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The Mystery of the Stereoscope

What is a Stereoscope?

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A Brief History of 3D Photography

stereoscope and cardsStereo photography is as old as photography itself. The earliest photographers created 3D images in the mid 1800s, but it wasn’t until a simple and inexpensive sterescope was created in 1861 that public interest took off. By the late 1800s, stereoscopes could be found in homes throughout the world and millions of stereoview cards were available.

People could “travel the world” without leaving their parlors; some sets of pictures even came with travel guides. Events such as the Civil War and the San Francisco earthquake were popular subjects. There were also pictures of humorous stories and images of important events and characters, such as the pictures of Santa Claus.

The type of stereoscope that Sam and Abby received from their grandpa is called a Holmes/Bates stereoscope after the two people who invented and perfected it; Oliver Wendall Holmes and Joseph Bates.

View-MastersThe second big wave of interest in stereoscopic viewing began with the introduction of the View-Master at the 1939 world’s fairs in New York and San Francisco. Like the stereoview cards of a half century earlier, View-Master provided the public with a wide range of subjects, this time in full color, which allowed for better reproduction of natural subjects such as flowers and birds. As time went on, the subject matter included more and more reels for children, including cartoons and scenes from popular TV shows, and View-Masters became thought of as toys. You may have a stereoscope -- a View-Master-- laying around your house, without realizing it.

eye diagram

How does 3D photography work?

When we look at a scene in the real world we view it in three dimensions: height (how tall it is), width (how wide it is) and depth (how far away it is). That’s 3D. This is possible because we have two eyes. Since our eyes are a slight distance apart we see a slightly different image with each eye.

Try this simple experiment to see how it works. Outstretch your arm with your thumb up in the air. Close one eye and use your thumb to hide from view a distant object. Now, without moving your hand, close the first eye and open the other. See the difference? With both eyes open your brain compares the two images and interprets the difference as distance, called depth perception.

A 3D photograph begins with two similar, but not identical, images. Each image represents what you would see with either your left or right eye. Old-fashioned stereoscopes and View-Masters allow each eye to each see only one of the two images. When viewed together, the brain combines them into a single, three-dimensional picture.

To learn more about stereoscopic photography, check out the book The Magic of 3D Photography:

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Page updated: 10/29/2015