How to take a 3D photo from almost any smartphone

3D has a way of popping in and out of short-lived trends, but the ability to create a 3D photo without any added hardware could give the technology more staying power than 3D TVs. Shared to your social media feeds, 3D photos will appear to bend and move as friends scroll by, creating catchy graphics that are more likely to pause that scroll.

3D traditionally requires multiple cameras in order to capture the data to reconstruct the depth of the scene, but thanks to artificial intelligence, 3D photos can now be snapped from single-lens smartphones and even generated from existing 2D photos. While the quality won’t replace that of an actual 3D camera or photogrammetry, it also means you don’t need to purchase or bring along any additional gear in order to make one.

Of course, if you plan on shooting a lot of 3D, dedicated 3D cameras will still offer more quality and less room for error. The Vuze XR, for example, shoots 3D, 180-degree footage with the two lenses switched forward, and 2D 360 with the lenses back-to-back.

To snap a 3D photo from a smartphone, you’ll need to download an app — or use one that you already have, such as Facebook — and put a few 3D photography tips into play.

1. Choose a third-party 3D photography app.

There are a few dozen 3D photography apps dotting the app stores, but not all are created equal. Some don’t create a true 3D photo, but instead a 3D parallax video, or a short video that shows the depth, rather than interacting with the user’s scroll or the position of the viewing device. Others are clunky and difficult to use or haven’t been updated recently. Of the apps we tried, PopPic and LucidPix offered the most seamless experience. You can also create 3D photos using an app that more than 2 billion people already use: Facebook.

PopPic is an iOS-only app that, along with creating 3D photos, allows users to play with depth in other ways, such as adjusting the background blur even from a single-lens device. The app is as simple to use as any basic native camera app. Just tap the shutter to take a photo and wait for the app to process into a 3D image. Once taken, a menu at the bottom offers different filters, effects, and focus tools.

LucidPix uses A.I. to generate a 3D image from your camera, or from an existing 2D image, from an Android or iOS device. The results are fairly good depending on the scene, though the 3D Face option creates some downright terrifying selfies. It lacks the ability to use that 3D capability to adjust background blur, but offers 3D frames and filters.

Facebook needs no introduction — but the hiding 3D tools may need to be pointed out. Facebook will turn existing photos into a 3D image. To make that happen, start a post like you normally would, add a photo, and in the upper left corner, tap the icon that says “Make 3D” and wait for the photo to process.

2. Snap a photo on a plain background.

Without multiple lenses, the A.I. can only guess at the angles that the camera can’t see. On a busy, cluttered background, the A.I. usually guesses horribly, filling in the gaps with blurred colors that look wildly out of place.

To help the app out — and get better results — take the photo on a plain background. The A.I. should have an easier time filling in a few colors rather than a few dozen.

Of course, 3D is not at all interesting when there’s no depth to the image. While the background shouldn’t be cluttered, the photo should still have some depth. Avoid photographing people or objects pushed up against a wall.

Objects toward the edge of the image, particularly in computer-generated 3D, tend to distort the most, and in some cases, blur out entirely. Keep the most important aspects of the image toward the center of the frame.

3. Share or save.

Apps may be able to snap 3D photos, but those files may not be compatible with your operating system. In other words, if you save them to your camera roll, you’ll end up with a flat 2D image. Most 3D photo apps will let you send the image straight to a compatible social network, including Facebook. For networks that are not compatible, or for sharing to your smart device, a video or GIF will keep the 3D effect intact but won’t interact with the movement of the viewer’s phone. Saving as a 2D image is still an option for creating a blurred background using a 3D app.

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