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Past and Future Collide: Taking 3D Photos


It seems that every Hollywood movie that hits theaters these days is "in mind-boggling 3D." Whether you think it's either the future of entertainment or an annoying fad, there's no reason you can't join in the fun! Today we're going to walk through the steps of how to take your own 3D photo using processes that have been around since the 1800s! We'll also learn about three different types of 3D images and take a look at some special dedicated 3D cameras.

3D: History and Methods

Though current filmmakers use fairly advanced methods and technology, the practice of creating three-dimensional illusions from flat imagery has been around for a long time. In fact, 3D photos were quite popular in the early to mid 1900s in a form known as the stereogram.

Method 1: Stereoscopy

Stereoscopic images are the oldest form of 3D photography. An inventor and scientist named Sir Charles Wheatstone created the practice of stereoscopy over 170 years ago in 1838. Wheatstone was studying the principles of binocular vision and how human eyes combine and process two separate images into a singular perception of shape and depth.

Wheatstone set out to reproduce the effect of our binocular vision with a flat image, the result was the combination of a stereogram and a stereoscope. The process that he used was fairly simple and continued to evolve slightly over the next 100 years.

Basically, a stereogram utilizes two separate but very similar images. The goal was to try to mimic what your eyes see by taking a photograph of the same scene from two slightly different perspectives. The images were placed right next to each other, usually on a card like the one below.



The card is then inserted into a device called a "stereoscope." This optical mechanism uses lenses and/or mirrors to project the two images towards your eyes via a goggle-like setup. The resulting combination of the two perspectives makes some parts of the image appear to stick out further than others. It's an impressive illusion that has always fascinated me. You can still find stereoscopes like the one below at antique shops or possibly even your grandparent's attic!

Today, stereograms are typically viewed without anything other than your own two eyes, which is a fairly easy task once you get the hang of it but seemingly impossible until you train your eyes correctly. The trick is to learn to focus your eyes as if you're staring at something in the distance even though you're really looking at an image that is close to your face (it's the reverse of crossing your eyes, which brings the focus closer to your nose).

You can use this method on the stereogram of the workers shown above and you'll suddenly perceive an impressive amount of depth. Try staring at a wall in the distance above your monitor and then moving your head down without refocusing so that your eyes are looking at the screen. Alternatively, stick your nose up close to the screen and back away, keeping your focus fixed, until the 3D illusion takes effect (if your eyes start to hurt, take a break).

You also use this technique when viewing of autostereograms, which were popular in the 1990's under the brand name "Magic Eye". Here's one from Flickr user ClintJCL.


These images use variations in a repetitive pattern to hide shapes within the image. Only when viewed properly can the secret be revealed. Can you see what's hidden in the image above? If not, here's a modified version to try out. This time I've placed two large circles on the bottom, try to focus your eyes in such a way that you see three circles instead of two (if you see four, you're on the right track, keep going).



Later on we'll learn a super easy way to make your own stereoscopic 3D photos, but for now, let's take a look at a second method for creating 3D images.

Method 2: Anaglyph 3D

Anaglyph 3D is a similar but modified way to view 3D images developed by Wilhelm Rollmann in 1853, a couple of decades after Wheatstone created stereoscopy.

As with the previous stereograms, an anaglyph image utilizes two photographs taken from slightly different angles. However, this time the two images are stacked on top of each other and viewed through special colored lenses, typically one red and one blue.

This will make more sense as we make our own later, but for now you should know that the two images are filtered in a special way as they are stacked on top of each other. When combined with the colored lenses of your typical cheap pair of 3D glasses, which filter out certain colors, each of your eyes perceives a different perspective. The result is an illusion of depth very similar to that seen on the stereograms above.

If, like me, you're enough of a nerd that you just happen to have a pair of 3D glasses lying around, check out the image below with them on. As you can see, a really impressive amount of depth can be perceived instantly with no frustrating techniques to learn.



Method 3: Wiggle Stereoscopy

The third method of creating a 3D illusion from a flat photograph is commonly referred to by several different names: wiggle 3D, wiggle stereoscopy, wigglegram, etc. All of these are different names for the same technique.

I can't quite decide if wiggle stereoscopy is the most or least impressive of the three techniques. The truth is, it has both pros and cons. The positive side is that you don't need any special glasses, lenses or eye tricks to see it, just a computer or television screen capable of playing an animation. The downside is that the effect is jumpy and a bit disconcerting, and the results aren't as solid as the other two methods.

Again we start with the same resources: two photos from slightly different angles. As with the anaglyph, wiggle images are stacked on top of each other, but this time the image simply flashes back and forth from one photo to the next. Since you're seeing multiple perspectives in such a short amount of time, you get a strong sense of the depth of the scene.

Here's a nice example from Wikimedia commons created with a couple of NASA images.



Make Your Own!

Now that we know all about the three common types of 3D illusions, let's make our own shall we? Fortunately, with a little time and patience, you can pretty easily create all three types of 3D photos using only a camera and Photoshop!

Taking the Photos

No matter which method you want to attempt, the technique for creating the initial photographs is the same. All you have to do is take two pictures and you're done.

For my setup, I didn't use a fancy photo studio or any expensive specialty equipment, just a tripod, my dining room table and a fairly random assortment of objects that I could use to show depth. Notice that all of my light is natural and comes in from the windows surrounding the scene.



The reason I used a tripod is that it makes it much easier to stay consistent between the two images. You can do this by hand, but moving the camera horizontally without accidentally moving it vertically is really hard.

From here, set your camera on the tripod, meter the scene and focus. It's often a good idea to use a fairly deep depth-of-field (close your aperture down to around f/10 or higher). Remember that you're simulating depth and the result tends to look a little cleaner if all or most if the image is focus. This is only a general rule though, if you can produce a great-looking result with a shallow depth of field, go for it! As you'll see, I set my camera to f/10 so my background is still a little on the blurry side but no where near as much as where I typically shoot around f/3.0. You'll definitely want to experiment with this a little to discover what type of results you prefer.

Once your settings are all ready to go, snap your first photo. Next, slowly slide your tripod to the right, moving the camera only a few inches. The goal here is to simulate your eyes so what I did was shoot the first photo while looking through the viewfinder with my left eye, then slid the tripod far enough that the viewfinder was in front of my right eye and shot another photo. Here's a cropped version of one of the resulting images:



Keep in mind that my scene was shot indoors with a 50mm lens, so the objects were fairly close to me. If you're shooting an outdoor landscape, the gap between photos can be significantly larger, some photographers report moving up to several feet! In these situations, it's best to give yourself several options when producing the final image. To do this, take your first image, move over a little, take another, move over a little more, take a third image and repeat this process until you have a decent range to choose from once you're back at your computer.

Now that we have the two photos that we need for the project, let's take them into Photoshop where all the magic begins.

Method 1: Stereoscopy

Creating a basic stereogram is by far the easiest of the three methods. Nearly all of the work is done by your camera and all you need to do is throw the images together.

Once you import the images, open them both up in Photoshop. Now simply create a new document that is equal to the height of one of the images and the width of both of the images combined. Toss both photos into this new document and align them side by side. Make sure that the leftmost photo is on the left side of the canvas and the rightmost photo is on the right side of the canvas, otherwise you'll get weird results.

With that, you're all done with your first 3D photo! It's not much use if you can't make your eyes see it but with time and practice you should be able to learn, even it it takes a few hours on to master it.

For those that have mastered the technique, here's my finished version. I was extremely pleased with the result. With very little effort I was able to produce a significant amount of illusory depth! If you find it difficult to fix your focus far enough, try backing away from your monitor. The more distance you put between yourself and the two images, the less effort you'll have to put forth to blend them together.



Method 2: Anaglyph Image

There are actually several techniques for creating anaglyph images in Photoshop. You can use Curves adjustments, copy and paste channels, and a whole bunch of other really involved methods that I think are far too lengthy when a great result can be achieved with almost no effort.

To begin, open both of your images in Photoshop and drag them on top of each other into the same canvas. Put your leftmost photo on the bottom and your rightmost photo on the top. At this point your layer setup should look like the one below and only your rightmost photo should be visible.



It can be a little tricky to line the images up. I usually change the blending mode of the top layer temporarily to Multiply so that it bleeds through and I can visually line up the edges (it might be easier to just perform the alignment as the last step). Since the two images are from different perspectives, not everything will line up so you'll want to find a focal point near the center. When you move the top image into place, make sure to crop the image so that there aren't any areas of the bottom layer showing through that aren't being covered by the top layer.

When everything is nice and lined up the way you want, it's time to make the magic happen. All you have to do is double-click the top layer to bring up the Layer Style dialog. From here, simply uncheck the red channel check box below to disable the red channel for this layer.



With that one small step, your images should be perfectly filtered so that when you view them through your red/blue 3D glasses, a 3D illusion bursts forth! The final effect doesn't feel as clean as with the previous method, but it's a lot easier to show off to other people as long as you have the proper glasses.



Method 3: Wiggle Stereoscopy

You can produce the last method using just about any tool with which you're comfortable building brief animations. The easiest method that comes to mind is to use Photoshop's animation panel to export an animated GIF.

To accomplish this, stack the two images using the exact steps that we used in the previous method, sans the channel selection step at the end. Now bring up the Animation Palette, found under the Window menu. The default animation style in the latest versions of Photoshop is an AfterEffects-style timeline. If you're comfortable using this, go for it, but if you're new to animation try converting it to a frame-based animation. The "Convert to Frame Animation" option can be found under the dropdown menu on the right side of the animation palette.

Once you're in frame mode, your timeline should look like the one seen in the image below. Turn off your top layer so that only the leftmost image is visible, then click the "Duplicate Selected Frames" button as indicated by the arrow in the image below.



Now, with your second frame selected, turn on your topmost layer. This should make it so that frame one shows your bottom layer and frame two shows your top layer. Make sure the time between frames (shown at the bottom of each frame) is set to 0.1 seconds and the loop (bottom left) is set to forever. Then hit the play button to preview your animation.



From here you simply go to File>Save for Web & Devices and save the image out as a .GIF. To see the .GIF in action, either embed it into a web page or simply drag it straight to your browser.

3D wiggle images can be a little dizzying. They're fun for a few seconds but you quickly reach a point where you just want the jiggling to stop! I think the lesson I learned building this image is that the simpler the subject the better for wiggling. My image was a lot more complex than the sun shown above and was therefore more likely to induce a feeling of motion sickness after prolonged viewing.

Now that you know how to make your own 3D images the hard way, let's look at a few products that simplify the process.

3D Cameras

Are you interested in taking 3D photos but don't want to mess with all that shooting and moving stuff? If you've got the budget, there are a few cameras currently on the market that do all the work for you. All you do is point and shoot just like you would with a regular camera.

Fujifilm FinePix REAL 3D W3: $376.59



This little camera is quite impressive. It's super thin and compact just like your basic consumer-grade digital camera. However, as you can see from the image above, it has not one but two lenses. 3D cameras use this setup to accomplish taking both the left and right perspective photographs with the click of a single button.

The FinePix REAL 3D W3 is a 10MP camera with a 3.0x optical zoom and an ISO sensitivity of up to 1600. It is capable of taking both photos and full HD video in 2D or 3D. Here's the kicker, the display actually shows you the resulting image or video in lenticular 3D, no glasses needed! When you're at your kid's soccer game and the other dads see your amazing 3D display, you'll instantly be a celebrity.

ViviCam T135: $129.95.



In many ways, the Vivicam T135 outperforms the Fujifilm camera we just saw. This camera has 12.1MP, a 5x digital zoom, both photo and HD movie modes and can shoot 2D and 3D. At just under $130, it's also much cheaper than the previous camera we saw.

The downside is that I can't find this little guy for sale anywhere! Vivitar products are usually sold at major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, so keep an eye out for this and other cool Vivitar 3D cams in the near future.

Holga 120 3D Stereo Camera: $99.99



Since 3D photography is more of a niche market at the moment, you probably don't want to run out and spend hundreds of dollars on one of these products. One of the cheaper solutions coming in at just under a hundred bucks is Holga's 120 3D Stereo Camera.

Unlike the last two cameras we saw, this one is pure analog, meaning it uses 120 slide film (that's right, film!). It's also comprised primarily of plastic so it's not exactly a professional-grade camera. However, it is tons of fun and creates perfect side-by-side stereogram images like those we created in Photoshop using method one above.

Have You Gone 3D?

As the technology currently stands, I don't see 3D photography as much more than a gimmick. I'm sure many of you are opposed to 3D's sudden takeover of the film industry and probably have no desire to see this trend continue into photography.

However, creating your own 3D images is admittedly a fun way to kill an afternoon if you're looking for something new to do with your current camera. With two slightly different photos and minimal Photoshop skills you can create some amazing results.

Leave a comment below and let us know if you've ever tried to create 3D images before. What techniques do you use and how do your results compare to those seen above? Also be sure to leave a link to any 3D photos you have online!

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