a great keepsake or gift, but getting the project to work can be trickier than it seems.
That’s why I created this step-by-step tutorial to turn photos into SVG cut files for your Cricut machine. (I have included specialized steps for Silhouette Studio users at the end of this tutorial). I have found most tutorials out there are really lacking details and offering lackluster results instead of a quality how-to article.
This tutorial’s purpose is to help you create a high quality SVG from a photo that you can use as a cutting or drawing file, and then show you some steps to really take this technique to another level.
One important thing to note is that the step by step instructions for this tutorial work on desktop computers (including laptops). Although some of these tools will work on smartphones and tablets, not every tool that I use does (Inkscape).
I will post a separate tutorial on transforming to photos to SVG cut files using mobile devices.
5 Steps for Transforming a Photo to an SVG file for Cricut
- Select a qood quality image
- Remove the background
- Tweak threshold settings in a photo editor
- Trace bitmap image to SVG file in a vector editor
- Import into Cricut Design space and cut!
Free tools we will use to convert a picture to SVG for Cricut
Step 1: Select a good quality image
You will get the best cut file if you start the process with a really good photograph. Select a clear image of your subject.
- High contrast images work best
- Select an image with good lighting
It’s totally understandable that the image you choose might not be the greatest, most professional image…if it’s an adorable photo of your kids or your cat, it probably captures a certain spirit of the moment that you want to share, or gift to someone special.
Here are a few examples of stock photos that are good candidates for tracing.
Good images to convert to cut files:
Bad photos to convert to SVG cut files:
Poor candidate photos for tracing include landscapes, crowd shots, or photos where the subject is poorly composed (partially cropped, obscured etc). These photos are better suited for print then cut, but that’s a different tutorial.
For this tutorial, I am going to use a photo I took myself a few years ago when I was volunteering for an animal shelter. It's not high resolution, it's not expertly composed with a $2,000 camera, but I think it's the kind of photo that you or I would use to make a personal keepsake.
Step 2: Remove the photo background
To get the best results, it’s best to start editing your photo by removing the background. There are a number of services available to remove backgrounds from photos. Most work well, but require purchase and registration to process more than one image. Here's a sample of what I would consider the best of the field:
These sites use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to scan your uploaded photo and delete the pixels that are not associated with the subject of the photograph. They represent an amazing leap forward in deleting photo backgrounds, as they can delete the background behind hair, tree branches and more!
This type of detailed photo editing used to take hours in Photoshop but having a tool that can do it for large images in seconds (and do batches as well) is a real bonus and worth paying for.
These sites will typically provide low-resolution results for free, and offer high resolution images on a subscription or credit basis. If you plan to use these tools a lot, it’s worth paying for. But since we are using these images to create vectors, using a low-resolution source image is OK.
How to use a Background Remover Tool (Removal.ai)
Step 1: Upload your image to removal.ai
Step 2: Verify the image is to your satisfaction. When you are ready to download, the file will be a PNG file.
Step 3 (optional): Many of these tools have an option to edit your image before you download. The tool I had an option to manually edit the photo before downloading the finished option. You can use an eraser tool to clean up fine details, adjust brightness or contrast, or add a background (not that I wanted to for this project, but the option is available).
So here is the completed file next to the original. As you can see, the background remover did a great job and start to finish this process took about 2 minutes.
After the background of your image is removed, make sure you save it as a PNG file and download to your computer. Now we are ready to proceed to making the adjustments to the photo in an image editor (in this case Photopea).
Step 3: Edit image in Photopea
I discovered Photopea a few months ago (even though it's been online since 2013) and it's a great web-based Photoshop alternative. Photopea allows you to do all of the basic photo editing functions of Photoshop conveniently from your web browser. There’s no software to install, you don’t have to login or create a password either. It’s just a really fantastic image editor for everyday users.
The steps I am going to take in Photopea are not difficult, and each step will allow you to make adjustments that best suit your image. Take your time, experiment, and don't be afraid to use the UNDO function to redo a step!
Each step is described below, but in case you like video tutorials, here's a mini-tutorial video covering all the steps you need to take in Photopea.
- Open PNG File
- Adjust Hue/Saturation values to make image black and white
- Adjust Brightness/Contrast values
- Edit small details if necessary
- Apply Oil Paint filter
- Adjust threshold values
To begin, upload the PNG file from the previous step to Photopea (File>Open).
2. Hue/Saturation Adjustment
Next, you want to desaturate the image to convert it to black and white. This is done by selecting Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and dragging the Saturation slider all the way to the left.
3. Brightness/Contrast Adjustment
Next you want to increase the brightness and contrast to give a really crisp image with fairly stark black and white divisions and not too many gray mid-tones. Select Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast and adjust the sliders until your image is mostly black and white.
4. Use Paintbrush to Edit Small details
Without going into a lot of extra details, there are a few important things I want to point out about editing your image in Photopea before tracing it as a vector in Inkscape.
You get better results by paying attention to details. Many tutorials will give you the basic software steps you need to set threshold values in the photo editor, but ignore the reality that the finished images look like crap.
Pay attention to your subject's eyes. If you have one eye that is shaded in the original photograph, chances are it will be rendered as black pixels during this process.
In this graphic, I used the paintbrush tool to paint the dog's pupils black so that they would show up when the threshold filter was applied. Don’t be afraid to use the paintbrush or eraser tool to clean up areas that end up looking messy or out of place!
Select the Paintbrush tool from the left-hand menu, and right click to set your brush size. The color selector is at the bottom of the left-sidebar menu; click it to set the foreground color value to black.
5. Add a Style filter
Now comes the crucial step. To get a really nice, smooth image that converts well to a cut file, I select Filter>Stylize>Oil Paint and adjust the sliders to create a really smooth, rich graphic.
6. Adjust Threshold values
Finally I select Image>Adjustments>Threshold and the image is converted into a pure black and white graphic. The higher the threshold value (between 0 and 256), the blacker your image will be. Pull the slider control to the left or right to adjust the threshold value, and you will get a preview of the results in realtime before you click "OK".
How should you choose the Threshold values? Adjust the slider until you feel you are getting the details you want (in this case, I want to see details in the eyes, nose and ears) without creating something that's too busy to cut and weed, or an SVG image that's too simplistic and doesn't represent your original image well.
After you are satisfied with the image, it's now ready to be saved as a PNG file and imported into Inkscape for tracing. Select File>Export As>PNG and then save the file in the location of your choice on your computer.
Why it's important to edit your photos before applying the threshold filter
Making simple edits to your photo like defining your subject's eyes, nose, etc. before you take the final steps to trace your image will result in a much better cut file.
You want to be able to see the basic features of the image rendered clearly when you cut out your design and put it on a t-shirt or mug. No one will be satisfied with a final product where the face looks like an unrecognizable blob, or where there are no eyes at all.
Take a look at my image with and without paintbrush editing. By making just the simplest edits, we've got a much better image going into the final stages of tracing this project and saving as an SVG.
Without paintbrush before Threshold setting
With paintbrush edit before Threshold setting
Similarly, the importance of adding the Oil Paint filter is obvious when you compare filtered vs. unfiltered results. Without the smoothing effect of the filter, the threshold results are coarse and look like a photocopy of a photocopy. This will make a big difference when you convert this file to a vector in Inkscape.
No Filter before Threshold setting
Oil Paint filter before Threshold setting
Step 4: Trace image in Inkscape
Inkscape is a great free, open source vector editing tool that is a fine alternative to paid software like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. I have been an Illustrator user for many years, and I have just recently picked up Inkscape because I want to be able to provide design tips on a free platform that’s more accessible to users.
If you haven’t used Inkscape before, don’t panic. It might look a bit intimidating, but the steps required to open your modified PNG file, trace it and save it as an SVG file are pretty straightforward.
New to Inkscape? Here's some helpful links to help you get it installed and running
When you open Inkscape, you will start with a blank document. Select File>Import and choose your PNG file.
Next, make sure your image file is clicked and active (it will have a dashed box around it when it is selected). In the menu bar, select Path>Trace Bitmap and Inkscape will open a dialogue box where you can select your tracing options.
The default method is “brightness cutoff” and the default brightness threshold is 0.450. The threshold ranges from 0 to 1, and the higher the value, the more black will be in the trace.
It’s important to note that Inkscape will create the trace as a copy of the image on a new layer.
In order to have a good usable cut file, delete the original image and then save the file.
Select File>Save as and in the “Save As” dialogue box, you can select your file type from the pulldown menu. I recommend “Plain SVG” as I have encountered problems with “Inkscape SVG” files in other applications.
Step 5: Open SVG file in Cricut Design Space
Finally, we get to the moment of truth! Open Cricut Design Space, and click the Upload icon from the left-hand menu. Select your SVG file and import. Your brand new cut file made from a photo should be ready to go in Design Space. You can use this file to cut a decal with permanent adhesive vinyl (like Oracal 651) for a tumbler or coffee mug. Or you can use HTV to make a custom graphic for a t-shirt or tote bag.
This seems like a long tutorial, but trust me, the results are worth it. I know I would rather spend my crafting time on crafts rather than on the computer, but learning this process of making your own cut files from real photographs will let you create much more meaningful and standout projects.
If you are making projects to sell, knowing this technique can be a big benefit. You can make personalized projects for clients or get the jump on the competition vectorizing a popular character from a movie, TV show or meme.
This tutorial is just the first in a series on creating SVG cut files from photos. I will also teach you how to make multi layer SVG graphics that will let you incorporate different colors and shading to give your vinyl graphics depth.
How to Convert a Picture to a Cut File for Silhouette
If you have are a Silhouette user and you are using the free version of Silhouette Studio, you can still follow all the steps of this tutorial and get a working cut file.
Remove the background from your image (step 2), edit the file in Photopea (step 3) and then import it into Inkscape.
After you have traced the bitmap image to a vector in Inscape (step 4), instead of saving as an SVG file, save it as a DXF file. The vector file format can be opened by Silhouette Studio Basic, and then you can edit, style and cut your design.
Note: when you import a DXF file into Silhouette Studio, you will see the file as an outline only. You can click the design and select a fill color and it will look like the original file you exported from Inkscape.
If you have one of the paid versions of Silhouette Studio, you can import your design as an SVG or DXF file.
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