How to Create Lithopanes in Photoshop

The introduction of 3D printing direct from Photoshop opened new gateways for many folks, but 3D printing isn’t limited to making models. An interesting twist is the automation of Lithopanes—sometimes referred to as Lithophanes, from the Greek lithos (stone) and phanein (to cause to appear). However you spell them, lithopanes are three-dimensional versions of photographs that only make sense when held up to a light.

Invented in the 1820s, they were originally carved in warm wax on a glass plate, which was then duplicated in porcelain. Lithopanes were tricky to make, and consequently both expensive and highly valued. They were also hard to design, since the balance of light and shade in the finished product is produced entirely by the thickness of the material from which it’s made.

Now it’s easy to make your own, using a custom Photoshop Action. Once you’ve downloaded the Action, locate it on your hard disk and drag it onto your Photoshop application icon to install it. There’s no need to restart Photoshop after installing a new Action. Then, you can create your first lithopane by following these steps.

1. Choose a source image

To make a good lithopane, your source image needs to be bold, clear and, above all, high in contrast. Images photographed in black and white will generally return better results, as will large images of faces; subtle landscapes simply won’t make sense. If your image isn’t black and white to start with, convert it to grayscale first. But don’t just use the Image > Mode dialog box to do this, as this is likely to result in a washed-out portrait; instead, use the Black and White conversion (Image > Adjustments > Black & White) to get a highly-contrasted result. A recognizable face helps the process, someone like Mr. Einstein here:

2. Run the Action

Open your Actions panel (Window menu) and you’ll find the new lithopane action listed at the bottom, in a folder named Make Lithopane. Select the Action and click the Play button at the bottom of the panel, and Photoshop will automatically run through the 33-step routine required to turn the flat image into a lumpy 3D object. Here’s the initial result, lit from the side so you can see the resulting contours:

3. Fix the original

The problem with the lithopane produced above is that it’s rather too literal: every single highlight and shadow has resulted in its own spike. This will produce a model that’s not only difficult to print, but will tend to look jagged and hard to interpret. A better approach is to begin by blurring the original photograph, which softens the image considerably:

4. The corrected lithopane

Once the image has been softened, you can run the Action once again. This time, the contours are greatly smoothed out, which yields much more subtle gradations. This will result not only in a cleaner print, but in a more effective final result:

5. The view from above

When the lithopane is viewed head on, you can just about make out Einstein’s features. It looks rather odd, because of the way the procedure works: dark areas are made of thick plastic, light areas are thinner, so that they let more light through. In this sense, the image is inverted when seen from the top – and, indeed, one of the first steps of the Action is to invert the image:

6. The printed result

The lithopane can be printed directly from Photoshop if you have a connected, compatible 3D printer. Otherwise, you can save it as an STL file that can then be printed on any 3D printer. If you don’t have access to a 3D printer, you can upload the model to Shapeways directly from Photoshop, and use their bureau service.

When seen flat, the resulting print looks fairly incomprehensible. You may just about be able to make out the shape of a head, but you can’t see any features with any degree of recognition:

7. The backlit view

The real magic happens when you light the lithopane from behind—even holding it up to a window will do the trick. Now, more light shines through the thinner areas than the thicker, resulting in a much more impressive image. This time, the hidden features clearly resolve themselves into a likeness:

Once the preserve of dedicated craftsmen, lithopanes are now within reach of anyone with a copy of Photoshop and a 3D printer.

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Posted on: February 12, 2014

Steve Caplin

Steve is a freelance writer, artist and designer, and the author of over a dozen books, including the popular How to Cheat in Photoshop series and the Amazon #1 best-seller Dad Stuff. I am a Contributing Editor to MacUser magazine, and I write regularly for Adobe Inspire, CreativePro, Digital Arts and several other websites. My training videos can be seen on lynda.com, Retouch Pro and elsewhere.

3 Comments on How to Create Lithopanes in Photoshop

  1. Great article! Thank you for these tips! I learned some similar tips in a two day Adobe Authorized Photoshop training class from ThinkB!G if you ever want to check them out – I would highly recommend them! http://thinkbiglearnsmart.com/

  2. What version of photoshop is required to do this?

    great article!

  3. How do you save a file in Photoshop as an .STL. I don’t see that option.

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