Stereo Photography – Retro and Still Cool

I was fascinated by Viewmaster reels as a little boy because I never understood what magic made the images look 3D.

I started finding old stereopticon cards in antique stores and discovered that stereo photography was a big rage in the late 1800’s. I figured out how to take my own stereo images when I found a Kodak stereo camera on eBay made in the 1950’s.


Before there was radio in the late 1800’s, people would view stereopticon cards in their parlors. Individual stereopticon cards could be purchased at popular tourist destinations such as Niagara Falls. Boxed sets consisting of hundreds of cards were also sold. These sets would show people scenes from all around the world, in a day when travel to a distant land would take weeks or months and was impractical for most people.

A stereo camera takes two pictures at the same time with two lenses, separated just like your eyes. You see them in 3D because you have two eyes looking at the same image from two different vantage points. Closer subjects appear in different spots, subjects farther away appear in the same spot. If there is a larger difference in location, your brain tells you it is closer. If you close one eye for a while, you can’t judge how far away something is.

I shoot on slide film and mount the slides so they can be viewed in a special stereo viewer, but you can view the image below in stereo too if you follow these instructions on how to do parallel freeviewing.

Your eyes normally get closer together when looking at something up close.

  • The trick with freeviewing is to look at something in the distance so your eyes don’t converge, and then look at the stereo view about 2 or three feet away, not letting your eyes converge.
  • Once you start getting close to seeing 3D, you will start to see 3 images. You will want to concentrate on the virtual “middle” image and make it converge. It will first appear as two images, one floating on top of the other until they properly register and suddenly pop into 3D.
  • Pick a spot in the middle of the images and use your eyes to bring those spots together. Once you bring that spot together, you should see the middle image in 3D.
  • Make sure your head is level with the image. If you are having trouble, try moving the image farther away.

Try it with these four sets of pictures. Click to see the larger view and give it a whirl!

belle-small british-museum-smallflower-smalltower-of-london-small

Were you able to make it work? It is easier with a viewer.

Some companies are still making stereo cameras, both film and digital, and there are lots of vintage stereo cameras available on ebay.

I’ve taken stereo pictures everywhere I go – China, Europe, Alaska, weddings, etc. Everyone asks me what it is and how it works. It’s always the talk of the train, cafe, sampan, or wherever I am making stereo images!.