Reality Labs

3D photos: How they work and how anyone can take them

By Brian Thivierge
October 17, 2019

As fall kicks into high gear, we’d like to invite you to see photography in a whole new light: Through the lens of 3D photos. This is the first installment in a series dedicated to upping your 3D photography skills, regardless of camera experience and skill level. 

If you’ve been looking for a fresh way to share your adventures (down the block or across the world), then we’d like to offer some tips on how to make your own 3D photos really pop on your smartphone and computer screen, not to mention inside VR headsets such as Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, as well as headsets on the Rift platform. So, while we can’t live under the summer sun forever, adding a little depth to your shots is just one way to capture the season and celebrate the art and craft of seasonal photography.

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Hi! My name is Brian Thivierge, and I’m a design manager at Facebook. I help various teams at the company build their creative projects through visual storytelling. 

I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with the cutting edge digital media, so when I got involved with Facebook’s 3D photo project as an early beta tester, I was hooked all over again. In the short time they’ve been available, I’ve shot 3D photos in the Sierra, London, Costa Rica, Hawaii, and other places, and I’ve found they capture memories better than old-fashioned pictures. Each one is full of dimension and life, bringing us closer to the people, places, and things we’d rather not forget. 

I hope you’ll join me as I share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

3D photo essentials 

In essence, 3D photo technology takes the subject in the foreground and measures it against whatever is in the background. This data is then used to create an accurate depth map and, when combined with Facebook’s custom software, gives photos movement and depth when you scroll past them in News Feed. The effect is a little like peeking into a magic window on your computer or smartphone screen. If you’re wearing an Oculus Quest or Oculus Go headset, or a headset on the Rift Platform, 3D photos look like living, breathing museum pieces that respond dynamically to your perspective and movement. 

In recent years, many major smartphone makers have added a dual-lens portrait mode to the cameras in some of their phone models. This setup allows them to take stereo photos and compares the two images to create a rough depth map. Below, you can see one of the color photos and the grayscale depth map created and embedded into the file. The lighter the color, the closer it is. It’s pretty amazing how they can get that detail from two cameras sitting less than an inch from each other. Facebook then used the gradient to build a 3D model and layer on the color image. Together with AI systems working in the background, you get the amazing 3D photos you see on the Facebook feed today, whether on your phone, laptop, or in VR.

The basics of creating your own 3D photos

All you need to get started is a phone capable of generating depth maps, which basically means any modern smartphone with two cameras positioned on the back of the device. Using a dual-lens smartphone is the easiest way to create 3D photos, but it’s not the only way to do it, so don’t despair if you’re down a lens. You can also create 3D photos using an assortment of widely available apps, but I'll get into that later. 

Once you’ve taken a few shots with a dual-lens smartphone, start a Facebook post as you normally would, and then tap the three dots on the upper right of the new post to find the 3D Photo option. Depending on your device, this action takes you to your Portraits folder. Lastly, pick the photo you want to share, add a caption if you want to, and then post away. Using the Android camera app, choose the live focus or portrait option, depending on your model, to generate a depth map of your photo. You can also use the background blur to simulate a depth of field. Adding background blur can hide the artifacts that 3D processing creates. Experiment with similar photos and varied amount of background blur to see which works best for your shot.

Tips and tricks for deeply cool images

Please note the information below is largely subjective and should be viewed as guidelines, not rules. They are just helpful tidbits I’ve collected over the summer, shooting everything including exotic flowers and wild chickens. To start, you’ll want to find objects that are mostly static, such as plants, flowers, and architecture. Models, miniatures, and toys are all perfect subjects for 3D photos. Humans and animals work too, of course, but 3D photos can get dicey with excessive movement in the shot, so ask your subject to strike a pose.

We’re going to illustrate each tip below with a row of three images. The first image in each row is a typical 3D photo, but the remaining two depict a separate 2D shot and relevant depth map to help you visualize the different layers picked up by the camera.

— Tip 1 —

Look for subjects with a strong, distinct foreground and background elements. Basically, you want your photo to split evenly among two or three layers of varying distances.

— Tip 2 —

Depth calculations are typically strongest between 18 inches and 10 feet, but they will work to 30 feet depending on the camera.

— Tip 3 —

Certain fine details, such as wisps of hair or bridge cables, don’t always show up well because depth calculations require greater volume to work best.

— Tip 4 —

Transparent materials and surfaces — for example, glass and water — don’t always translate well. Like fine geometry, transparent subjects tend to confuse the depth camera.

— Tip 5 —

Keep still! The depth camera takes time to process the shot, so moving subjects and shaky cameras will produce blurry results from inaccurate depth map data.

— Tip 6 —

If you're going to shoot a geometric shape of some sort, try not to shoot it head-on; find an angle that makes the most of the 3D effect.

— Tip 7 —

Low light typically doesn’t work. If there are places the camera can’t see, it will guess at the depth and produce wonky results.

— Tip 8 —

Landscapes are tough to shoot, so placing an item (anything will do!) near the ground to capture depth will give you better results.

Parting shots

With 3D photography in its infancy, we’re all still learning how best to capture our memories using this new technology. It’s OK if your first round of shots doesn’t look perfect. Figuring out the right blend of light, composition, and subject will take a few attempts, but you’ll get there! 

You can find a number of Facebook groups focused on 3D photos. Try starting with the Facebook 360 group:

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