Would you like to have some unique fun with your digital camera? Take 3D digital photos and wow your friends. I will walk you through the process of making 3D images, also called stereoptic images, with nothing more than your digital camera and your favorite digital photo editing software.

Before we dive in too deep, let me show you how these 3D images look. Please don't get too far ahead of me—I want to make sure that you can see the images in 3D.

Below are links to sample stereoptic photos. You will need a minimum screen resolution of 800 x 600 to see them. To view them on your screen, follow these simple instructions (I will get into the details of how and why shortly):

  • Click on the small images below to open larger images in new window.
  • Hit the F11 key to make your browser window fill your screen (when done hit F11 again).
  • View at an arm's length from your screen.
  • Start crossing your eyes slowly until you see a single image between the two. The middle image will be blurry at first.
  • Concentrate on the middle image until it comes into focus as 3D.
  • If having difficulty, move a little farther or closer to the screen and try again. It may take several minutes of trying to see it for the first time.
  • When done viewing, close the large image window to return here.

Click on thumbnail image to open larger image in new window. Close the image window to return here.

Natural bridge formation Hiker standing on boulder

What is a Stereoptic Image?

No doubt you know what a stereo sound system is. It contains at least two sets of speakers to produce slightly different sounds to imitate depth and direction. The result is a more realistic audio experience with richness that could not come from a single source.

Stereoptic images are exactly the same experience for your eyes. A stereoptic image pair presents the same view taken at slightly different angles, just like your eyes would produce naturally. People with a set of healthy eyes see nature in 3D as gathered by the two eyes and interpreted by the brain. With stereoptic photography, we give each eye the appropriate image from which the brain composes a 3D view.

Cross-Eyed Viewing

Stereoptic images can be viewed in several ways. The easiest method is with a stereoscope. This device looks similar to binoculars having two sets of lenses, isolating each image for the correct eye. Since I have never met a person who has a stereoscope handy, I find the cross-eyed viewing the next best method.

The purpose of crossing your eyes is to isolate each image for the correct eye. The process is very simple: you take the image meant for the left eye and put it on the right side, and the image for the right eye on the left side. When you cross your eyes, you aim each eye at the correct image.

When your brain recognizes that the picture in both eyes look the same, it will compose the two into a 3D image, complete with a sense of depth and distance.

If you were not able to see the sample images in 3D, here are a few tips. Keep trying because the result will be satisfying. Once you get through the effort of learning, it will be much easier to see the next image.

  • Depending on the size of the images, the distance between the images, and the viewing distance, you may need to cross your eyes different amounts for each pair. Start crossing your eyes slowly until you see the two images merging into a third one in the middle.
  • Move closer or farther from the images and try again.
  • If having trouble keeping your eyes crossed, place your index finger half way between you and the images and focus on your finger. Keep your eyes focused in this position (crossed) and move your finger out of the way.
  • It is common for new viewers to see the middle image fuzzy, but unable to bring into focus. Continue to concentrate on the fuzzy image to give your brain time to recognize it. It helps if the image contains easily recognizable objects in the center, such as a person.
  • Try other images. You may find another pair easier to focus on. Click here to see my personal 3D gallery (opens in new window).

Making Your Own 3D Photos

OK, ready to make your own? Here are the concepts you need to follow for turning your digital photos into easily viewable 3D images:

  • Take photos of your subject from two slightly different horizontal angles.
  • The subject and surrounding area must remain the same between the first and second photo. Don't worry about perfection - your brain will compensate for slight misalignments and movements.
  • Present the image pair for viewing in reversed order and with a slight white gap between them.

Taking the 3D photo:

  1. Select your subject. I suggest starting with still life at a distance greater than 20 feet.
  2. Decide which shot you will take first and follow this order every time. This will make it easier to determine later which image belongs on which side. I am left handed so I always take the left shot first (what my left eye would see).
  3. Decide on the amount of separation (angle) between your two shots. My pupils are about three inches apart, so that would be sufficient for stereoptic images, but I like to extend the distance for a more dramatic effect. My rule of thumb: For subjects 20 feet or farther, use one foot of separation. For subjects closer than 20 feet, reduce separation from one foot by a reasonable amount, down to three inches for close-up shots.
  4. If you are separating your shots by a foot, place your feet on a flat surface about shoulder width apart.
  5. Shift your body so it rests over one of your feet (left, in my case) while keeping the other foot on the ground.
  6. Frame your shot and make a note of a relevant feature's position so you can line it up in the same place in the second shot. For example, you can place the peak of a mountain in the center and touching the top line in your viewfinder.
  7. Take the first shot.
  8. Shift your body so it rests over the other foot. This will move your camera about one foot over while maintaining the same height.
  9. Frame your second shot, taking care to line it up the same way as the first. This won't be exact because you are looking from a slightly different position, but do the best you can. Good alignment of your two shots will produce the best and easiest to view 3D images.

Preparing and presenting the 3D photo:

  1. At home download your digital photos to your computer.
  2. While still fresh in your mind, re-name the stereoptic photos so you can easily recognize them. You can make up your own method or use mine:
    1. Name the left image in the pair as DATE_NUM_Stereo_L.
    2. Name the right image in the pair as DATE_NUM_Stereo_R.
    3. After you combine the images, name the final version as DATE_NUM_Stereo_Both.
    4. File name examples (I use the .jpg extension in the example. Be sure to keep the extension on your digital photo unchanged):
    5. 20050414_09_Stereo_L.jpg
  3. Open the two images in your digital photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0.
  4. Create a new blank image (or canvas) large enough to hold both images next to each other, plus a white gap between them about 50 pixels wide. This will be your combined image.
  5. Copy and paste the left photo to the right side of your combined image, and the right photo to the left side.
  6. Size your combined image to fit your intended presentation medium.
  7. Present your 3D digital photo on the computer screen or on photo paper. Printing the combined image on 4x6" glossy photo paper works well for showing to friends.

That's it. With practice you will become proficient at stereoptic digital photography.

If you enjoyed the two samples above, be sure to visit my personal 3D gallery for more stereoptic photos (opens in new window).