About twelve years ago, it looked like 3D would be the way of the future. But, hardly a few years later, it appeared like most of the industry had abandoned this ideal. But did they really?
In this 3-part series, I discuss why 3D is coming back in 2022. In Part 1, I go over the history of 3D cameras. In Part 2, I look at the evolution of 3D viewers. In Part 3, I do an overview of how digital technology has impacted 3D photography and viewing.
In recent years, some tech websites have had a tendency to refer to 3D as a useless gimmick, yet they appear to ignore the fact that we happen to have a pair of eyes whose purpose is specifically to allow us to see depth. Depth is indeed the third dimension and it gives us a sense of presence that makes us feel the reality of objects and scenes that surround us.
It might be a good idea to look back at the origins of 3D photography to get a better perspective of 3D’s very long evolution and how the past has been a source of inspiration for the products of today.
It was in the early part of the 19th century that a means to view 3D images was invented. As soon as photography appeared shortly thereafter, experiments began to apply this new technology to photography. It didn’t take long for viewers of every kind to be invented and, before long, viewing 3D pictures became a favorite pastime.
In those days, stereoscopic pictures were mostly taken by pro photographers using bulky large format cameras. They were used both in the studio for portraits and outside to record scenic pictures. In fact, some of these photographers went around the world taking 3D pictures that were then published by specialized companies and offered along with a stereo viewer. The most common of these was the Holmes viewer that, one could say, is the direct ancestor of the VR headsets of today.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, smaller stereo cameras became available so the general public could start taking their own 3D pictures. Cameras such as the Verascope from Jules Richard became quite popular.
In the US, there were several folding type stereo cameras, some produced by Kodak. The French cameras mostly used glass plates while the American ones used large film. These cameras remained available well into the thirties.
In the late forties, a new type of stereo camera was introduced to take advantage of 35mm color slide film. In France, this camera took the form of the Verascope F40 – manufactured by the same company that produced some of the earliest glass plate cameras – and in America, a company by the name of David White introduced the Stereo Realist in 1947.
In the years that followed, countless American and European manufacturers produced their own 35mm stereo cameras. Again, Kodak produced one and even offered a stereo processing service. These stereo slides could be viewed either with a handheld viewer or using a stereoscopic projector.
Even View-Master introduced its own stereo camera in 1952, the View-Master Personal.
By the mid-fifties, interest in 3D photography was slowly dying down. It wasn’t so much for lack of public interest as for the fact that, in spite of many companies manufacturing them, most people were not really aware that 3D cameras existed at all or did not quite know how to use them. Also, stereo pairs did need to be manually aligned and mounted and some people found the task too tedious.
In the early sixties, a stereo adapter was introduced that was to solve many of these problems. It was called the Tri-Delta Prism Stereo adapter – a very inexpensive accessory that could be mounted on a regular single lens camera. No longer was it necessary to purchase a dedicated stereoscopic camera. It held the distinction of being able to record a pair of landscape format pictures on a single slide by placing them head-to-head. The accompanying viewer rotated the left and right images back to a side-by-side configuration and featured a clever mechanism allowing alignment of the left and right pictures directly in the viewer. This adapter and viewer were offered throughout the sixties and up to 1976. Again, most people were not aware of its existence due to lack of publicity.
In the early eighties, electronics became an intrinsic part of the latest stereo cameras. Most notably, the FED stereo camera was introduced by the well-know FED Russian camera manufacturer. Several models were produced over that decade.
At the same time, several gifted 3D enthusiasts also made their own stereo cameras by splicing two SLRs and joining them together. However, it was a German enterprise by the name of RBT that took this approach to the next level by literally building custom stereo SLR bodies using current models from several camera manufacturers. Thus they produced several stereo reflex cameras using bodies from Yashica, Nikon and Ricoh and several stereo rangefinder cameras based on Voigtlander, Konica and even Zeiss Ikon bodies. They continued production of these film cameras into the early 2000’s.
The early eighties also saw the commercial introduction of a very different type of stereo camera: a four-lens camera designed to produce 3D prints that did not need to be placed in a viewer to view the 3D effect. It was probably the most misunderstood camera of its time. The Nimslo camera was designed exclusively for close range subject matter, yet people often used it for subject matter that was too distant to exhibit a 3D effect and then faulted the camera for not delivering the promised results. I have seen several impressive pictures taken with this camera and I have also seen many that exhibited no 3D effect whatsoever due to the subject matter being too far from the camera.
Even though the Nimslo camera was not a tremendous success in the marketplace, several other companies introduced similar cameras over the years such as Nishika, Image Tech, Nimstec, Rittai and US Tech. Some companies even produced pro models. Such was the case with Image Tech who offered a medium format pro lenticular camera called the 3DS-EXP645. It might surprise many that these types of cameras remained available for many years, right up to 2007.
But by then the digital era was well underway and Fuji was just about to introduce what would be the first 3D digital camera – the W1.
Thus far, I have demonstrated that 3D cameras were never a passing fad. They have been available since the dawn of photography and have evolved alongside regular 2D cameras. But that is only half of the history of 3D. In the next part, I will illustrate the evolution of 3D viewers, which is equally fascinating!