By Alex Walker

Real 3D in Photoshop CS3 Extended

By Alex Walker
Republished from last Friday’s Design View

Although it hasn’t received a lot of attention, perhaps the most ambitious and potentially most useful new feature to come to Photoshop CS3 Extended is the ability to interact with 3D files (note: not included in the standard Photoshop CS3 version).

Let’s not underestimate what they’re tackling here. Teaching a 2D image program to think in 3D is an ambitious undertaking. Photoshop was already a behemoth, and if you’ve ever browsed the endlessly cascading menus of an application like 3D Studio, you would probably begin to sweat uncontrollably at the prospect of shoehorning it into Photoshop. I’m thinking something akin to jamming the Taj Mahal into Heathrow Airport.

Sensibly, at least for these first baby steps into the world of 3D, the Photoshop team have kept their ambitions relatively modest.

Firstly, they haven’t attempted to include any 3D modeling tools within Photoshop. All models must be constructed and imported from third-party modeling programs, including Google’s SketchUp (.kmz), Autodesk’s 3D Studio (.3ds), Alias, Maya, and Acrobat 3D. Fortunately both Maya and SketchUp currently have free versions that will allow you to get your feet wet without selling your legs.

If you don’t consider yourself a modeler, or haven’t got time, a huge range of free, downloadable models are available online. Google Earth’s warehouse is probably as good a place as any to start, but there are thousands of 3D libraries offering quality, compatible models in many
of the compatible formats. I grabbed an iPhone
model from the SketchUp warehouse
for the example below.

How Does it Work?

iPhone model courtesy of  Google's Sketchup warehouseTo incorporate 3D objects, Photoshop CS3 Extended adds a new kind of layer, unsurprisingly named a ‘3D layer’. You can add a 3D layer to any document via the main Layers menu (i.e. Layer/3D
Layers/New Layer from 3D file...
). A dialog box will ask you to select your model and moments later it will appear in your document.

Upon import, there are no obvious ways to interact with your object — most menu items are grayed. However, right-clicking on your 3D object in the Layers palette gives you access to a ‘Transform 3D Model’ option, which in turn gives you access to the model positioning controls (as shown below).

If you’ve had even a little experience with 3D, you’ll likely recognize the spin, scale and move controls shown here, which allow you to position your model in virtual space. A similar set of controls exists for the positioning of your camera in relation to your model/s.

Photoshop's model controlsYour other major area of creative control is the textures and imagery applied to your model’s surfaces. All the textures imported with your model are displayed as linked "child layers" beneath the main model layer.

Double-clicking any of these texture layers will automatically open them as separate, editable documents within Photoshop. Any changes you make and save to these 2D texture images will be immediately reflected in your 3D model view. Of course, when we talk about "surface textures", we’re really talking about any imagery you might like to apply to a 3D surface — from organic textures, to book covers (as seen in the example below), to car detailing, to sponsors logos and more.

Quirkily, as far as I can tell, there’s no way within Photoshop to apply textures from scratch to a blank model — you need to import your model with some sort of texture, and you’re then free to edit or entirely replace those images inside Photoshop. Of course, as long as you understand this fact, and bring your models in with default texture applied, this shouldn’t particularly impact on what you can accomplish.

3D Example Another interesting feature is the 3D cross-section view tool. This tool allows you to pass an invisible 2D plane through your model, revealing its insides. At this stage I think this feature leans more toward "wow" than useful, but it’s certainly fun to fiddle with.

That’s not to say this new 3D functionality doesn’t have any weaknesses. Lighting control is currently limited to a series of roughly a dozen presets. Of course, Photoshop has some wonderful 2D lighting and levels tools, which all become available to you the second you select the Rasterize 3D menu option, effectively squashing your 3D model into a garden variety 2D layer.

However, if you then decide your model needs to be re-oriented just a smidgen to the left, you might out of luck. You can’t re-inflate your model without winding back history and undoing any other changes you’ve made.

Nevertheless, even allowing for quirks, "first-gen" rough edges, and occasional bugs, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how useful this new feature could be. The ‘3D layer object’ provides any Photoshop user with an entirely new approach to the merchandise shots, 3d logos, product simulations, and 3D illustration they produce

If you have access to Photoshop CS3 Extended, find some time, grab a few models, and have a play.

  • I think the key will be Adobe knowing where to draw the line (for feature implementation) and users knowing when they need to start using a “real” 3D app.

    For simple 3D functionality Photoshop definitely has potential.

  • Simon Griffiths

    I have had a play with these tools and am glad you made the comment about bringing in models with the textures applied! I should also say that for us, and engineering/manufacturing company, the cross-section tool is actually very useful as it allows you to see detail hidden inside a component.
    We also found that the supported file formats seemed to work fine when we used Solidworks as the 3D generating platform. This is more of a manufacturing tool than a high end modelling, but I seem to remember that this was one of the markets targeted by Adobe for this release.

  • I should also say that for us, and engineering/manufacturing company, the cross-section tool is actually very useful as it allows you to see detail hidden inside a component.

    I guess most of the models I was using during my tests had nothing much interesting inside them to see, so the value wasn’t quite so apparent. But I’d imagine something like a model of a petrol motor would be cool.

  • The 3d functionality in photoshop is pretty crap.. it’s about the same quality as you have in your open gl viewport. Offcourse everybody was hoping to paint the textures right in photoshop (like bodypaint), but it doesn’t work like that it works exactly like before you need to have the texture opened up in external flat document and then preview them in 3d window.

  • Mr D

    I have a problem when i insert a .u3d file from solidworks into photoshop it has various vertical and horizontal transparent lines through the 3d layer. It’s only about a pixel wide but it reveals the layer underneath and causes problems. Has anyone else seen this problem and how can it be fixed? (rasterizing and cloning is NOT the answer i’m looking for)

  • mrtall

    I work with Photoshop every day and can’t imagine the extra computing power this is going to take. I find it interesting that they would include a crappy 3D modeling program rather than just interfacing with a really great one.

    Did anybody check to see if there are any 3D glasses included in the box?

    Bob Dale
    Master Photographer
    Visit Our Blog At

  • I work with Photoshop every day and can’t imagine the extra computing power this is going to take. I find it interesting that they would include a crappy 3D modeling program rather than just interfacing with a really great one.

    In fairness, by importing 3DS and Maya they really *are* interfacing with great 3d programs.

    Quite a few companies out there (SitePoint included) produce a lot of imagery of the same objects — books and binders in our case, but it might be CDs, DVDs & t-shirts for others. A handful of quality, tweakable, resurfacable models would, in theory, be all we would need to produce all our product images. If I could produce a new product shot without having to leave Photoshop, I’d do it.

  • savagepriest

    great this is a tutorial i would like everyone to see and save on their pc for later use

  • Patrick

    At my company were trying to place a 3d dome model with glass effect into photshop cs3. The plan is to place a photoshop file inside the dome, keeping the glass effect to create a domed product. Is this possible?

  • Thomas Colliers

    The implementation is not extensive enough to seriously work with it in a production environment. It’s neat for some very basic 3D-imagery but because it allows no shading, no lightning it’s no more then a gimmick right now.

    It could grow, but it will never beat the full-scale 3D applications. And the fact you still need to create your model and UV maps in those applications makes it obsolete in my opinion.


    but when i import 3d model in cs3 it loaded well but without any textures what i can do in this case?

  • Eric Senecal

    Its a start!!! very very crapy stuff. Adobe still have a very long way to go before getting it the way a direct painting on 3d tool should be.

    but still its a start!!!

    Eric Senecal website

Get the latest in Front-end, once a week, for free.