Create a 3D Photo Effect With GIMP

Make images that pop with impressive dimension effects

Here's a different take on "stepping out of the box" that would make a nifty photo effect for scrapbooks, greeting cards, newsletters, and brochures. You'll take a digital photograph, give it a white border as if it were a printed photo, and make the subject appear to climb out of the printed photograph.

Skills Needed for 3D Photo Effects

To create a 3D photo effect in GIMP, you need to be familiar with the following aspects of the software:

If you need a refresher on these tasks, see the tutorial links from Graphics Software accompanying this step-by-step tutorial.

How to Create a 3D Photo Effect in GIMP

Although the instructions in this step-by-step tutorial are for the GIMP for Windows, you can accomplish this same effect in other image editing software.

  1. The first step is to select an appropriate photograph. It works best with a photograph where the main subject that will be popping out of the background has good, clean lines. A solid or fairly uncluttered background works well, especially the first time you try this technique.

    There's no need to crop the photo at this point. You'll remove unwanted portions of the image during the course of the transformation.

    Make a note of the dimensions of the selected photograph.

  2. Create a new blank image of the same size as the photo you plan to work with and open your original photograph as a new layer in your new blank image. You'll now have two layers.

    GIMP open with three layers
  3. Add another new layer with transparency, which will hold the frame for your 3D photo.

    You'll now have three layers:

    1. Background (bottom layer)
    2. Photograph (middle layer)
    3. Frame (transparent top layer)
  4. Select the transparent frame top layer. This frame is the equivalent of the white border around a printed photograph.

  5. Use the Rectangle Select Tool to select a portion the main subject of your photo and as much background as you wish to include.

    The Rectangular Selection tool
  6. Fill the selection with white.

  7. Reduce the selection by 20-50 pixels with the Select > Shrink command. Experiment to get a frame width you like.

  8. Cut out the center of the frame by pressing Delete.

    GIMP with inner frame selection removed
  9. With the frame layer still selected, use the Perspective tool to push and pull the corners of the bounding box around to change the perspective.

    You'll see the changes as you make them, but nothing will be final until you press Transform in the Perspective Toolbox.

    The Perspective tool
  10. Select the middle layer of your image (the original photo image) and right-click it. From the menu, select Add layer mask.

    The Add Layer Mask command
  11. In the resulting layer mask dialog, make sure that White (full opacity) is selected.

    The "White (full opacity)" setting
  12. Before you start removing the background on your image you may want to doublecheck or set a few other options in the GIMP. When you draw or paint on your mask you'll want to draw or paint with the foreground color set to black.

  13. Before you start erasing the background of your foreground image(middle layer with the mask), you may want to hide your background layer or put a higher contrast layer between them. This way, it's much easier to see what you need to erase and not get mixed up with the background.

  14. If you changed the background in the previous step, be sure you now have the middle layer (original photo image) with its mask layer now selected.

  15. Depending on your image, you have a few options. If the portion of your image that's sticking up "in 3D" is a completely different color or high enough contrast from either the rest of the image or the things surrounding it, you can use the Fuzzy Select Tool to select a large portion of the area around it and fill it with black. Just make sure you have the image icon selected and not the solid white mask icon in your layers dialog.

  16. If you still want to select and fill a large portion to remove, you also have the Paths Tool and the Scissors Select Tool to try to grab away the background.

  17. When all else fails, you can manually erase the background portion of the image using the Paintbrush tool. Zoom in as much as you need, and black out the area that you want to remove from your image.

    The Brush tool
  18. When you're done, zoom out to see that only the area you want is sticking up from the frame.

    GIMP 3D background removed
  19. The 3D effect is almost complete, but you need to put part of that frame behind instead of cutting across your subject.

    Now select the frame layer. It can be helpful to set the opacity of the frame layer to 50-60% or so to make it easier to see exactly where to edit the edges of the frame as it crosses in front of the subject of your photo. Zoom in if necessary.

  20. Using the Eraser tool, erase the part of the frame that is cutting in front of your subject. Since the frame is the only thing on this layer you don't have to worry about staying within the lines. You won't be damaging the underlying layers when you erase the frame.

    Reset the opacity of the layer back to 100% when you're done.

    The Eraser tool
  21. Zoom back out to take a look at your results.

    GIMP 3D with frame erased
  22. There's a good chance that your positioning is off and the middle layer isn't exactly sized right. Select the Crop Tool, and make sure the option to crop Current layer only is checked. With the middle layer selected, outline just the area with your image in it and crop down to that size.

    The Crop tool and "current layer only" option
  23. Link the middle layer to the frame, and you can re-position them together wherever you choose.

    GIMP 3D effect finished product
  24. Now, save or export the image however you like.

Tips and Additional Effects to Fine Tune Your Image

Conceptual image of geometric blocks
Richard Drury / Getty Images

You could improve on or adapt this 3D photo effect in a number of ways.

  • For additional realism, add appropriate cast shadows.
  • Give the photograph a less flat appearance by slightly curling the photo edge or giving it a wavy appearance (experiment with image filters).
  • Have your subject stepping out of a mirror or other reflective surface instead of a photograph.
  • Have your subject stepping from one photograph into another.
  • Have your subject stepping out of a polaroid picture.
  • Add a person or object (perhaps isolated and photographed using a simple lightbox) into an entirely different scene made to look like a photograph.
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