I’m asked these quite often so I’ve written about them before in an attempt to answer them in as much detail as possible.
Another question I’m asked quite often is: How do I 3D Print Photos?
What people usually mean by this is how do they create a full 3D model from a single photograph. Well, unfortunately this isn’t really possible with current technology.
However, never say never and with some advanced pattern recognition and 3D modelling software it would technically be possible but the results still wouldn’t be great.
So why is this? Well, the simple answer is that photographs are 2D and don’t contain any information about the vital 3rd dimension, which you need to create a 3D object.
It would be easy at this point to give up on 3D printing photos but there are a few solutions. The first is a little tricky and is called photogrametry. It requires multiple (30 or more) photos of the same object taken from different angles.
Using some clever photogrametry software these photos can be processed and a 3D model can be output ready for tidying up and then 3D printing.
Photogrametry can produce some great results, but it requires many photos, a good camera, some clever software and some degree of skill. It certainly has an important place in the 3D scanning and printing world, but for many people who just want a 3D representation of a single photo they already have, it’s not a viable solution.
The natural solution if you only have a single photograph is what’s called a lithophane. It’s not a complete 3D model, but given a single photo and a 3D printer it can be used to create some stunning effects.
What are Lithophanes?
Traditionally lithophanes were produced by etching or molding thin sheets of translucent material, usually porcelain.
If you imagine a thin sheet of translucent material of varying thickness, shining a light from behind will produce dark areas where the material is thickest and light areas where the material is thinnest.
This is how lithophanes work. By cleverly varying the thickness (light and dark areas) in a sheet of translucent material it’s possible to create stunning images when light is shone through it.
The word lithophane itself is derived from the Greek words “litho” and “phainein”, which mean “stone/rock” and “to cause to appear” respectively.
Lithophanes have been around since the 1820’s but due to the time, effort and skill involved in creating them using traditional methods, they’ve never been that widespread.
Bring 3D printing (additive manufacturing) into the mix and the process of designing and making them becomes a whole lot easier.
3D Printing Lithophanes
One of the most common materials used for 3D printing is PLA which like porcelain is also translucent.
So given that we have the materials (PLA for example) and the manufacturing process (3D printing) that just leaves us with the process of translating a 2D photo into a 3D lithophane design.
The first tool I used to create lithophanes is the free web based MakerBot Lithopane Tool on Thingiverse. If you’re observant you’ll notice I’ve been talking about lithophanes but the MakerBot tool on Thingiverse uses the word lithopane, without the second ‘h’.
Either way it’s not a bad tool to get started with. Just Hit the “Open in Customizer” button, upload your picture, tweak a few parameters and let it create you a 3D printable .STL file.
The Thingiverse tool is a good free way to get started, but if you want something more powerful and flexible you’ll need to try something else.
The next tool I used is called It’s called PhotoToMesh by Ransen Software. It isn’t web based and the full version isn’t free, but you can install the free demo on your Windows computer and maybe buy it later if you like it.
When you’ve uploaded your picture you’ll need to tweak some dimensions. I use 1mm thick (slab thickness) for the light areas and 3mm for the dark (by using 2mm for the mesh Z-height).
I’d be a little careful with the overall (X and Y) size of the lithophane because although it’s great to create bigger ones, large rectangular shapes like this are notorious for warping at the corners when 3D printing.
As this tool isn’t just for creating 3D lithophanes from 2D photos you’ll need to tick the “Invert Mesh” tick box, else your dark areas will be light and your light areas will be dark.
I found that high contrast pictures work well, so if your picture isn’t high contrast you might want to adjust this with photo editing software first to make dark areas darker and light areas lighter.
After 3D printing your first one you might want to try curving it so it stands up on it’s own. If you’re using PLA the glass transition point is about 60 degrees Celsius. Dipping it into water which is around this temperature will allow it to bend easily enough to curve it. Try pressing it against a curved object, like a coffee mug maybe.
Once it’s curved and stands up by itself it’ll look great at night stood up with an LED tea light behind it. I wouldn’t use a real tea light candle as they become too hot and can melt your new lithophane. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way with this one.
3D printing lithophanes is a great way to turn a photo into a 3D print. They’re also great fun but be careful who you show them to because you’ll soon find that all your friends will start sending you photos to make one for them. They do make Great Customised Gifts though and they answer the big question of how to 3D print photos.
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