This guide covers the easiest ways to transform a two-dimensional photograph into a three-dimensional model as well as some great ways to bring your photos to life.
There are several ways to generate 3D prints from digital images for applications such as figurine modeling or lithophanes, which we’ve covered in detail before. Many of these applications can be done using different kinds of photos, from high-res, multi-angle drone shoots to smartphone photography—all you need is a digital image file.
Image-based 3D printing applications
The easiest way to generate 3D models from photos is to utilize a pre-existing converter program that can derive a 3D render from an image file. Owing to the simplicity of this method, it is the least customizable and does not allow for complex reconfiguration, which might be necessary for implementing the model into larger model files, such as for armor or figurines. We cover some of the most useful programs below.
Smoothie-3D is one of the oldest image converter tools and remains completely free for online use. Users can upload an image and select the subject’s outline, which the program uses to generate a 3D render. This render can be exported as a slicer-compatible file type, such as OBJ or STL. When using Smoothie-3D, symmetrical images are recommended because highly detailed asymmetrical forms may get lost in the rendering process.
In addition to quickly generating a 3D render from an outline, Smoothie-3D also allows users to morph the image onto predetermined shapes such as cylinders or cones. The camera orientation can be changed to easily evaluate the generated model from multiple angles.
Selva3D is a less well-known image converter program that automatically generates a 3D design rather than relying on user-drawn parameters.
The program has two presets: logos and photographs. The former is best for designs with high contrast and minimal color, while the latter is better suited for images exhibiting natural color and light variation. Similar to Smoothie-3D, the program is accessed entirely online, making it easy to manipulate the threshold, model specifications, and model parameters from the browser. The generated model can be downloaded as a standard STL file for free. Users can also purchase credits that can be redeemed to download higher quality model files, which may be helpful for highly detailed prints.
3D modeling software is less beginner-friendly than automated model generation programs, but the results are notably better. With a little practice (and usually a bit of money upfront), you can get excellent model results from any image file using a dedicated modeling suite.
The giants that dominate all modeling programs for designers, engineers, and hobbyists alike include the various computer-aided design, or CAD, programs available. Their costs vary, with some allowing a free license for minimal tool access.
All CAD programs have an Extrude function, which can be used to “pull” a 3D image out of a 2D drawing by increasing the height. Depending on the user’s skill, this tool could easily be used to create a 3D model with some minor tuning. There are also a variety of tool suites that have been developed specifically for 3D print makers and designers, so if you’re willing to learn a new skill and dive deep into the world of 3D modeling, investing in a CAD program might be the best option.
Blender is an open-source 3D modeling program that is currently gaining traction with professional design and engineering communities owing to its rich toolkits, accessibility, and customizability.
Similar to conventional CAD programs, there is a small learning curve to the basic functions of the program but investing time into learning some essential design skills has a huge payoff. If you want to readily generate models from photos and feel ready trying something a bit more complicated, the Face Builder add-on will allow you to import photos directly into the program.
Using the Face Builder add-on, you can create a mesh outline around the head, designate feature anchors (nose, cheeks, lips, etc.), and shape the mesh to the head. After, textures extracted from the photograph can be added to improve the likeness of the object to the original subject.
Blender itself is free, while Face Builder has a free trial. Face Builder has personal and commercial licenses at ~$150 and ~$300, respectively.
Lithophane model generation
Image to Lithophane
Image to Lithophane is one of the simplest model design programs we have come across. The program design is extremely simple and straightforward, with most of the heavy lifting being done behind the scenes.
To generate a lithophane model, simply upload a photo, select the shape (e.g., dome, half dome, or heart), and download the 3D print file. This program is entirely free, and the process can be finished within your browser. There are some great minor customization options, although they can’t quite stack up to working directly with a modeling program.
If you want a heavy-duty model generation program specifically designed for lithographs, itsLitho is your best bet. This program is a robust ecosystem with customization toolkits, tutorials, a lithophane maker, and a storefront that sells PLA and 3D printers.
The other programs covered on this list are best for generating models from single photographs, generally for simplistic 3D models. However, some makers prefer another technique that yields extremely high-resolution and complex prints: photogrammetry. Using a scanner program that utilizes professional image decks or even your smartphone’s camera, multiple images taken at different angles can be merged to generate a 3D model.
While a professional DSLR camera is definitely optimal for this kind of work, there are several apps that have been released that leverage the drastic increase in camera quality found on the latest iPhones and Androids. Because most photogrammetry applications are used by engineers, civil designers, and other professionals, there are few that are as budget-friendly as conventional modeling software.
Autodesk, the well-loved company that gave us AutoCAD, has also published Recap Pro, which is a cloud-based subscription service that can compile several to create a fully immersive 3D model. One potential limitation is that this program is specifically designed for use with drone imaging, so it may not be able to provide the results you want for handheld camera photographs.
Users can access all the features of Recap Pro for only $40 per month.
Context Capture is a pricey program that delivers stunning results. If you are aiming to invest in a program for your small- to mid-size 3D printing business, perhaps generating specialty figurines or replicas, this program might be worth the ~$3,000 price point.
Owned by Bentley Systems, this program is definitively poised as an industry-facing option, as the power of this type of modeling allows engineers to better understand how to maintain and augment existing infrastructure.
Employing a similar technological approach as Context Capture, Agisoft’s Metashape provides a few more accessible options. The standard edition can process data from multiple sources at once and render each image deck into 3D models or stitch together panoramic shots. The professional edition has more options, such as identifying terrain features and distances from satellite imagery.
The standard edition costs just under $200, while the professional edition is a one-time purchase of ~$3,500. You can access a 30-day free trial for both to determine which is best for you.