Best photogrammetry software
In recent times, the entry barriers that once made photogrammetry inaccessible to most – mainly price and available technology – have eased considerably. This has paved the way for more widespread adoption, incentivizing the development of better, more capable, and user-friendly software. Here, we take a look at what’s available. We talk compatibility, pricing, pros and cons, and some important details to help you get the lay of the land if you’re looking to find a solution for your photogrammetry needs.
What is photogrammetry?
When tolerance benchmarks are set at 1/500 of a millimeter, you might want to reach for metrology-grade photogrammetry gear.
For the purists, the term is used strictly for the process of taking reliable measurements from photographs. Photo – light, gramma – writing, and metron – to measure. Measurement using light. Its use is more scientific – more industrial, if you will. You’ll find it in applications like inspection, deformation analysis, and other high-accuracy measurement use cases.
For many in visual arts and heritage preservation, for example, its definition is simple: turning pictures into 3D models. Historians use it to digitize archaeological specimens in full color, CGI artists to quickly build assets for animation or game development, and – some hobbyists – to 3D-print models for the sole purpose of showing off to their mildly interested dinner guests.
We’ll call it a technique for reconstructing 3D data from 2D images. This definition should cover both photogrammetry for metrology, and what we’ll refer to as photogrammetry for CGI.
Barack Obama sitting in front of a custom-built photogrammetry setup consisting of 50 LED lights and 14 cameras. Taking multiple shots of the president’s face from different angles in a matter of seconds allowed for obtaining high-quality texture data and later combining it with 3D scans made with two Artec Eva scanners, resulting in the first-ever full-color 3D portrait of a head of state. Photo courtesy of the White House.
The technical and cost constraints that used to make photogrammetry a sphere for professionals only have steadily fallen away. Today, a smartphone that can take 4k pictures is nothing to marvel at. Low-cost 3D printers, some priced as low as a hundred dollars, have made it possible for a generation of enthusiasts to pick up photogrammetry and produce their own 3D models at home, from start to finish, without much of a budget.
For metrology, users lean towards photogrammetry as it is incredibly accurate, and while far cheaper than a laser tracker, provides comparable results.
There is software, both paid and free, that will enable you to convert pictures to 3D models relatively easily. Let’s start with the free options.
Best free photogrammetry software
- Lots of support and training materials
- Supports CAD drawing, polyline extraction, and generation of sections, paths, and contour lines
- Uses data from LiDAR, TIs, cameras, videos, and other devices
- Only available on Windows
- Free version is extremely limited
Windows 11/10/8.1/8 x64
ply, obj, fbx, pdf 3D, u3d, dae, pts, ptx, xyz, txt, las, e57
3DF Zephyr comes in three versions. At the top of the range, there is the full version, which you can pay for as a monthly subscription, or one time for a perpetual license. There is also 3DF Zephyr Lite, which occupies the middle tier, and 3DF Zephyr Free.
The free version gives you the ability to construct 3D models but confines the number of photos you can use to just 50. This limits the sizes of objects you can work with. You can also only use one NVIDIA GPU to enhance processing, and the options for export are restricted to just meshes with JPEG texture and uploads to YouTube. 3DF Zephyr Free also provides limited editing tools to enable you to do just the basics – selections, cutting, and copying elements, and the like.
While these restrictions may seem inhibiting, it is still a great place to start if you just want to experiment and get a feel for the software. You can later upgrade to higher tiers without these limits and take advantage of a greater selection of professional editing tools and filters, wider export options with point clouds, textured meshes, positions and distances, and more, and features like support for laser scanner file formats, the ability to generate orthophotos, as well as tools for surveying, GIS, and CAD.
Download link: https://www.3dflow.net/3df-zephyr-free
- Open source
- Completely free
- Easy to use
- Supported by an active open-source community
- Limited functionality compared to paid solutions
- No macOS version
This is an open-source solution that is built on AliceVision, a framework of computer vision algorithms with 3D reconstruction and camera tracking. It has an easy to use drag-and-drop editor that makes working with the software intuitive. It uses a node-based workflow, where each node represents a set of actions to be performed on the way to generating a 3D model.
The software gives you the ability to tweak the workflow – or pipeline – or simply work with the default, one-click workflow. This flexibility makes Meshroom both beginner-friendly and beneficial to more advanced users. You can also save your custom pipelines as templates so you don’t have to retrace your steps in subsequent projects.
Meshroom can support over 1,000 images and is compatible with other 3D modeling software. This gives users more flexibility around the workflow. You can use it to, for example, add texture to a mesh after editing it in other 3D modeling applications.
A range of plugins allows for cross-compatibility with software such as Houdini, Blender, Maya, ZBrush, and more for more advanced workflows for game development, photo modeling, and camera tracking. Users also benefit from libraries with additional algorithms for 3D reconstruction, target identification, and more.
- 3D generation workflow is quite simple
- Completely free, no restricted features
- Well documented
- Not a polished UI
- Requires some knowledge of the command line for greater control
- Requires additional software to create meshes or clean up the point cloud
The SFM in this solution’s title stands for Structure from Motion. It is a technique for inferring geometrical information by moving around an object. To oversimplify the premise behind it, one could say it works by quantifying motion parallax. As an observer changes position, objects that are closer to them seem to shift more than those that are further away. If you do the math from these relative differences, you can determine the 3D structure of what is being observed. Human beings use the technique too.
VisualSFM gives a graphical user interface to these calculations. It is a no-frills solution built by Google software engineer Changchang Wu, using SFM calculations to feature detection, feature matching, and bundle adjustment to enable users to generate 3D models from 2D images.
The process itself is completed in four steps, which can also be run from the command line if you prefer that over the GUI. Users import images in VisualSFM, run feature detection and image matching, sparse reconstruction follows next, and finally, dense reconstruction.
VisualSFM is free for personal, non-profit, or academic use.
Download link: http://ccwu.me/vsfm/index.html
Best paid photogrammetry software
- Well-designed interface
- Fully featured
- Comprehensive tutorials and support
- Available only on Windows
jpg, png, XYZ, XYZRGB, tiff, bmp, dib, rle, jpeg, jpe, jfif, exif, exr, tif, wdp, jxr, dds, KML, KMZ, obj, ply, partlist, fbx, dxf, dae, bvh, htr, trc, asf, amc, c3d, aoa, mcd, wmv, mp4
- Pay-per-input licenses: $10 for 3,500 credits; $20 for 8,000 credits
- Unlimited license: $3,750
RealityCapture is a full-featured photogrammetry solution that provides functionality for creating virtual reality scenes, 3D meshes with texture, orthographic projections, geo-referenced maps, and more. RealityCapture claims to be the fastest solution on the market, although it is unclear what benchmarks this claim is based on.
It has a well-designed interface with a rich feature set that enables you to let the software automatically work through simpler tasks, or take manual control with components and control points for more complex projects.
RealityCapture also has tools for merging images with laser scans, creating triangular watertight meshes, coloring and texturing tools, capabilities for ortho-projections and mapping, distance, area and volume measurements, and more. You can also use a command line interface with the software.
Download link: https://www.capturingreality.com/realitycapture
- Cloud, and network processing capabilities
- Comprehensive knowledge base
- Extensive feature list
- Professional Edition is relatively expensive at $3,499
- Standard Edition is affordable ($179) but fairly limited in functionality, and there is no middle tier
- Texture formats: JPG, TIFF, PNG, BMP, OpenEXR, JPEG 2000
- Camera calibration formats: xml, ini, cal, dat
- Meshes and point clouds: obj, ply, pts, las, laz, e57, u3d, dxf, oc3, cl3, 3ds, dae, abc, stl, fbx, wrl, glb, x3d, osgb, kmz
- Professional Edition: $3,499
- Standard Edition: $179
Agisoft Metashape is a feature-rich photogrammetry application with support for different types of imagery – aerial, close-range, and satellite. It comes in two versions, Professional Edition – the top tier, and Standard Edition.
The Professional Edition provides for dense point cloud editing, has tools for Digital Surface and Digital Terrain Model (DSM/DTM) generation, orthomosaic generation, laser scanning support, distance, area, and volume measurement, and much more. You can extend processing power by taking advantage of networking processing capabilities.
MetaShape also offers cloud processing for inspection, annotating and measuring processing results in a web browser, and collaboration in distributed teams. In addition, Python Scripting, and Java bindings are available for custom automation and processing, and other workflow-specific customizations.
Standard Edition is more limited offering a considerable range of features, including photogrammetric triangulation, dense point cloud generation and editing, 3D model generation and texturing, and more, but missing out on others like network and cloud processing, the Python module, and Java library, and a whole raft of measurement and analysis tools.
Download link: https://www.agisoft.com/downloads/installer/
- Easy to use
- Scan-to-CAD features
- Accuracy up to 2 microns
- Easy and fast mesh-to-CAD alignment
- Native CGI and metrological photogrammetry capabilities
- Regularly updated
- Lots of documentation and support material
- Compatible with Artec 3D scanners only
- Requires Boot Camp to work on Apple computers
- Via Boot Camp on macOS
- Mesh: OBJ, PLY, WRL, STL, AOP, ASC, Disney PTEX, E57, XYZRGB
- Point cloud (Artec Ray only): PTX, BTX, XYZ
- Reference targets: OBS
- Measurements: CSV, DXF, XML
- CAD: STEP, IGES, X_T
- 30-day free trial
- Annual subscription: €800 US $1,200 US $1,200
- Lifetime license with free updates: €2,000 US $2,900 US $2,900
Artec Studio is primarily designed to provide an environment and framework for 3D scanning-related workflows. The software is a comprehensive solution, however, and offers powerful features for photogrammetry as well.
For measurement-related use cases, Artec Studio has the Artec Metrology Kit plugin. It is meant to work with Artec’s photogrammetry solution – the Artec Metrology Kit, which is one of the most accurate photogrammetry solutions on the market and a great alternative to a laser tracker – and brings photogrammetry for metrology features to the Artec workspace. You can import images and use them to generate point clouds for use in measurement-related applications, or as reference data for 3D scanning large objects and scenes.
Artec Studio also has a Photo Texture feature. This enables users to wrap images from a camera around high-res, geometrically accurate scan data and produce stunning, full-color, photorealistic 3D models. Artec Studio can work with datasets of up to 500 million polygons, meaning working with large objects at high resolution is not a challenge.
Download link: https://www.artec3d.com/3d-software/artec-studio
The pool of options if you are looking for a photogrammetry solution is wide, and growing. The solutions we have listed here are a great place to start your search for a solution that fits you. In terms of functionality, the options we have covered are fairly representative of what competing products on the market will typically offer. The choice you finally settle on will, of course, be determined by your needs, level of expertise, available resources, and personal preferences.
Read this next