3D Printed Smiling man with glasses. Source: Ioannis Pantzi/www.shutterstock.com
3D Printed Smiling man with glasses. Source: Ioannis Pantzi/www.shutterstock.com

Lithophanes are a beautiful and unique way to view your favorite images. The thickness of the image either blocks or allows light to pass, thereby creating dark and light areas. It's an old technique that is being brought back to life with 3D printing.

In this article we ask WhiteClouds designer, Jason Mills, to share his experience creating lithophanes and what makes them so special.

What kind of images work best to print?

The general rule is: If an image looks impressive in a photograph then it likely will make a good lithophane . If it doesn’t look good as a standalone photograph converting it to a lithophane won’t likely make it look any better.

The images that look the best are those with a variety of greys but especially strong lights and darks throughout the image. If everything is too similar, the image will look washed out and generally less impressive than it should. Lithophanes follow the same basic rules of photography since really that is the medium we are working with.

How much detail is okay?

The more detail in the original image the more detail that can come out in the lithophane image. I recommend a resolution of at least 200 pixels per inch. For instance, if you were printing a 2" x 3" wallet size lithophane, I would recommend submitting at least a 400 x 600 pixel image (2" x 200 pixels + 3" x 200 pixels).  

To check the pixel resolution in a windows environment, right click on the image > properties > details. The information you need should be listed on that tab.

From image to lithophane, what’s your process?

First, I open the image that I’d like to work with and choose the size I want to print. From there, I simply replace the existing image in our editing program with the new file and input whatever text the customer ordered as a caption. Lastly, I export the file to the 3D printer. Once the piece is out of the printer, it is cleaned off and we ship it out. If there is a base included, it will be printed and shipped at the same time.

What can people do with these lithophanes?

Lithophanes have been used in a variety of applications over the centuries, from simply a plate backlit with a candle, to lanterns, to even the bottoms of beer steins. WhiteClouds offers lithophanes that are flat plates, standard US photograph sizes, with optional matching stands but will be releasing more options in the near future.

Do they really work like the pictures show?

In our office setting, a lithophane in a stand has enough ambient lighting to show the image while it sits on the top of the desk. Of course you can hold it up to a light or hang it in a window to get a far more pronounced effect. 

What does WhiteClouds offer in their lithophane service that other 3D printers don't?

The limitations that I can see with many of the basic consumer printers is their resolution and material options may not work well for lithophanes but if you have a printer with good resolution and a material that allows light to pass then it should be possible on just about any printer but quality is another thing.

At WhiteClouds, we use a professional-grade 3D printer called the Connex 500. It has ultra fine resolution and can print in translucent materials.  Its rigid black material creates a smooth gradient of tone like a real photograph. It also requires less light to reveal the image so it looks better more of the time. I have a lithophane on my desk that looks great with only regular ambient office light.