Every now and then I come across imaging software that's above the ordinary. Such was the case at the recent SGIA Exposition in Las Vegas. As is usual, I came across it quite by accident. I almost didn't bother to stop, but I'm glad I did. I knew after just a couple of minutes watching the live demo that this software application had the potential to overcome some very common and annoying problems.
Any screen printer who's been in this business for more than a few months has experienced it. It's everywhere—and getting worse. The problem is low-resolution raster art. The customer may have swiped the offending image from the Internet, scanned it from a business card, a pencil sketch, or who knows what. To make matters worse, the customer often enlarges the low-res image, which leaves us with a graphic that looks bad before we get the chance to work on it. The art department then faces what could be hours of hard labor to render new art from the old. In many cases, you're better off building the art from scratch—but the customer won't pay the art charges. Reworking art is like remodeling a house. You don't know what you're getting yourself into until you're into it.
Auto-trace programs are the solutions that artists most often use to repair art. Software applications like CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator offer a tracing function to aid those who need to convert a raster image to vector format. Sometimes the tracer works, but most of the time it's just a starting point for more node editing and clean up. The auto-trace concept is sound enough, but until recently, it lacked the power and sophistication to be a serious, reliable tool in the production designer's arsenal.
Enter Imagaro Z from Sweden's Imagaro AB. It's a standalone application that takes the auto-trace concept and extends it nicely. Imagaro Z also offers powerful editing tools that supplement its superb auto-trace function.
The program can convert really terrible bitmapped images (scanned or downloaded) to clean, sharp, crisp vector art in a matter of seconds. The process starts by opening the original art in the Process window. The program handles line art, grayscale, full color, and photo. Most major file formats are supported, including PSD, JPG, TIF, BMP, PNG, and GIF. The program then determines whether the image is grayscale or color.
Processing the image does two things. For grayscale, it brings up a Brightness slider that allows you to adjust to knockout the background and any extraneous garbage. For color images, Imagaro breaks the design down to its component colors and offers you a pallet. You can combine or delete unwanted colors.
Vectorizing the adjusted image happens almost instantly with grayscale images, but can take a while for complex color scans. You can choose to have the vector trace rendered as outline, centerline, or combiline, depending on the image. The choice of which option is best for each piece of art becomes clear after a few minutes of using the software. Most images are processed using the Outline method (Figure 1).
The Vectorize phase allows you to adjust how the auto trace will be generated. The Accuracy slider determines how close to the original image the trace will follow. The tighter the fit, the more nodes generated. You can view the result by clicking on the Vectorize button. If you're not satisfied, simply adjust the Accuracy slider and reapply the Vectorize function.
Adjust the Corners and Lines sliders after you've selected the proper accuracy level. Adjusting the Corner slider increases or decreases the number of corners in the image. Likewise, adjusting the Lines slider increases or decreases the number and size of the straight lines in the image. These features are very helpful for those who've scanned a printed T-shirt to get the art into the computer.
The image is now successfully vectorized, so it's time to move to the editing tools. The real power of the program shines here. Your options for displaying the image against the background include Filled or Original. A filled image displays the graphic as it will look in the vector form. Original view keeps the bitmap in memory and displays the vector outline on top—very handy for determining fit and accuracy.
You also have several options for displaying grids and guidelines. Their role is in aligning the vectorized image to compensate for any distortions in the original image, such as scanning rotation or image distortion in the case of flexible original art. You can place new horizontal and vertical guidelines simply by clicking in the desired location. You can also set angled guidelines at any angle you desire. Duplicating guide lines is a matter of Option-click-drag.
The Straighten Image dialog is a really cool trick. If the scanned image isn't square to the page—and it never is—a simple click and drag is all that's required to remedy the problem. Click on the end of the element that needs straightening. Drag along the baseline and release. The image is instantly squared to the artboard.
A designer can use the selection tool to quickly and easily select objects and duplicate, move, resize, rotate, or skew the image. Each object can be handled individually or as a group.
The Reshape menu is one of my favorite tabs. It's invaluable when correcting distorted artwork. Use the Selection tool to select the object. You can now choose the Square or Circle tools to tell the program to convert the selected shape to a perfect square, rectangle, circle, or ellipse. If you have multiple objects that need to be corrected, like stars in a flag, you can choose to duplicate the correction on any object you select.
The Clean Up tool also is found in the Reshape menu. This tool allows for the quick removal of duplicate or unnecessary nodes on a vectorized object. Clean Up is attained by way of the Smoothness slider. The higher the smoothness, the fewer the nodes the object will have.
Finally, the Reshape menu contains Split Object and Weld tools. They allow for the separation of joined elements or the merging of objects, respectively. These tools are really helpful for correcting poorly kerned, scanned type.
Font matching and finishing
The auto-trace functions I've described should be reason enough to buy Imagaro Z. But perhaps the most innovative aspect of the program is what the company calls Font Eye Technology. It allows the user to load multiple font databases, totaling more than 40,000 fonts. When Font Eye is activated, Imagaro Z compares the selected vectorized type in your image to the databases and identifies the correct font. If you own the font, Imagaro Z will substitute the true vector font. It replaces original vector trace with the font outlined as individual objects. You can also manipulate each object for the right match. If you don't own the font, you'll at least be able to identify the type.
The program goes one step further. It can determine whether the font you're looking for was stretched or compressed in the design. Font distortion is often the cause of mismatches in the software's font search. Click on the Stretch & Find button to perform a new search.
When you're satisfied with the final, edited graphic, you can export the file in a number of different formats, including EPS, AI, DXF, and PLT, some of which are particularly useful for those who use sign and plotting software.
Trace to pick up the pace
Imagaro Z is a robust software program available for Macintosh and Windows computers that offers valuable tools to new and experienced designers alike. The ability to make difficult customer-supplied art into easily used vector images will help streamline your prepress efforts and remove roadblocks throughout production. Consider implementing a solution like this before the next lousy image file clogs up your art department.
© 2005 Mark Coudray. Republication of this material in whole or in part, electronically or in print, without the permission of the author is forbidden.
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