PHOTOGRAMMETRY: 3D Models from Photos

(From Autodesk’s website:) What is photogrammetry?

Photogrammetry is the art and science of extracting 3D information from photographs. The process involves taking overlapping photographs of an object, structure, or space, and converting them into 2D or 3D digital models.

Photogrammetry is often used by surveyors, architects, engineers, and contractors to create topographic maps, meshes, point clouds, or drawings based on the real-world.

I’ve written in past posts about 360° panorama photos (360° Panoramas!, More 360° Panoramas!, and 360° Panoramas (again)). In a 360° panorama, the camera (the viewer) is at a single location looking out on the world. Today, we will visit what seems to be the opposite situation.

3D models are created by taking a series of photos of an object from many different directions. The object could be something small, like a sculpture. Or something large, like a movie set. Or something in between, like a building. The camera could be mounted on a tripod and the small model turned to different positions, or the camera could be moved around the small model to take many different views. For an even larger model, the camera could be carried by a drone, for instance, and moved around a very large area to take many images.

I’ve played with 3D models a bit over the last few years. Once you have acquired images of your target, they must be processed in some way to create a 3D object, usually a “mesh” of many triangles that simulate the original model. Much of the software to do this is relatively expensive (hundreds or thousands of dollars), or rented by the month. However, not all software is expensive. After looking at other options, I found Open Drone Map (or ODM). The original purpose of ODM apparently was to create maps and/or models from photos taken from a drone. However, the software doesn’t really care whether the camera was on a drone, or handheld, or on a tripod.

Using ODM, I was able to successfully process several sets of photographs I have accumulated over the last few years. My smallest models were created from about 40 photos shot with my cell phone and the largest I’ve created so far used a couple hundred photos shot with a drone. People successfully use ODM with 5,000+ photos, although that may take days to process, even on a powerful computer.

Once you have created a 3D model you must use special software to view it. Surprisingly, current versions of Windows do come with a simple 3D viewer, but it doesn’t seem to be very robust. There are also websites where the 3D model can be uploaded, then you can view the model with a web browser.

Below is one of the first models I created. It is a tabletop scene of a small wood manger. This model was created from 48 photos shot with my DSLR as I walked around the table, taking photos at different heights to be sure everything was visible. Click the “play” button, wait for it to load, then use your mouse left button spin the model around on your screen, and your mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and out. To see the model full screen, press the “f” key. (I recommend trying that – press the “f” key again to exit full screen mode.)

The photo below is one of the 48 photos that make up the model above.

Another 3D model I created is an interesting rock at the entrance to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM). This one is created from 40 photos I shot with my cell phone as I walked around it several times.

I used several other programs to generate all of the models shown here. First is WSL – Windows Subsystem for Linux. The version of ODM I used runs on Linux, so this allowed me to run it in a Linux environment on my Windows computer. I used Blender to clean up (remove) the extraneous parts of the 3D images, which were then uploaded to Sketchfab. Other programs played more minor roles. Expect to see more about Blender in this blog in the future.

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