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Stereo Photography

"So, what kind of photography do you do?"

"Stereo photography."

"So, you take pictures of stereo equipment? Is that, like, for catalogs & stuff?"

"No, the pictures are stereo."

"So, they have sound with them?"

"No, the pictures are three-dimensional. Look."

"Whoa, duuuude!"

Long before the invention of the "hi-fi" stereo sound system, long before the invention of the Victrola phonograph, even, stereo photography was all the rage. 19th Century Families gathered around the stereoscope in the parlor and shared views of far-away places, so realistic they felt that they had really visited them. Almost immediately after the development of the photographic process in the early 1830s, people like Oliver Wendell Holmes (credited with the invention of the stereoscope) went to work figuring out how to apply the already 100-year-old technique of drawing in stereo to this new photographic medium.

The theory is really quite simple; take two different pictures, from roughly the same angles as the human eyes. This gives each picture (the left and the right) its own unique perspective; otherwise known as parallax. Tricking your brain into thinking it is seeing the actual scene in the pictures is just a matter of keeping the left image confined to the left eye, and the right image confined to the right eye. Holmes simply did this by building a contraption that forced the eyes to see only their intended images, via wooden barriers and special prismatic glass lenses.

Making the Old New Again

Stereo photography has seen the tide of popularity ebb and flow almost like clockwork ever since its inception in those early days. About every 20-30 years, we witness a new "3-D" craze. 3-D movies became the rage in the 1950s, after directors figured out how to apply the anaglyph technology, with its goofy red/blue lensed cardboard glasses. Eventually, moviegoers became jaded by the gimmick, since the anaglyph technique only allows for black & white decoding, or at best, limited colors. They also got tired of the headaches that resulted from this eye-strainng technique. The Viewmaster viewer system became a popular alternative for home viewing of still photos, and remained popular right through the ‘70s. Viewmaster reels and viewers are very popular as "collectibles" today.

Enter the age of modern plastics: After the wane of the anaglyph movie craze, studios began experimenting with the application of polarized filters, and found that they could separate the left and right images simply by projecting the two separate images (using two synchronized projectors) with opposing linear polarized properties. This required the viewers to wear goofy cardboard glasses again, but this time the lenses just looked like sunglasses lenses, and with both of the lenses the same density, no more headaches from eye-strain. This polarization technique is still favored as the standard for stereo motion pictures, as well as still-photo slide projecion.

Now, with the technology boom of the personal computer, the sky is the limit. New software in the early ‘90s made possible the "random dot" or "autostereo" poster craze, which taught the world how to see 3-D images without special glasses or viewers. Completely animated stereo scenes can be created using special software within minutes. Creating good anaglyph images can be done with just about any quality image editing software. Combining all this new technology will result in a very exciting future for stereo photography, and the art of true 3-D imaging in general. Add to this the sense of touch and smell, and maybe Aldous Huxley’s 1932 vision of going out to the "feelies" isn’t so outlandish?

For more information about stereo photography, and to learn how to see stereo photos without any special viewers, go here:

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