By Jason Vander Griendt

September 21, 2021 at 2:56 pm

It is often said that a picture is worth a 1,000 words, but what if you could take a two dimensional photograph, turn it into a 3D model, and have it be worth $1,000 (or more)?

Converting a two-dimensional photograph into 3D can be lots of fun. Imagine 3D printing your own bobblehead or turning a memorable moment like an engagement photo into a 3D statue or piece of art that you can display somewhere in your house and treasure long term.

But there are also lots of more serious applications for turning a photograph into a 3D model that can be used as part of your business or as part of a professional service.

In this article we’ll suggest a few common methods of converting photos into 3D models, and some of the ways this technology is being used by people.

How Do You Convert a Photograph Into a 3D Model?

There are various approaches to converting photographs into 3D models. If you just need a computer model or 3D file for personal purposes, there are many different programs that can be used to convert 2D photographs into 3D. One thing all these software programs require however is a high-resolution photograph. If you don’t have a good quality photo, it doesn’t matter how good the software is, you won’t get great results when the photo is converted. Some of these programs are user friendly even if you are a beginner, but free, easy-to-learn programs are usually only good for hobbyist purposes as they are mostly automated, lack control over the final output and are sometimes unable to be exported to usable files that can be manipulated in CAD programs.

If you are planning on making a 3D printed model from your photograph, you will either need to find a piece of software that will create a CAD file (STEP, STL, OBJ and IGES are common file types that can be manipulated in most CAD software suites), or if you need the conversion for a professional purpose or you need a professional finish in your output, it’s best to consider getting help to turn the 2D photo into a 3D file from professional CAD designers, like those we have on our team here at J – CAD Inc.

A 3D file created by a CAD design team has many benefits. 3D designers familiar with 3D printing, manufacturing and prototyping processes can ensure the file is ready to be used for the manufacturing area you’re interested in. 3D designers can also clean up the photo as it is being converted to a high degree, smoothing surfaces, removing unwanted objects and more. This is typically not possible with 2D extrusion software which only allows you very minimal editing capabilities, and will often produce a file that is not able to produce a professional product in manufacturing processes.


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Turning a photo into a 3D model as a hobbyist

Below we discuss a couple of different ways that hobbyists can create 3D models from photographs. If you have an idea you’d like to turn into a product and you’re not sure where to start, these tools can be a useful way to experiment and get a rough idea of what your 3D model would look like based on the photo you’re experimenting with.

Specialized Apps Using Extrusion Tools

If you are fairly computer savvy, there are online extrusion tools that are free to use that can turn a photo into a reasonably good 3D model.

Smoothie 3D

Smoothie 3D is a popular and widely-used converter that is available for online use. It’s also completely free. All you need to do to use Smoothie 3D is to upload an image and use the tools to draw an outline around the photo. Based on this outline, the software generates a 3D render. You can export this into an OBJ or STL file. Take for example this video showing how to create a 3D model of a squirrel based on its photo.

When using Smoothie 3D, the best results come from images that are symmetrical. With asymmetrical structures, there is a possibility of the details getting lost.

The ease of use of this program sits around the medium level and the flexibility to customize elements of your model is quite decent, but you may find it difficult to achieve very fine grained control over your model. Since it is online, it is supported by almost all platforms.

What could you achieve with software like this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Make prototypes for toys (eg. farm animals, model cars etc.) based on your photographs
  • Create the base for semi-realistic 3D printed indoor fountains based on waterfalls you have taken photos of
  • Make your own 3D printed models of tourist destinations that you can display in miniature as keepsakes, for example the Eiffel Tower or Golden Gate Bridge

Lithophane Creators

Example of a lithophane

“Lithophane” by Leapfrog1980 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another interesting form of 3D photo conversion software for hobbyists are lithophane creators. Lithophanes are translucent surfaces (which can be made easily via 3d printing) into which an image is carved in great detail. The idea is to block more light in some areas than others, so that when you hold the material up to light, you see a clear 3D image. Lithophanes can be surprisingly beautiful, and make excellent presents.

What kind of gifts or decorations can you make with lithophanes? Think of things like:

  • Lamp covers and shades with a picture of your family or a favorite memory
  • Light boxes or nightlights
  • Wall hangings or decorations that you can stick onto the window
  • Fireplace screens or candle shields (although 3D printed plastic or polymer is no good in any situations where they will be exposed to a lot of heat)

Lithophane Maker

This software is a great choice for beginners who want high-quality 3D lithophanes as the process of creating lithophanes from photos is practically automatic. Upload your photos, change settings according to the instructional videos on the site, and create your 3D model ready for printing! Once you have the output file you can 3D print it on your material of choice.

Here is a walkthrough video showing how to create a lithophane for a lamp shade:

The site has recommendations for personal 3D printers, but if you only want to create one lithograph or you want really high quality, it will be more cost effective to get us to do the print for you, and it will be higher quality because we use cutting edge 3D printers with very high resolution output!

Why Turn a 2D Photo Into a 3D Model for Business Purposes?

There are many reasons why people might want to convert a 2D picture into a 3D model for professional or business purposes. Some examples are included below, but the possibilities are almost limitless depending on people’s imagination:

  1. Developers can create miniature display villages for marketing purposes from photos of their buildings
  2. Crime specialists can use 2D photos to create 3D representations of crime scenes for posterity, thereby avoiding contaminating the actual scene of the crime.
  3. Period architectural elements that in years past would have taken many hours to create individually can be photographed, then turned into a mold and replicated quickly and easily on mass
  4. Missing parts for furniture or car restoration can be recreated.
  5. Making a new product based on a previous design. If you have a product idea that develops upon a physical object in some way, a photo of that object can be used to create a base model to build upon
  6. Finessing a prototype – if you have created a prototype for a product idea out of cardboard or some other rough or handmade material, a photo of the prototype can also be used to create a 3D model for further, more refined prototyping, mold making and manufacturing
  7. Turning a hand drawn logo into a 3D sign or insignia which can be used on your products
  8. Creating unique phone covers by taking photographs and etching them into phone covers, or creating unique additions to basic phone covers, the ears of an elephant you photographed in Bali for example
  9. Creating negative spaces. Eg. if a product you want to design needs to fit around a specific object, photographs of that object can be used to create a 3D model to act as the negative space in your design.

When you are looking to turn a photo into a 3D model for professional, business or mass production purposes, it pays to hire professionals to do the job for you.


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Advantages of Hiring Professionals to Turn Your Photo into a 3D Model

If you have a serious need for 2D photo to 3D model conversion, you’ll be much better placed hiring a pro than trying to go it alone and create the 3D model yourself, even with the use of free online software.

Some of these reasons include:

  1. Expert CAD designers will be able to get a level of finish and quality that’s not possible for a beginner or free online tool
  2. Learning how to use software, even if it’s “free software”, has a cost, as it can take a long time to learn and even after all that time spent learning you may end up with subpar results. As another example in a different industry, if you were trying to build a two storey house and had nowhere to live, would you pay a builder to do a great job in a short amount of time, or try and learn how to build an entire house yourself from youtube or online tutorials, only to take forever to build it and waste a lot of money on materials by making mistakes along the way? Our CAD designers have spent tens of thousands of hours perfecting their art, and you might be surprised just how inexpensive it can be for us create your 3D models for you.
  3. Paying for better quality software can be expensive. If you don’t need it ongoing, getting a CAD design done can cost less than the price of buying the software.
  4. If you have a specific application in mind like prototyping or 3D printing, hiring people who understand the interaction between creating a 3D model using CAD design and those processes can go a long way towards a better finished product.

Making Your 3D Model Today

If you search on Google, you will find a range of options that will let you convert a regular photograph into a 3D model. It usually won’t look very professional, but a lot of them are good enough for basic hobbyist 3D printing applications. If nothing else, it is a great first step to envisage how your end product might look and feel.

But if you want a professional outcome, give us a call on 1-888-202-2052 or fill out our quote request form. We do 2D to 3D conversions all the time and would be happy to help.

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Jason Vander Griendt

Jason Vander Griendt is a Mechanical Engineering Technician with years of experience working at major companies such as SNC Lavalin Inc, Hatch Ltd. Siemens and Gerdau Ameristeel. He is the CEO of JCAD – Inc., a company he started in 2006 after seeing a gap in the market for businesses who could assist clients through the entire product design and manufacturing process.

Jason has been featured in Forbes, has had his businesses analyzed and discussed in multiple start-up books, was a previous winner of the Notable8 Digital Innovator of the year award, and is a regular guest on business panels and podcasts. Email Jason at or follow him on LinkedIn.

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