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Memories Set in Stone

Photo Laser Engraving – How to Make Laser Engraved Pictures

Picture of Melanie Griffin
by Melanie Griffin
Jun 8, 2019

Photo laser engraving is a great way to turn your pictures into personalized and functional objects. Bring your pictures into a new dimension with photo laser engraving!

Photo Laser Engraving Immortalizing Your Memories

Laser engraving photos is a great way to express your fandom.
Laser engraving photos is a great way to express your fandom. Source: ZMorph

We’re always looking for excuses to play with lasers, and laser engraving is a great place to start. The basics of the process are easy to understand – laser engraving is the process of carving a design into an object using a concentrated beam of energy. The laser acts like a knife does when you whittle something but is much more precise since it’s guided by a machine instead of human hands. It also produces much less waste because of its precision.

Both of these properties make laser engraving ideal for transferring photos to another surface. You don’t lose the important details that make photos the perfect records of your best moments with laser engraving. Plus, you have a huge variety of materials to choose from, including plastics, wood, glass, stone, and metals, which makes the process a popular way to create art and jewelry. It’s just a simple step up to laser engraving your photos in the same way.

Lasers engraving has a lot of industrial applications, as well. It acts in the same way, as a precision carving tool that helps with detail work such as cutting internal lenses for machines and adding an image directly onto printing plates to avoid film. Laser engraving has revolutionized all areas of photo reproduction. Read on to take advantage of its ease of use and powerful effect!

Photo Laser Engraving Reasons to Laser Engrave

You can make your photos last forever with photo laser engraving.
You can make your photos last forever with photo laser engraving. Source: memoriesforlifesb / Etsy

Laser engraving has a lot of advantages as a way to work with your photos:

  • Preservation: The longevity of photographs has exponentially lessened in proportion to how easy it is to take them. Now that we all have cameras in our pockets, we can save everything we shoot – that is until our phone dies, or our SIM card gets damaged, or we forget our password one too many times and are locked out of our cloud account for 47 years… (We may be a little bitter about that last one from personal experience…) Even photo prints aren’t as tough as the ones from previous generations, so laser engraving your photos offers a very solid alternative to saving your precious moments. Plus, you don’t even have to worry about a frame.
  • Detail and variety: Because of its precision, laser engraving lets you produce art that retains the level of detail you had in the original shot. With that sort of clarity, expanding your portfolio is as simple as buying a laser engraver. Duplicating the same photo onto different materials will bring out different aspects that you can play up or down as your artistic mood suits you. Laser engraving your photos really lets you experiment with photography in ways Photoshop can’t.
  • Gifting: In addition to keeping your photos safe, laser engraving them looks really cool. That, coupled with the ability to use it on decorative or functional objects, such as jewelry, paperweights, bookends, and plaques, gives you endless options to make your best memories even more celebratory.

Photo Laser Engraving Available Materials

Vinyl is a popular material to use for photo laser engraving.
Vinyl is a popular material to use for photo laser engraving. Source: Trotec Laser

You’ve got a lot of options here. Be aware that they all accept engraving differently and you should adjust accordingly depending on what you use.

  • Natural materials include wood of both hard and soft varieties, stiff papers and fiberboards, and latex. Typically, soft woods are going to take the least amount of laser wattage, and any paper-based materials will need a way to be simultaneously cooled to prevent the laser’s heat from igniting them.
  • Plastics are not a monolithic group when it comes to laser engraving. The appropriateness of a specific plastic depends on its composition. Additives and finishing processes can alter their abilities to absorb light spectrum properties, which means certain combinations will melt instead of taking the engraving. In general, acrylic and other cast resins are the best plastics to engrave with.
  • Metals and coated metals both require high-density lasers for engraving. They’re naturally resistant to heat, which means they’re great at keeping laser energy in line. It just takes a little more oomph for them to accept the carving.
  • Stone and glass are the most finicky materials to use when laser engraving your photos, but their striking effects are worth it. When a laser beam hits glass or stone, the laser fractures, and in doing so, it exposes natural grains and crystal structures in the material. You shouldn’t use these materials for engravings that have extended flat plains, but that’s anyway a bad practice for laser engraving your photos. If you want to add another layer of visual interest to your laser-engraved photos, stone and glass do it naturally.

Photo Laser Engraving What You Need to Start

An example of a desktop laser engraving machine.
An example of a desktop laser engraving machine. Source: Suresh Indu Lasers

Laser engraving your photos is a simple process, but it does require a few specialized tools and materials. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A dynamic photo. Not all photos are ideal for laser engraving. To get the most out of the process, make sure you choose something that is in focus, contains a lot of details, shows a lot of color gradient from dark to light, and doesn’t contain large blocks of solid color. Clear photographs of faces offer a great level of detail and interest, for example, and they’re easy to cut out of a background, if necessary. Your photo should have a resolution of at least 300 DPI to get clear details. 
  • Photo editing software. Use whatever you’re comfortable with for this step. There are a lot of free programs that have all you need, and so as long as you can crop, take out a background, and sharpen, you’re set. GIMP is the original free workhorse competitor with Photoshop – it’s got many of the same tools, just in slightly different configurations. InPixio is super simple but still has all you need, and Pixlr gives you excellent handling when you want to take out or clean up a background. 
  • Laser engraving machine. One of the only drawbacks of laser engraving your photos is that you’ll have to invest in a separate machine that is designed specifically for this process. You can’t use your 3D printer or laser scanner or anything, and your own rig is going to cost you an average of a couple thousand dollars for good quality.

If you’re looking for a laser engraving machine, make sure to check out our article on the best laser engravers. And if that selection still isn’t enough, here are a few additional options:

  • Boss Laser’s BOSS LS-1416 (starts at $3,997) is a great intro model with an extended work area (16 x 14 inches, which you can upgrade to 16 x 20 inches for an extra $397). Lots of optional add-ons will make your first laser engraving experience go smoothly. 
  • Tecollection Laser ($1,448) has an FDA-certified water cooling CO2 laser engraver, and its rotary construction makes it ideal for engraving curved surfaces like thermoses. Plus, it’s compact enough to be practical for desktop storage without sacrificing workspace (which is 20 x 12 inches).
  • The Glowforge Plus ($3,995 for the Plus model) gives you a premium laser engraving experience. It boasts fast speeds and a sleek design as well as compatibility with a variety of device operating systems, so you can print directly from your smartphone if you want. 

Photo Laser Engraving How to Do It

Adjusting your photo in editing software is crucial for laser engraving.
Adjusting your photo in editing software is crucial for laser engraving. Source: PC Magazine

Now that we’ve prepped you, it’s time to get to the fun part: playing with lasers! And don’t worry, laser engraving your photos takes a lot less time and effort than blowing up the moon. Here are the steps:

  1. Adjust your photo in photo editing software. Cropping and background removal are both optional but highly suggested steps before you start your laser. But converting the photo to a simplified indexed color scheme, then into grayscale, is a must. This means you tell the computer to use a smaller list of colors to display your photo. This will cause the color version of your photo to seemingly lose quality (because the colors don’t transition into each other as smoothly) but using fewer colors means an easier changeover to grayscale. This step is necessary because it breaks down the gradient changes into something the laser engraver understands and can perform as a carving tool. (Check out the photo in the next section for an example.) There are a lot of advanced photo editing steps you can learn that will translate to different intensities and levels of detail onto your engravings, but you can work up to those as you build up experience. 
  2. Convert your photo to a BMP file. This is another step in which you shouldn’t have to use a separate photo program. If, however, your current editing program doesn’t have this conversion or saving option, you can use Paint in Windows to open and convert your photo. 
  3. Send the BMP file to your laser engraving machine. Once you’re at this point, the laser does all the work. Much like a 3D printer, you send your file to the laser engraver either through physical transport like a USB drive or directly into the engraving machine itself via cable or wireless connection. Hit “start,” and watch your creation come to life. 

Photo Laser Engraving Tips and Things to Watch out For

Different photo settings give you markedly different photo laser engraving results.
Different photo settings give you markedly different photo laser engraving results. Source: Hackaday

Now that you know the basics, here are a few ways to make sure laser engraving your photos goes smoothly for you.

  • Do a test engraving every time you change your photo settings. As you get into the swing of laser engraving your photos, you might be tempted to skip this. Don’t! Even small changes in photo settings can make big differences in your finished project. For example, changing the tone contrast between the dark and light areas on your photo makes its gradients look sharper or softer. When these settings are over a range rather than on/off, those same gradual changes go into your engravings. But you won’t know exactly how that translates to the specific material and photo you’re using until you test it to make sure it matches your planned vision. 
  • Scan your photos in color. Working with scanned images is just as easy as working with photos you’ve directly uploaded from a camera. Just make sure you scan in color even if the original’s in black and white (that’s possible on most scanners). The additional information from the color gives you more to work with when you’re preparing the image. 
  • Leave out large areas of single colors and expansive backgrounds with one or two small subjects. Neither type of photograph section gives laser engravers enough information to make a clear copy. If you have a photo with a large solid colored background but a varied foreground that would engrave perfectly, replace the background with a white or clear layer in your photo editing software.   

Photo Laser Engraving Laser Engraving Services

Take advantage of professional experience.
Take advantage of professional experience. Source: Laser-CutZ

If you can’t or don’t want to buy your own machine, you can find a number of services that will laser engrave your photos for you if you send them your files and their fees. Here are a few we recommend:

  • Laser Cutting Inc.: This is an established company with a large range of fabrication services available, which means it’s also super familiar with laser engraving materials and can help you choose exactly what you need for your specific order. 
  • Industrial Commercial Graphics: If you need help in the design area of laser engraving, these guys have your back. You can upload your own photos then get assistance with the rest of your design to personalize it further or add a final artistic flair. They also give you a discount on bulk orders.
  • EpilogLaser: Don’t click on their project gallery unless you have several hours to study the intricacy and variety of their results. You’ll find a huge selection of materials with an emphasis on photo engraving. If you can slap a photo on it, these folks can do it for you. 

Photo Laser Engraving You're Done!

Go you!
Go you! Source: Kona Impact

Congratulations on your new skills in laser engraving photographs. Go ahead and make yourself an award with your face on it – you deserve it!

Feature image source: Laser Cutting Labs

License: The text of "Photo Laser Engraving – How to Make Laser Engraved Pictures" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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