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3D Cameras

Why 3D is making a comeback in 2022 (part 1: a brief history of 3D cameras)

History of 3D cameras Part 1
History of 3D cameras Part 1

 

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.

Large format 19th century 3D camera

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.

Verascope Richard
Verascope Richard

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.

Kodak Stereo Brownie
Kodak Stereo Brownie

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.

Verascope F40
Verascope F40
Stereo Realist
Stereo Realist

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.

Kodak 35mm stereo camera
Kodak 35mm stereo camera

Even View-Master introduced its own stereo camera in 1952, the View-Master Personal.

View-Master Personal camera

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.

Tri-Delta Prism Stereo system

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.

FED Ctepeo 3D camera

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.

RBT X2 3D SLR camera

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.

Nimslo camera
Nimslo 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.

Image Tech 3DS-EXP645 pro lenticular camera

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.

Fuji W1 digital 3D camera
Fuji W1 digital 3D camera

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!

 

 

About the author

Francois B

Francois B is a 3D photographer and researcher with several decades of experience. He has researched countless 3D patents and equipment over the years, many dating from the 19th and 20th century. He has also corresponded with several inventors behind those patents and designed his own 3D equipment. Since 2013, he has been beta-testing 3D products for various companies including CVision, Cinera, Mopic, EyeFly 3D, TriDef, etc. He currently acts as consultant for several enterprises developing 3D equipment.

18 Comments

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      • TDC Stereo Colorist 2 guy here…

        I still have my Stereo Colorist 1 but I always felt that the most cleverly designed 35mm 3D camera was the TDC Stereo Vivid ! Unfortunately, I sold that one long ago.

        • I had one too! Very interesting, fun and robust design, (if a little more frustrating to load and use). The TDC Colorist II had some of the more “modern” features (standard flash shoe, direct view range finder) as well as some of the sharpest 3 piece lens on any 3D camera of that era.

    • Hi Brian,

      I too spent many years shooting film with such cameras and I still have most of them in my collection.

  • Cool! Those were interesting 3D camera history. I’m only aware of the new Canon 3D camera, seen the antique you’ve shown here only in your blog. I hope LiDaR will be included in your 3D coverage so we can end up with 3D printing 🙂 Thanks and Cheers!

  • Hi François,

    I’m also a 3D entousiast since the earlies 70s. 😉

    It’s a pity that Fuji dropped their 3D series with the W3 model.

    The 3D boom of 2009 was mainly caused by the success of the movie Avatar.
    TV manufacters greed was obvious and they tried to impose their very expensive, heavy, fragile and not so good active glasses at any cost.

    Once again, the lack of publicity for devices that can capture stereoscopic pictures or videos was the second step to kill 3D TVs.

    Since Avatar 2 will finally release this year (and 3, 4 and 5 a bit later), maybe 3D rise again for some time. 🙂

    Great article anyway.

  • Thanks for an overview of the kind of cameras I’ve used and loved! It’s surprising how few know about this Parallel Photographic Universe. The depth and detail of the stereo slide transparencies captured by these cameras still hold up very well against any digital format when viewing them in a proper quality, stereo slide viewer.

    Back in the 90’s, there was a European inventor who attempted a sort of analog “VR headset.” It consisted of a long, stereo panorama along two strips of slide film. These were arranged in an over/under format that was viewed side-by-side with mirrors within an elaborate head mounted viewer. These slides strips would roll out in the opposite direction the viewer rotated his head, giving the sensation of being able to look around within a scene (but not so much up or down).

    Another, earlier, attempt was the LEEP system camera and viewer. A pair of stereo slides were taken with two medium format cameras with fish eye lens. The slide pair would then be viewed in a stereo viewer whose large, custom lens were shaped to correct the fisheye distortion. This would supposedly give the viewer a more immersive, if fixed, viewpoint.

    Neither of these devices were ever fully developed, but showed the length enthusiasts would go to create the ultimate virtual viewing experience in those Analog Days, (when sharp, tiny, motion triggered LED displays were just a dream).

    If one is interested in the history (and future) of Stereoscopic media, the National Stereographic Association (NSA) and International Stereoscopic Union (ISU) are good organizations to join. In normal times, they hold annual conventions to share their work and display new tech.

    • Back in the 90’s, there was a European inventor who attempted a sort of analog “VR headset.” It consisted of a long, stereo panorama along two strips of slide film.

      Yes. I knew and corresponded with him. It was a clever idea but very expensive.

      Another, earlier, attempt was the LEEP system camera and viewer.

      I will be addressing the LEEP system in a forthcoming article. I knew and corresponded with the inventor Eric Howlett for many years right up to his death. I also tested the LEEP system for several weeks.

    • Thanks Michael !

      I see you have taken the giant leap and ordered the Canon 3D 180 lens. I hope it fully meets your expectations.

  • Hi Francois,

    Thanks for this nice express journey through the century+ long period of fascinating 3D camera evolution. I owned and used few of those 35mm models, and even few digital units. 3D photography making is always a bit more labor intensive that a regular 2D snapping, but 3D viewing results are so much more rewarding. We are truly lucky that, despite main-stream ignorance against stereoscopy, some photo/video manufacturers continue to support that medium.

    Long live 3D 🙂

    • Thanks Vlad !

      Unfortunately, so many people today are ignorant of 3D’s long history. Most people today are not even aware that any 3D cameras were ever available – even the digital ones. I hope my articles help people discover that means of shooting and viewing 3D have been with us for well over a century.

      • This is a great introduction to the relative “youngsters” who only know of 3-D through modern VR and movies. People whom I would show it to were always amazed at this old stuff, and would wonder aloud why it never caught-on more than it ever did.

        It is also be an even more obscure topic to eventually review all the analog attempts at 2D, 360, panoramic and immersive photo cameras and viewing.

  • Great series of articles, Francois. Thank you.

    3D seems to make a comeback about every 20 years since 1830.
    It is fascinating to see the reinventions of the same thing as well as the adoption of new technology.
    Actually some of the reinventions are very frustrating, but it can be delightful to see young folks discovering what we discovered a while ago 🙂

    • 3D seems to make a comeback about every 20 years

      I think that is mainly true of the 3D movie industry. 3D cameras have been available pretty much since the beginning of photography due to the fact there have always been practitioners of the art. I agree that there have been periods in history where just about every manufacturer was competing to have his own 3D camera on the market. But there has always been something available to shoot 3D at any time in history or resourceful 3D enthusiasts that would build their own equipment !