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How to Use SketchUp Match Photo

Step-by-step instructions on how to display a SketchUp model on top of a photo of the existing space

November 02, 2017
How to use SketchUp Match Photo-tutorial with step-by-step illustrations

It helps when clients can preview their project in 3-D. I still occasionally build a mock-up, but I can accomplish the same thing in SketchUp using the Match Photo feature, which combines a SketchUp model of the proposed construction with a photograph of the existing condition. I’ve made a couple of YouTube videos that walk through the process, and this article summarizes the key steps.

Take a Photo

In this case, I wanted to show my clients how a mantel would look in their under-construction family room [1]. When photographing the existing space, carefully choose the vantage point. You want an angle that will give a good view of the final product, but sharply outlined reference points in all three dimensions will help later when it’s time to locate the model overlay in the photo. Inside and outside corners, window edges, and other clear lines work best, and longer lines are better.

how to use sketchup in a remodel

Make a Model

The next step is to build and save a SketchUp model of the 3-D object you’ll eventually import into the photo. In this example [2], I detailed the mantel and the wall where it would be installed and I also created a blank “movie-set” version of the rest of the space. It’s not necessary to model the surrounding space, but I find it’s helpful to have context when I’m building the 3-D object.

how to use sketchup in a remodel

How much detail you include in the surrounding space is up to you, but the dimensions should be as close as possible to the actual dimensions of the space. In fact, the more dimensions you include in the model, the better. That’s because when the photo is imported into SketchUp, it’s just a bunch of pixels, and the Match Photo feature uses the dimensions from the model to scale the photo. It’s ultimately what makes it possible to accurately portray how the 3-D object will look in the actual space.

It’s also beneficial to create separate geometry for all of the parts and pieces needed to display the 3-D object [3]. In this example, each element—the mantel, firebox, fireplace surround, even the TV and the woodstove—exist as separate elements. Later on, I was able to “group” together the parts I needed—and only the parts I needed—to place into the photo.

how to use sketchup in a remodel

Now the fun begins. When using the Match Photo feature, the sequence is important. If you bring the photo into the model and scale it, you can make a mess of things. After experimenting a bit, I find it’s best to import the photo into a new file, get it properly oriented and scaled, and only then paste in the 3-D object. Here’s the step by step.

Capture the 3-D Object 

Save the finished project model, then select all of the elements from it that you want to display in the photo, GROUP them, and use CTRL-C (COMMAND-C on a Mac) to copy the group into memory.

Import and Orient the Photo

Now open a new SketchUp model and from the menu select CAMERA>MATCH NEW PHOTO. Then navigate to the folder where you saved the photo of the room and OPEN it. This will bring the photo into the new SketchUp model, along with a series of red and green lines [4] and a dialogue box.

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 4

To orient the image within the SketchUp model, first place the point of origin (the intersection of the blue, green, and red axes). In this example [5], I placed the point of origin in the inside corner where the fireplace meets the outside wall. (This corresponds to the left boundary of the model I plan to import later.)

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 5

Notice that I zoomed way in to more accurately locate the corner. However, if you attempt to pan or rotate the model at this point, you will cause the photo to disappear. To get it back, click the blue tab above the dialogue box in the upper left corner of your screen. 

The blue axis won’t be perfectly aligned with the vertical drywall corner at this point, but it gets closer as we adjust the position of the red and green reference lines, which set the perspective of the SketchUp model within the photo. This is where the vantage point of the photo comes in handy. 

Grab one of the red lines and align it with a sharp left-to-right line in the photo. Zoom in to place it more accurately [6]. Repeat with the other red line, keeping in mind that the farther away you locate the second red line from the first, the more accurate the orientation of the photo in the model will be. Do the same with the green lines along photo elements that run from front to back.

Save your work at this point. You may have noticed that when you manipulate the green and red lines, all of the other lines move around, too, including the blue vertical axis line. That’s normal, and everything should settle down once the green and red lines are located. In my case, the fireplace model I want to overlay onto the photo is a strong vertical element, so I tweaked the upper green line until the blue axis followed the drywall corner perfectly. This ensured that any distortion from the camera lens would show up elsewhere in the image and not affect my overlay. Click DONE to close the import function.

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 6


Scale the Photo

At this point the photo is properly oriented in the new SketchUp model, but the dimensions are arbitrary. To ensure that my 3-D object fits into the photo as it should, I need to scale the photo using a known dimension. In my case, I built the mantel model so that the top of the mantel was 60 inches off the floor. To set this dimension in the photo, I used the TAPE MEASURE tool to click on the red axis and drag a reference line to the top of the yellow foam mantel I had mocked up against the fireplace wall [7]. Next, I used the LINE tool to draw a line along the blue axis between the point of origin and the reference line I just created. It’s OK if the photo disappears while you’re doing this; when you’re done, just click the blue tab to get the photo back.

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 7

Now for the moment of truth. Using the TAPE MEASURE tool, click one end of the vertical line you just drew, then the other, and type the dimension 60 into the value control box at the bottom right corner of the screen. When you hit ENTER, a dialogue box will open, asking “Do you want to resize the model?” [8] When you click YES, the model, which now includes the oriented photograph, will be scaled to the known dimension of 60 inches.

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 8

Import the 3-D Object

How to use SketchUp Match Photo-slide 9

With the photo oriented and scaled, paste in the 3-D object that you saved into memory earlier (CTRL-V on a PC, COMMAND-V on a Mac). The 3-D object should appear in the new model, but it won’t necessarily be properly positioned yet because SketchUp may not know where to locate it. If something like this happens, don’t panic. Simply use ROTATE or other tools to manipulate the pasted-in 3D object until it is correctly oriented. In this case, I had to move it back and to the left to align it with the inside corner where I had earlier placed the point of origin [9]. Moving the model will make the photo disappear, but this often makes it easier to see the reference lines in the model. When you click the blue tab and the photo returns, the model will be perfectly positioned [10].

how to use sketchup in a remodelIt’s still not quite right, though, because the mantel is transparent with the photo showing through. To bring the object into the foreground so that it covers the photo behind it, click WINDOW > STYLES > EDIT, then find the FOREGROUND PHOTO checkbox (at the bottom of the Styles dialogue box), and uncheck it. 

how to use sketchup in a remodel

Voila! The model of the mantel is now displayed in the proper position in a photograph of the existing room [11].  

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About the Author

About the Author

Matt Jackson is a master carpenter who lives and works in Rapid City, S.D. He is a contributing editor to ProTradeCraft.com, where a version of this article first appeared.



Nice tutorial, thank you!
I think you forgot the illustrations 6 and 7 though...
too bad it is probably the most important part of image aligning ;)

Good catch! Images 6 and 7 are showing now.  :-)

As a 30 year Design Professional who sells "service" and doesn't sell an installed product, how much time did this take you to do, without the man in the sketch? How much would you invoice a client for this, if you weren't going to be selling a turn-key installed project?
Too many of our clients see TV shows that lead them to believe that Design Time is free and that it takes 10 minutes to create a 3D model of some concept that they can't visualize on their own.

Paradigm Design,

It's difficult to give a clear answer to your question because there's so much involved in the design/build process that makes it hard to separate out the modeling/photomatching process from the actual design part. For someone who's fluent with SketchUp modeling a couple or three hours or so can generate a decent model and with a photo in hand another half hour to do the actual PhotoMatch image/setup should be plenty. The process used to take me MUCH longer before I developed the workflow outlined in the article though... it gets easier every time I do another project :-)
I know the client perception dilemma you mention and managing a profitable business in spite of it can be a bigger hurdle than the 3D modeling part for sure! This may seem callous of me but I try early on to steer clear of the 'get 3 bids and pick the low one' crowd... my services and their expectations are seldom a good fit for either of us. In my modest business I bill hourly for all design/build time at the same rate and I find there are enough people out there who 'get it' enough to see the value of my services which really helps if/when they can't visualize on their own.

One of the biggest benefits of this whole process is how helpful it is for 'iterating' as a design progresses. I suspect you see/know the value possible here too! Once the groundwork is done, by using SketchUp's Layers feature I can show 5 different mantle designs in different materials with different corbels at different heights and, and, and... for as many options as the client desires. And since clients are paying hourly they are quite focused on maximizing benefit from the effort.

If you're interested here's a link to a video version of this material: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAA7kUP1g8Q

Thanks for posting an insightful question!


I would like to use Sketchup, but every time I import a photo they are always upside down and I can't figure out how to rotate the photo or fix this problem.

Hi Drew,
I understand your frustration with this seemingly simple issue. Here's a link from the SketchUp Community Forum that addresses the problem you're having (posts at the end seem most to the point for your question):
Basically what the article says is that SketchUp retains image orientation information that's part of the photos themselves that gets attached when the photo is taken from the specific device it's taken with and in the original orientation.
I had to research this because in many years of PhotoMatching I've only used photos taken in landscape mode with a DSLR camera. I was puzzled by your question but learned immediately that photos taken with my phone behave obstinately like yours do. I opened them in Windows 10 and rotated them so they are oriented properly but they still imported in their original direction. The solution, lame though it may seem, is to open the image you want to PhotoMatch in a photo editing program (I use GIMP) but Photoshop would do the same thing. Anyways, open the image in it's original direction and use the software to rotate it 90 or 180 degrees and then save it as a new image. I use my original photo name and add the word 'rotated' as a designation for the new version. Import the 'rotated' version into PhotoMatch and, wahlah, all is right with the world.
Hope that helps! If not feel free to post a comment on the PhotoMatch video on my The Digital Jobsite Channel on YouTube and I'll try to help further... although generally it's simpler to go directly to the wizards on the SketchUp Community Forum... I've yet to find a problem that someone there can't answer... and generally with speed that embarrasses me for asking such a D'OH question :-). Although the embarrassment is always self-generated because Sages in the Forum are incredibly humble if your query isn't offensive.

Best, Matt

Can you use it for the outside facade?

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