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How to 3D Print Your Own Lithophane – Simply Explained

Picture of Amir Bohlooli
by Amir Bohlooli
Oct 10, 2018

Looking to make those pictures on your mantelpiece literally stand out? Lithophanes offer a unique way to add some sophistication to your photos. In this article, we show you how to make your own!

Lithophane 3D Print What is a Lithophane?

A lithophane of Gandalf.
A lithophane of Gandalf. Source: Formlabs

Turning photos into 3D objects gives them more feeling and literally adds a new dimension. Of the various ways to do this, lithophanes are a simple way to enhance your favorite photos.

Lithophanes are essentially embossed photos generated by a 3D printer. The print results don’t show much at first, but shine some light through one and you’ll be amazed by the details. The way it works is that light passes through the thin parts while being blocked by the thick parts. In this way, the differences in light bring out the details of the image.

Let’s take a look at how to turn a photo into a lithophane. (For the “full” experience, check out this lithophane lamp.)

Lithophane 3D Print How to Make a Lithophane Model

NestedCube on the left, Photoshop on the right.
NestedCube on the left, Photoshop on the right. Source: Amir M. Bohlooli // All3DP

There are many tools for turning your photo into a lithophane model, but virtually all of them work the same way. First, they guess the primary object of the photo and emboss it. Then they give it a nice border and provide you the final file in a 3D format like STL.

One way to generate the lithophane model is to use Adobe Photoshop CC. But if you’re looking to keep things simple, you can also use an online tool like the one offered by NestedCube.

Lithophane 3D Print Method 1: Create a Model Using Photoshop

Making the 3D lithophane with Photoshop
Making the 3D lithophane with Photoshop Source: Amir M. Bohlooli // All3DP

Ever since Photoshop CS5, Adobe has been adding features to work with 3D elements in Photoshop. These features often help with turning 2D objects into 3D, which our action set will be using to produce a lithophane. To get started, download the “Make lithophane” action set from this link. Once you’ve downloaded it, drag and drop the .atn file onto your Photoshop window to install it.

Then, do the following:

  1. Open your photo with Photoshop.
  2. Go to the Window menu and check Actions (or press Alt+F9) for the actions tool to pop open. 
  3. In the Make Lithophane folder, choose the action and click the play icon beneath.

Photoshop will now go through a series of actions (adding texture maps, etc.) to create your 3D lithophane. When it’s done you should be able to see your lithophane.

Noe that the whole process is based on Photoshop guessing the right depth, which it does based on the difference in contrast. Therefore, pictures with sharper contrast will likely yield better results.

The action will take some time, ultimately depending on your system spec, and Photoshop might be unusable during the process. In order to avoid the software crashing, be patient and don’t click on anything during this time.

Lithophane 3D Print Method 1: Export the Model as an STL File

Exporting the lithophane into STL.
Exporting the lithophane into STL. Source: Amir M. Bohlooli // All3DP

Now that you have your lithophane model designed and ready, we need to print it. Even though Photoshop is capable of 3D printing, we all prefer to print with our own favorite slicers. 

Here’s how to export your work:

  1. In the 3D menu, click on 3D Print Settings. 
  2. The Properties tab will show on the right. From there, select “Local” from the “Print to” menu, and change the “Printers” to “STL File”.
  3. Next, set the printer units to millimeters and the detail level to high.
  4. Press the tiny “Start Print” button from the bar beneath.

The export process can also use a lot of memory and might cause Photoshop to freeze for a while depending on your computer. But once it’s done, your 3D lithophane will be available in STL format!

Lithophane 3D Print Method 2: Create a Model Using an Online Tool

The web-based tool 3DP Rocks.
The web-based tool 3DP Rocks. Source: Amir M. Bohlooli // All3DP

If you’d rather not use Photoshop, here’s an alternative method:

  1. Head on over to 3DP Rocks.
  2. Click on the Images tab and then upload your image.
  3. Once you return to the Model tab, you’ll notice your lithophane is almost ready. You can choose different shapes for your lithophane.
  4. Tweak the settings until you’re satisfied with the result.
  5. Finally, click “Download” in the Model tab.

Once you do that, your browser will download the STL file and you’re ready to proceed!

Lithophane 3D Print Printing

Simplify3D print settings.
Simplify3D print settings. Source: Amir M. Bohlooli // All3DP

As with any other model, printing should be simple. No extra settings are required, but there are few tips to keep in mind:

  • If you’re going to print your lithophane vertically, it’s best to set the layer height as low as possible.
  • Since we want all the details, it’s better if you don’t print at high speed. Try to keep it lower than 2000 mm/min.
  • Setting the infill to 100% will let the light do its trick better. 
  • Don’t use transparent filaments.

Once it’s all set up, go ahead and print. Ideally, a standard-sized lithophane could take up to 6 hours to print with the above settings.

Lithophane 3D Print The Result

A finished lithophane.
A finished lithophane. Source: MakerWithRex

And there you have it! It might look like a flat piece of plastic with a few scratches on it, but put it in front of a light source like the sun, and you’ll see the details.

Feature image source: Reddit user wkrp28

License: The text of "How to 3D Print Your Own Lithophane – Simply Explained" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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