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My First Forays in Stereoscopic (3D) Photography – by Sroyon

March 3, 2022

Rebecca wrote a great introduction to stereoscopic (3D) photography which was published on 35mmc yesterday, and which some of you have probably read already. I only got into stereo photography a couple of months ago, so I’m still a beginner. As such, this is more of a personal account. I thought it would be fun to document my initial impressions of what I suspect will become a long-term interest. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I would like to share three important realisations – all quite recent – which really drew me into stereo photography.

Before we get to that, a quick caveat. Approximately 7% of the population is estimated to be stereoblind – that is, unable to see in 3D. That includes my dad, who got me into photography – he lost vision in his right eye as a result of a sports injury. Obviously, much of what I’m going to say only applies if you’re actually able to see in 3D.

One of my first stereo photos, taken with a Nikon D5200. This stereo pair looks 3D when seen through a viewer like the one shown below.

Three realisations

If you’re already into stereo photography, these might seem obvious to you. But if you’re not, I hope that my experiences will prompt you to try stereo photography, and that you will get as much enjoyment out of it as I do.

Psychological realisation: See the image of the roses above? That’s a stereo pair – two photos of the same scene, taken from slightly different perspectives, presented side-by-side. When seen through a stereo viewer (see below), the pair fuses into a single 3D image. Free-viewing is being able to do the same trick with the naked eye. Strange as it sounds – and this was my realisation, a real game-changer! – learning to free-view appears to be fairly easy. Or at least, it’s easy for some people, perhaps even for most people. I learned in about 20 minutes. The effect is like magic. Later on in this post I’ll talk about how I learned to free-view, and how – hopefully! – you can learn too.

Stereo pair displayed on my phone, which is placed in a stereo viewer

Aesthetic realisation: 3D images are often presented as anaglyphs like the one below, designed to be viewed through red/blue glasses. But in my experience, the image quality from a stereo pair – whether free-viewed or seen through a viewer – is far superior. It literally has to be seen to be believed. And that’s what truly helped me appreciate the artistic value of stereo images. Sure, they also have historical, technical and – let’s face it – novelty value. But good stereo photos can give me the same kind of pleasure that I get from art. Because… well, because they are art. That’s my view anyway – and a big reason for my personal fascination with stereo photography.

Technical realisation: To create stereo images, you don’t need any special skills or complicated equipment. You can make one with your phone almost instantaneously. And basic editing, with a free app, takes less than a minute. (Note that only this third “technical” realisation is to do with making stereo images. Even if that doesn’t interest you, you can still enjoy the wealth of stereo images that are out there.)

Early interest in 3D

Viewing 3D images

As a kid in the nineties, I remember seeing lenticular 3D images – the ones with tiny ridges on the surface, often sold in souvenir shops. My grandfather got one from Germany. Our landlord had one on his desk – a girl with a flower-basket, standing in a garden. I was about ten years old at the time and I still remember the picture, so I must have found it pretty fascinating.

Lenticular postcard: souvenir from London

The first 3D movie I saw was Avatar. I was expecting to get red/blue glasses like I had seen in older photos, but they gave us polarised glasses instead. These look like dark glasses – probably what you’ve worn too, if you watch 3D movies.

I later learned that red/blue glasses were used for comic books, but were never that common in movie theatres (I guess that image just entered the popular consciousness somehow). However, red/blue glasses can be used for images like this:

Red/blue anaglyph of Phobos, a moon of Mars, from the European Space Agency website.
ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

About ten years ago I developed an interest in astronomy. Agencies like NASA and ESA occasionally publish anaglyphs (like the one above) which look 3D when viewed with red/blue glasses. So I ordered a pair of glasses online. They cost less than a pound, so they’re probably not the best quality, but they do the job. Later I got another pair for free at a planetarium in Copenhagen.

My two pairs of red/blue glasses

In 2016, my brother curated an exhibition of early 20th-century stereo cards of Calcutta. The cards had two side-by-side images designed to be viewed through a stereo viewer. Helpfully, the exhibition had an actual stereo viewer which visitors could use. That, I think, was my first experience of viewing stereo pairs (as opposed to superimposed images like the NASA anaglyphs).

Vintage stereo card: personal collection of Sujaan Mukherjee

Creating 3D images

Somewhere along the way, I realised I could also create 3D images for viewing with my red/blue glasses. Take a photo. Move your camera about 7 cm (2.5″) to the right. Take another photo. Congratulations, you now have a stereo pair which can be combined into a 3D image in various ways.

Sounds simple, but it wasn’t so simple for me. On my hard drive, I have a folder called “3D photography”. In it there are two pairs of photos – one from 2016 and one from last year. They’ve just been sitting in the folder; in all this time, I have not edited or combined them.

So why did I take only two pairs of photos in five years, and why didn’t I do anything with them? The main reason is that I was trying to learn stereo photography from the internet, and the resources I found were too technical. I got too caught up in stereo maths and theory, and ended up doing little or nothing in practice. (Another reason is that I’m easily distracted – but that’s my problem, not anyone else’s!)

Recent interest (aka the Stereo Rabbit-Hole)

Earlier this year I stumbled upon Rebecca’s website, the Stereoscopy Blog. For me, it had just the right level of detail – enough to inspire confidence, but not so much as to be overwhelming. And the posts had an ring of infectious enthusiasm which was missing in the technical tutorials I had read earlier. Forthwith, I decided to revive my stop-start interest in stereo photography, and this is what paved the way for the three realisations I mentioned at the start of this post. So let’s talk about them in turn.

Learning to free-view

I knew in theory that stereo pairs can be viewed in 3D not just with a stereo viewer, but also with the naked eye. But free-viewing, as it’s called, requires a sort of mental trick, and somehow I always assumed that it was a rare skill, difficult or impossible for me to master. Under the spell of my renewed interest, I thought I’d give it a try. Much to my own surprise, I learned in about 20 minutes. I described my experience of how I learned – and how, hopefully, you can learn too – in an article for Stereoscopy Blog.

When it works, you will know. It’s like magic.

But if you can’t, don’t worry. Free-viewing is not the only way to look at stereo pairs; a basic stereo viewer costs just a few pounds (I’m lucky to have a viewer from Rebecca’s collection, which she kindly sent to me upon learning about my interest in stereo photography). If you’re remotely interested in stereo photography, it might be worth buying a viewer anyway. They’re not just inexpensive but also small and light, so you can carry them anywhere, lend them to friends who can’t (or haven’t yet learned to) free-view.

My friend Senjuti, about to look through my stereo viewer at a 3D portrait I made of her. Photo by Charlotte Gorant.

So why learn to free-view at all? Sometimes, lying in bed and scrolling through Instagram as one does, I might come across a stereo pair. Do I then have the motivation to get up and fetch my stereo viewer? No sir. But if you can free-view, you can look at stereo images anytime, anywhere. It’s like a superpower. (OK, an obscure superpower, with limited practical application. But a superpower.)

Admittedly, I have not yet succeeded in persuading anyone to try and learn free-viewing. A couple of friends have said they will try “at some point”. My girlfriend was less polite (she just laughed at me):

But I remain optimistic, as always. Because the rewards are worth it.

The aesthetic pleasures of stereo photos

How good is this?! I came across this stereo card from Rebecca’s collection in one of her blogposts. It’s a wonderful, layered composition – the figures in the foreground, the leading lines of the bridge, and the towers in the distance – impressive enough in two dimensions, but breathtaking in three. Likewise, the texture of the brick and the sunlight on the river just come alive in 3D.

I wrote earlier that good stereo photos can give me the same kind of pleasure that I get from art. I’ve been looking at stereo images, in various forms, since I was a kid, so why did it take me so long to come to this realisation? I think there are three reasons. (I should say, these are just my opinions. I am certainly not an expert on stereo photography, nor art in general.)

First, the novelty factor of 3D images is so powerful that it can take a while to get past the novelty factor and appreciate their artistic merits. If you’ve never seen a colour photo before, your first reaction to seeing, say, a Helen Levitt or a Raghubir Singh will probably not be, “What a fine work of art.” It will be, “A photo in colour? What is this witchcraft?!”

Second, not all stereo photos have a lot of artistic merit. Some are produced as anodyne souvenirs, or lean heavily on the novelty factor. If you’re accustomed to seeing those, it can be hard to imagine that stereo photos can also be more artistic.

Third, for the longest time, I don’t think I had even seen a high-quality 3D photograph. Anaglyphs, like the red/blue NASA images I mentioned earlier, have not-so-great colour rendition – a limitation of the technology itself. You get far better quality from stereo pairs, seen with stereo viewers or free-viewing. I did use a viewer at my brother’s exhibition, but from the somewhat faded tones of the old cards, I didn’t appreciate how much better the stereo viewer’s colour-rendition was, in comparison to red/blue glasses. And as I mentioned, I only learned to free-view recently. The first time I saw a high-quality stereo pair in 3D, it blew my mind.

Now you might say that a good photo is a good photo, regardless of how it is viewed or whether the inks are faded. And to an extent I agree. But for most of us, it’s easier to appreciate music played on a surround-sound system, as opposed to a tinny laptop speaker. Likewise, a good stereo photo, free-viewed or seen through a stereo viewer, can be a revelation.

Nikon D5200, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, edited with Stereo Photo Maker

This is not about whether stereo photos are “better” or “worse” than regular (mono) photos. I think that’s kind of a pointless debate, like arguing about B&W versus colour. All I’m saying is that I personally did not appreciate how much artistic enjoyment I could get from looking at stereo photographs. But now I know better.

In particular, I appreciate the sense of texture that you get from stereo photos, and the quality of light. Composition – quite literally – has another dimension. If you know a bit about how stereo photos are made, you can also appreciate technical details like choice of stereo-base (which influences the sense of depth) and alignment (which determines whether certain details appear to “sit behind” or “pop out of” the screen). But you don’t need to know the technical stuff in order to appreciate a good stereo photo – just like you don’t need to understand the relationship between aperture and depth-of-field in order to appreciate the smoothly blurred background of a portrait.

Learning to create stereo images

Phone stereo

The first 3D images I made were with my phone. I learned from this Android tutorial on the Stereoscopy Blog (there is a similar tutorial for iPhones, plus a tutorial in video form).

One of my first stereo photos. Google Pixel 2 smartphone, edited with 3DSteroid Pro. Don’t look too closely, it has some technical errors!

If you want to make stereo images – and why wouldn’t you! – I think phone photography a good entry point. The best (stereo) camera is the one you have with you, and my phone is almost always with me. Taking phone pics feels casual and easy, so I’m less likely to get bogged down by the technical aspects. I can snap away and not have to worry about making mistakes or wasting film. Refinements can come later.

The cha-cha method. Photo by Rebecca.

To take a stereo pair, I use the “cha-cha method” illustrated above (see this tutorial for more details). Lean on your left foot, take a photo. Lean on your right, take a photo. This is sequential stereo, where the images are taken one after the other. It’s great for things like still-life and landscapes. If anything in your frame moves in between the two exposures, you’ll get “ghosts”. But that can be a cool effect too (there are some great examples in this post).

Pretty much any camera can be used for sequential stereo photography. The main advantage of specialised stereo cameras is that they can capture two photos at the same instant, enabling (ghostless) stereo photos of moving subjects.

Photo by Rebecca, with a Nimslo 3D camera on 35mm film

Anyhow, back to sequential photos, which at the moment is all I can do. Having taken a stereo pair on my phone, I combine them with an app called 3DSteroid. This is a free app, intuitive and easy to use (nicely explained in the Sterescopy Blog tutorials linked earlier).

The free version, which I got first, doesn’t let you save images (though you can screenshot and share them). I was impressed enough with the free version that I got the Pro version almost immediately. At just £2.29, I think it’s well worth it. It lets you save images in a variety of formats such as stereo pairs, anaglyphs and wigglegrams.

I don’t think I mentioned wigglegrams yet, but you’ve probably seen them online.  Wigglegrams produce an illusion of depth, but they are not as realistic as “true” stereo images. On the plus side, they can be viewed without special viewers or glasses, and potentially also by stereoblind people (funnily enough, they look slightly more 3D to me when I view them with one eye closed).

The source images for the wigglegram above were a sequential stereo pair shot on my phone (Google Pixel 2). I needed several attempts before I got a pair where the cat had not moved between frames. The GIF was created in Photoshop, as described in this tutorial (the wigglegram feature on 3DSteroid Pro doesn’t seem to work for me).

DSLR stereo

My next step was to try making stereo images with a DSLR, namely my trusty Nikon D5200. Like my phone photos, my DSLR stereos are sequential. But I get better image quality, and more control over things like exposure, focus and depth-of-field. The photo of the roses at the top of this post was taken with my DSLR, as was the one below. I used a slow shutter-speed to blur the water.

Nikon D5200, AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, edited with Stereo Photo Maker

I edit my DSLR photos with a free program called Stereo Photo Maker (SPM). I learned from a tutorial on – yet again! – the Stereoscopy Blog. Incidentally, 3DSteroid and SPM were created by the same person, Japanese stereo photographer Masuji Suto. You can read his interview here; I was surprised to learn that he is not a professional software developer, just someone who is passionate about stereoscopy. Like 3DSteroid, SPM can generate various formats including stereo pairs and anaglyphs. Here is a red/blue anaglyph of the earlier image with the auto-rickshaw:

Nikon D5200, AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, edited with Stereo Photo Maker

Future plans

Now that I have a basic grasp of stereo photography, my next plan is to try it on film. For now, I’m going to take sequential photos, using an ordinary 35mm camera. I may soon acquire a 35mm stereo camera, but let’s see.

If or when I get usable stereo photos on film, I’ll try to print them as stereo pairs in the darkroom. This will be trickier than doing it with SPM software. But not too much trickier… I hope! Finally, I want to make a stereo pinhole camera, thus combining two of my interests. It’s gonna be a wild ride.

If you haven’t yet explored the world of viewing and making stereoscopic photos, I hope this post piqued your interest. The Stereoscopy Blog tutorials are a great place to start. I’m also curious about your own experiences – what’s your impression of 3D photographs, what kinds have you seen, and do you make them yourself? Let me know in the comments – and feel free to check out my Instagram.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Tom Redd
    March 3, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for your very interesting post. I also love stereo photography. Your post has got me inspired to get back into it. I am in my 70s now but as a young kid, I use to love to buy those 3D comic books. They were always lots of fun. I wonder if they still print them. Of course, they are making 3D movies. Strangely, our brains seem to discard the 3D effect on movie screens after a while of viewing. So, 3D movies come and go every decade or so.
    I would like to make a few points about stereoscopic photography:
    1) During WWII it was very important for intelligence. Recon aircraft would fly over a target and take stereo photos that then gave planners a better idea and view of potential targets. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still done.
    2) I used to live in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and got into collecting old stereo cards of Niagara Falls. Because of the majesty of the Falls, these are probably the most common of any stereo view. The ones from the 19th century are really cool, since over half of the water that should go over the Falls is now diverted to the hydroelectric plants. The Falls were much more violent, turbulent and dramatic back then.
    3) There is a great difference in stereo cards out there. The very best cards are made directly from negatives. These are incredibly clear. You can tell because the two photos are printed separately and glued onto the card. However, there are a lot of reprints out there made from originals. These really lose a lot of the stereo effect and naturally clarity. It is easy to tell a reprint because the card is solid without separate photos glued on and the photos have those little dots that appear on normal type set printed photos.
    4) I bought for $15 at a photo show a couple of somewhat cheap stereo attachments that would go in front of any 35mm camera lens. One has a filter ring attachment. It was made by a firm called Stereo-Tach out of Covington, Kentucky, U.S.A (lovely place BTW). The other was made by Stereax from London, England. It has a bar that goes into the camera’s tripod socket so you don’t need a filter ring though there are 4 outer screw holes to attach a filter ring, (if I can figure out how to do it). It also came with a stereo slide viewer. Luckily, I had an adapter ring that fit the Stereo-Tach attachment into my Exakta system 49mm lenses. One Christmas, I put it on my 35mm Zeiss Jena Flektogon lens that has macro capability and took closeup color photos of Christmas tree ornaments. Wow, Oh, Wow!!! The bright ornaments just jump out at you from the green tree branches. Unfortunately, this was some time ago. My local Sam’s Club store used to do great professional quality 5×7 prints for next to nothing. The prints would just fit perfectly into an old stereo viewer if you put a carboard backing on it. Of course, Sam’s Club no longer provides this service. I recently redid my darkroom and am planning to start taking some B&W stereo photos.
    5) Besides after-market stereo attachments like I have, many camera makers made their own stereo attachments. I have Ihagee Exakta and Zeiss Contax collections. Forget about getting their stereo attachments. When they do show up on Ebay, they are usually in the thousands of dollar range. However, stereo photography seemed to have maintained a popularity longer in the old Soviet Union. It appears that attachments for Zorki, Fed and Kiev rangefinder cameras are certainly available at a reasonable price. They are probably 40.5mm filter ring attachment, which many cameras have or are capable of accepting through adapter rings. Unfortunately, that is at least, before the present terrible crisis with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
    6) There were also a lot of American stereo cameras made, like Realist, Kodak and even Viewfinder for their 3D circular cards that kids of all ages use to have in the 50s and 60s. Edixa is West Germany also made a nice stereo camera. Finally, Universal made a beautiful stereo attachment that I would love to snag someday.
    Thanks again. I hope to see more posts from you on stereo photography.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      March 3, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge of stereo photography! If you end up getting back into it, and especially if you plan to do it with film, which I haven’t tried yet, I’m sure Hamish would be interested to feature you. I have an Ihagee Exa (and a Flektogon! but 20mm). However, as you say, the original stereo accessories are eye-wateringly expensive. I am currently writing a post for the Stereoscopy Blog, but in due course, hopefully I’ll think of more stereo article ideas for 35mmc too!

  • Reply
    Tom Redd
    March 3, 2022 at 11:01 pm

    I have an Exa too. I love them. You can put the original versions in your pocket. But I really do envy you on that 20mm Flektogon. It is an incredible lens. Didn’t need to have a mirror lock up like other similar lenses from other camera makers. I wish I had bought one years ago before they went up so much in price! Thanks for suggesting about being featured. Gives me inspiration!

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      March 4, 2022 at 5:47 am

      Yes, mine is the last of the original versions (what Wrotniak calls v1.6, with the black front plate). I got the Flektogon 20/4 about 3 years ago from eBay UK, after a few months’ wait for a relatively good deal. It was about £130. Not cheap, but not crazy expensive either (imo). It’s a great lens, I will write a review of it someday.
      Oh and this page has info on contributing to 35mmc, if you would like to!

  • Reply
    Joe Van Cleave
    March 4, 2022 at 4:04 am

    It would be nice to see these 3D images with cross-eyed viewing.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      March 4, 2022 at 5:31 am

      OK, next time maybe I can use both formats. Out of interest, is it because you only use cross-eye for free-viewing?

  • Reply
    Bill Thoo
    March 5, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Great article Sroyon. I’ve recently started with stereoscopy too with the Minuta pinhole and the Sputnik. There’s a real challenge in composition for me, more so than 2D. I can free view in the same way I used to see the magic eye images, and I always thought this was by going crossed eyes, but to be honest I have not idea what I’m doing. All I know is that I’m bringing the two images into one. It works with the full width of a phone screen, but I can’t do it with an Ig sized image. Good luck and can’t wait to see your compositions.

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      March 5, 2022 at 11:54 am

      Ooh awesome, I look forward to seeing your images! I didn’t go into so much detail in this post, but as you probably know there are two ways to free-view – parallel and cross-eye view (this post explains in more detail). In this image, the top pair is for parallel view and the bottom pair is for cross-eye view. You can try and see which one looks more realistic, which will give you a hint as to what you are doing. If you’re parallel viewing an image meant for cross-eye view (or vice versa), the depth looks wrong. Or maybe you can do both 😀 I learned parallel viewing first, and it still comes more naturally to me, but I can do cross-eye viewing too.

      • Reply
        Bill Thoo
        March 5, 2022 at 11:14 pm

        Hi Sroyon, that was extremely helpful. Looks like I am parallel viewing. I wonder if I am also doing both at some points as the images I have made sometimes look like they are meant to and then at other times look mixed up

  • Reply
    Joe Van Cleave
    March 5, 2022 at 5:19 pm

    Yes, for free-viewing the cross-eyed method works if the pair of images are reversed left-to-right.

  • Reply
    Jasper T Kauth
    March 22, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    This was a great and fascinating read. I tried the free-viewing but I just could not make it work. The crossed-eyed method worked better for me but gave me a slight headache. But now I have a small stereo viewer and am totally blown away by the haptic look and feel of all these images. Excited to see your stereo darkroom prints!

    • Reply
      Sroyon
      March 24, 2022 at 10:30 am

      Thanks Jasper, yay I am glad you are enjoying your stereo viewer! The look and feel of high-quality 3D images really was a revelation for me too (I learnt to free-view before I got my hands on a viewer). Speaking of which, if you (or anyone else reading this) want to give free-viewing another try sometime, I wrote an article for Stereoscopy Blog which mentions a few different techniques. But I think for some people it just doesn’t come naturally, and thankfully we have viewers for that!

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