Of all the things you can create using your 3D printer, I bet lithophanes are the most exciting. For those who’re new to this art, a lithophane is a thin and translucent piece of plastic (formerly porcelain) card embossed with figures. The figure could be anything from a photo of you or your pet to a picture of your house. The details engraved on the lithophane are usually not clear until you shine light through the lithophane.

Lithophanes add uniqueness to the memories preserved in your photos. They also make a really thoughtful gift whenever you’re looking for a more personalized present. 

Turning a Photo into a Lithophane

Printing a lithophane isn’t complicated. But like anyone else who understands how to 3D print photos will tell you, there are various areas that can and do go wrong. However, if you can nail each step of the process, printing your own lithophane will be one of the coolest things you can make using your 3D printer.

For this post, I decided to share my step-to-step guide on how to turn a photo into a lithophane. I’ll be giving tips and tricks along the way, as well as things I wish I knew before I started 3D printing lithophanes. So, be sure to read through each step.

3D printing lithophanes

How to Make the Perfect Lithophane Picture in 4 Steps- Tutorial

Step 1: Start with a Great Photo

In my experience in 3D printing photos, I’ve realized that not every other beautiful picture comes out great after 3D printing. Generally, I’ve had greater success with images with a relatively high contrast ratio than those with lower contrast.

Contrast in photography refers to the difference in tone between the various parts that make an image. It’s easy to see why high-contrast photos make great lithophanes when you understand how a lithophane works.

A lithophane works by allowing light to pass through the piece of porcelain or plastic in varying intensities. Thinner parts allow more light to pass through than thicker parts.

When 3D printing a lithophane, dark areas of the photo are printed thick because they need to block more light. Conversely, lighter parts are printed thinner because they need to let in more light. This variation in thickness is vital as it brings out the different details in the photo.

Needless to say, the images in low contrast photos are difficult to fathom as the details aren’t well defined.

What about color- can you 3D print your photo or picture in color? Yes. It’s possible to 3D print colored lithophanes. But this takes a little more work and may be way too complex, especially for a beginner. When starting, I’d advise you to print your photos in black and white (grayscale) before trying to add color. This means that a photo with a detail that needs to be colored might not be the best for 3D printing.

Step 2: Converting the 2D Photo into a 3D Model

The second step when 3D printing a photo into a lithophane is to convert the 2D image into a 3D model using a lithophane generator. There are many lithophane generators online, ranging from free to pricey and with varying degrees of user-friendliness.

The most popular options currently include 3DP Rocks Lithophane Generator, Cura, Lithophanes Application, and PhotoToMesh.

Of course, when learning the ropes, you want a free application that’s straightforward to use. The 3DP Rocks lithophane generator is one of my best recommendations here.

This application is free and extremely easy to use, even on phones. As a starter, the 3DP Rocks will introduce you to the fundamentals of converting a photo to a 3D model. As you get a good hang of how things work, it becomes a breeze to use other complex apps that allow you more control over your models, for instance, PhotoToMesh and Photoshop.

So, here’s a quick guide on making a 3D model from your photo using the 3DP Rocks lithophane application.

i) You start by importing your photo onto the 3DP Rocks application. There are 2 ways of doing this. The easiest way is to drag and drop the photo. The second method involves clicking the ‘image’ tab at the top. Here, you can either browse or drop your image from wherever you’ve stored it on your computer.

ii) After importing the photo, the default style of the mesh will be landscape. However, scrolling down, you’ll see other options that you can go with, including curve, solid cylinder, rectangular pillow, and dome shape. To switch between the different styles, click the shape you desire and then hit the ‘refresh’ button to your left.

iii) Once you’ve identified a style you’re comfortable with, the next step is to determine the size of your output print. Click the ‘Settings’ tab and choose ‘model settings.’ This is a critical stage that either makes or breaks your 3D print. But don’t worry, as the default parameters are set to offer great results with most lithophanes.

The major settings to worry about here are the ‘maximum size,’ which signifies the longest side, and the ‘thickness,’ which is the maximum Z dimension of your output lithophane. I recommend keeping the ‘maximum size’ setting to around 100 mm. Keep in mind that bigger models take longer to print, while going too low may start taking a toll on the quality of the lithophane.

iv) There are two more adjustments to make. Under the ‘setting’ tab, click ‘image settings,’ and select ‘negative image’ and ‘flip image off.’ With the ‘negative image’ ON, the darker parts of your model will be printed thick, while the lighter elements will be printed thin. This is what you want.

v) It’s safe to tinker around with the settings until you get a model that meets your demands. Every time you change the settings, go back to ‘model’ and click ‘refresh’ to update the changes on the model.

vi) Once you’ve made all the necessary changes and you’re happy with the model, the last step is to click ‘download.’ Navigate the dialogue box that will pop up to save your 3D model on your computer as an STL file. Note that your computer will need to have a 3D builder installed to open the 3D image. 

3D printing Lithophane YouTube

Step 3: Slicing the STL File

After generating the 3D model (STL file), the next step is to slice it. Cura is my go-to slicing program because it’s straightforward and fast. Slicing lithophanes is pretty much similar to slicing other 3D models and won’t require any complicated settings.

However, there are a few slicer settings that I’ve found to produce the best results:

i) Avoid scaling the model on the slicer. If there’s any need to scale, do it on the 3DP Rocks application to avoid messing up the resolution.

ii) Choose the lowest layer height possible that your 3D printer can print. When printing lithophanes with Z parameters of 2-5 mm, I prefer setting the layer height between 0.1 mm and 0.3 mm. This range offers a sweet spot between multiple shades of grey and reduced printing time.

iii) Always set the infill percentage at 100%. This is another vital slicer setting that I wish I figured out earlier. As you understand by now, a lithophane uses different thickness levels to allow varying amounts of light to pass through. If the inside of the print is hollow, the amount of light that’s blocked or allowed will be affected significantly. This almost always ends up messing the results. To avoid this, you want to set the infill at 100% to ensure that the lithophane is solid from the inside.

  1. iv) Print your lithophanes slow. As with 3D printing, anything else, your lithophane print speed will be a balance between quality and time. The highest print speed that I’d recommend when printing 3D lithophanes is 45 mm/s. I always get much better results when I dial down the speed to 30-35 mm/s.

Step 4: Print Your Lithophane

After slicing your 3D model, go ahead and print it. Again, there are no special considerations here, so it should be straightforward. Importantly, keep in mind that the color of the filament matters a lot when making a lithophane. Most makers prefer printing their lithophanes using white PLA because of its translucency. Darker color filaments will block more light, which may affect the lithophane effect. 


Lastly, ensure that the print bed is nicely heated, so the print stays put throughout the printing process.

Have fun 3D printing your photos!


Click here for a great youtube video on creating lithophanes: 


Special thanks to Simon Sörensen at RCLifeOn Channel for the use of stills from his video.