29 November 2019

A brief introduction to Stereoscopy

Category: History
A brief introduction to Stereoscopy - Black & White Photography and Stereoscopy Blog

Stereoscopy is a technique to create the illusion of depth when viewing stereoscopic images. Today we call it 3D, but the technique is more than 175 years old.

Humans have the ability to see three dimensions or “depth”. We have two eyes and small perspective differences between the left and the right eye are interpreted by the brain as depth. Stereoscopy simulates this process by creating the illusion of depth when viewing stereoscopic images made by a stereo camera.

A normal camera has only one lens and creates two-dimensional images. A stereo camera has two lenses that are positioned next to each other. When taking a photo, two images are recorded on the negative at the same time. Both lenses record one photo and the distance between the two lenses results in small perspective differences between the two images. The developed image is a stereoscopic image, also called stereoview, stereograph or stereogram. It will be displayed three dimensionally when it’s viewed using a stereoscope, also known as stereo viewer.

Vérascope stereo camera manufactured by Jules Richard
Vérascope stereo camera manufactured by Jules Richard

Stereoscopy history

Stereoscopy was invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone. He designed a first stereoscope for viewing stereographic drawings. It was a large device that worked with mirrors. Sir David Brewster developed in 1849 a more compact stereoscope based on lenses. This lenticular Brewster Stereoscope initially aroused little interest in Britain. He took his prototype to Paris and interested the French instrument maker Jules Duboscq. Duboscq started making and selling stereoscopes and improved Brewster's design. During the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the British Queen Victoria looked through the lenses of a Brewster stereoscope made by Duboscq. She was impressed by the three-dimensional view and her enthusiasm contributed to the popularity of stereoscopy in the 1850s and 1860s.

An early Brewster-style stereoscope for viewing 8,5x17cm stereoviews
An early Brewster-style stereoscope for viewing 8,5x17cm stereoviews

Most stereoviews were printed on paper and are called stereo cards. Stereoviews on glass were particularly popular in France. These are called transparencies, diapositives or just slides.

Stereoscopy - 6x13cm glass stereoview
6x13cm glass stereoview


It's possible to view stereoscopic images without a stereoscope. An Anaglyph consists of two layered images. A red image for the left eye and a cyan image for the right eye. A three-dimensional view is displayed when using special anaglyph glasses, better known as 3D glasses. The advantage of anaglyphs is that they can be displayed on a screen, but in my opinion nothing beats the experience of viewing glass stereoviews using a vintage stereoscope.

Stereoscopy - anaglyph
The same stereoview as anaglyph. Use 3D glasses to view the image properly.

Rise and fall

Stereoscopy was popular from around 1850 to 1950. Popularity slowly declined after the Second World War. The peak in France was between 1890 and 1930. This was mainly influenced by the innovations of Jules Richard who introduced the compact glass formats 45x107mm and 6x13cm. With his stereo cameras Vérascope and the affordable Glyphoscope, photography came within reach of amateurs. The First World War took place in this era and many stereoviews were made during the conflict and sold in the early 1920s.

Selling images of war - advertisement from 1918
Selling images of war - advertisement from 1918

Stereoscopy today

Today, stereoscopy is a niche in the digital era. Fujifilm introduced in 2009 the first digital 3D camera for the consumer market: the FinePix Reaal 3D W1, followed by the W3 in 2010. Although the camera was more successful than expected, there would be no successor. None of the major camera brands offer a digital stereo camera at this moment but stereo photography is still practiced by a group of enthusiasts.