Add a Stroke to a Placed Image in Adobe Illustrator

Once you’ve placed a photo image in Illustrator it would seem to make sense that you could just add a stroke around the outside in the same way you do in InDesign. After all, you’d imagine that the image is inside a rectangular frame, and it’s just a matter of choosing stroke color and width, right? Well, if you’re thinking this way … you’d be wrong.

Unlike InDesign, when a photographic image is placed in Illustrator, a frame is not automatically created to contain it – the image is just hanging there, kind of loose and uncontained. So, if you want to add a stroke to the image (or a colored tint for that matter), you’ll need to manually add the frame first.

You could just draw a rectangular frame around the image, and add the stroke to that, but this would create problems when you want to resize or reposition the image and you discover the frame doesn’t move along with the image.

The quickest solution is to select the image and click the Mask button in the Control panel. Then you can apply a stroke and adjust it just as you would in InDesign.

There’s also another way that uses Illustrator effects and it only takes a few extra clicks to get what you want. The added bonus of this method is that you can save the stroke as part of a graphic style and instantly apply it (and other effects) to as many images as you like.

First, try it the expected way and see what happens.

1. Select the placed image.

2. In the Appearance Panel, click the Add New Stroke button.

3. Even though a stroke is listed in the Appearance Panel, no matter what color or stroke width you apply, nothing will show around the image. The Appearance thumbnail looks like no attributes have been applied, even though the stroke is clearly listed below.

Click the Add Stroke button

The stroke is not displayed.

An effect that was used in the old days to make a dynamic rectangle around objects (mostly text) can be used to solve this problem. We now add the effect of a rectangle around the stroke we’ve just added. Here’s how to do it.

1. Make sure the placed image is still selected.

2. In the Appearance Panel, select the stroke that you added in step 2 (above).

3. Click the fx button and select Convert to Shape, then Rectangle …

Click the fx button, Convert to Shape, Rectangle...

Click the fx button, Convert to Shape, Rectangle…

4. The dialog will give you the option of applying the rectangle with some white space, but since we just want a stroke visible directly around our image, change the Extra Width and Extra Height measurements to 0. (If you’ve got the Preview checkbox ticked, you’ll see the changes applied to your image.

The Rectangle Shape Options Dialog

Rectangle Shape Options, the rectangle is offset 18pts from the frame.

The Rectangle Shape Options Dialog.

Rectangle Shape Options, change the Extra Width and Height to 0pts.

5. Click OK.

The Appearance panel shows the stroke.

The stroke is now applied and visible.

You can now make changes to the stroke’s color or weight in the Appearance Panel and the changes will be dynamic, just the same as you’d see in InDesign. Heck, you can even repeat the whole process and do multiple strokes if you like, just double-click the appropriate stroke effect to make changes to its offset from the image.

The Appearance Panel shows two strokes.

A second stroke has been applied.

Adding a fill color to tint a placed image.

Here’s a bonus related tip: You can colorize the fill of a placed image by adding the same rectangle effect to the fill and blending with the image. A shortcut to repeat the most recent effect you added (complete with matching settings) is to press Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+E or choose Effect > Apply Rectangle.

1. Make sure the placed image is still selected.

2. In the Appearance Panel, select the fill.

3. Add a duplicate rectangle effect by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+E

4. If the message about another instance appears, click Apply New Effect, since we do actually want another rectangle to be produced.

The warning dialog shows another instance of the effect will be created.

Click Apply New Effect to repeat the effect.

5. Use the Appearance Panel to select a swatch or color (shift-click the down arrow) for the fill. (I’ve chosen C35, M35, Y0, K0 to give an antique look).

The Appearance Panel shows a new fill.

Add a Fill and select a color.

All you’ll see now is the new color fill that you’ve just added. You need to blend this with the image underneath to allow the image to show through.

6. Still in the Appearance Panel, directly under this new rectangle that you’ve just applied, click the Opacity link.

The Transparency options are displayed.

Change the blending mode and opacity.

7. Change the blending mode from Normal to Color. Change the opacity to suit your desired look (I chose 75%).

Appearance panel shows Opacity at 75% and Blending Mode set to Color.

Opacity set to 75%. Blending Mode is Color.

Now this poster is complete, but I need to make a few more. How can I speed up the rest of my task of making more posters? …Graphic Styles is the answer.

The completed poster is displayed.

The poster is complete.

Save/Reuse the same Appearance using Graphic Styles.

If you think you’ll need to reuse the stroke/tint combination that you’ve created in your Appearance Panel, save the combination as a Graphic Style. That way, you can apply the same Appearance to other objects to quickly achieve a consistent look across your layout in seconds.

1. Open the Graphic Styles panel.

The Appearance Panel and Graphic Styles Panels are displayed.

Display the Appearance Panel and the Graphic Styles Panel.

2. Make sure your placed (and formatted) image is selected.

3. At the top left of the Appearance panel, there will be a small square swatch, representing the border/tint combination that you’ve applied. This is called the Appearance Thumbnail. Drag the Appearance thumbnail directly into the Graphic Styles panel to save it for use later on.

The Formats Swatch appears in the Graphic Styles Panel.

Drag the Formatted Appearance into the Graphic Styles Panel.

4. When you have another image (or frame) that needs to be formatted the same way, drag the new Graphic Style directly onto the image.

Both images are formatted with the same attributes.

Both images now use the same Graphic Style.

So there you have it.  You can now continue to re-use this newly-created Graphic Style as many times as required – a speedy way to achieve consistency.

Posted on: March 10, 2017

Melinda Grant

Melinda Grant has been sharing her know-how with software applications for over 20 years and developed a love of InDesign and all things Adobe in the late '90s. She has worked in education/training, publishing and broadcasting, sharing her knowledge freely. She's based in Sydney, Australia but enjoys regular visits to the northern hemisphere to collaborate with other Adobe creatives.

1 Comment on Add a Stroke to a Placed Image in Adobe Illustrator

  1. Bart Van de Wiele

    March 13, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Cool tip! Thanks Mel!

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