Return of the Stereo-Realist

The popularity of stereo images (including video) has peaked and troughed through the decades. Each time, we embrace the novelty of it, then it fades away - probably because we get fed up with all the equipment we need to get it to work. The Stereo Realist is a 35mm stereo camera that came at a similar time to the ViewMaster you might remember from your childhood if you are at the age where you start to find gray hairs in the mirror. Funnily enough, it might be more practical to use the Stereo-Realist today than when it was born half a century ago. 

Stereo Realist 35mm camera

Stereo photography has some history

The Victorians embraced stereo photography. In fact, stereo images were originally drawings that pre-date chemical photography. It was a way to explore an escape from the tyranny of two-dimensional prints. It turns out that Brian May (the guitarist from Queen) is an avid fan of this medium and has released books documenting its history through the London Stereoscopic Company.

Then there was a stereo craze in the 50s and 60s that gave rise to the ViewMaster and a host of stereo cameras from various manufacturers. The Realist was released by the David White Company just in time to ride the wave. It was an expensive luxury camera and it proved to be very popular (read more about it on Dr T's website).

To get a stereo effect, the camera has two lenses separated by a distance similar to the distance between our eyes. So each lens makes a unique 25.4 x 23.4 mm image of the same scene. When the images are viewed as a pair, it tricks the brain into thinking there is depth in the image. I wouldn't say it is perfect - it is more like seeing a series of 2D cardboard cut-outs in 3D space. Still, it is memorizing and everyone who has seen one of my stereo images breaks out in a smile at the novelty.

Using the Stereo Realist

The Stereo Realist is a fully mechanical camera with a few quirks (find the manual here). There is very little coupling between functions. For example, winding the film will trigger the frame counter, but it will not cock the shutter. There is a separate lever on the front which readies the shutter for the next shot. And once the shot is taken, the winding mechanism to advance the film is locked until you press the the release button. None of this is a problem once the full cycle of motions is performed a couple of times.

Why is the Realist relevant again?

Because computers. In the film days, stereo photos would have to be printed at special labs at specific sizes for specific viewer hardware. But now we can scan the negatives, stereo-pairs of photos can be assembled in Photoshop (or even in a word-processor). The trick is to keep them small - two or three inches wide. They can be viewed on a screen, but printing the images out makes it a more tactile experience. 

The simplest way to view the stereo pairs is to go cross-eyed untill the two images appear to overlap and a third image seems to exist between them. This is easiest when the pictures are either small, or viewed from far away. Many people cannot (or will not try to) use this technique. In this case, you can use an set of inexpensive 3d viewers which are easily found on eBay (I recommend these low cost viewers).

 
Stare at the images and let your eyes cross until the images overlap. You'll perceive a third image in the center with a stereo effect. If you are having trouble seeing it, move further away from the screen or make the images smaller.

Stare at the images and let your eyes cross until the images overlap. You'll perceive a third image in the center with a stereo effect. If you are having trouble seeing it, move further away from the screen or make the images smaller.

 

Images of Halifax

I'm from a small industrial town nestled in the hills of West Yorkshire in England. Halifax was in its prime when the Victorians set up textile factories along its rivers during the industrial revolution. A lot of this architecture still remains, though most of it re-purposed for the modern world. Cold soot-stained stonework against the gently rolling hills defines the landscape. The air is fresh.

I appreciate the aesthetics of the town more now I live thousands of miles away than I did when I lived there. I started to bring my Hasselblad with me on trips to capture Halifax on film. For certain subjects, using black and white film makes the image look almost as if it were taken a hundred years ago.