Your eyes are 3D camera lenses, and your brain is their image processor.

That's backward, actually. Camera lenses are modeled after your eyes, to capture light that can be processed into an image. But almost all cameras rely on a single shutter-release to cull a slice of time for your future viewing. Eyes, on the other hand, are a dual-lens system that sees what's in front of them from two similar angles (about 2 inches apart) and stitches them together to give us a sense of depth and a unified picture of the world.

Our depth perception works best on objects that are up to about 20 feet away. For objects that are more distant, we use size cues and past experience to estimate distance.

Cameras simulate 3D images in a number of ways. A select few, such as the Panasonic Lumix 3D1 and Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3, have dual lenses and can take two simultaneous shots, stitching them together the same way our eyes and brain do. Others require you to take a picture from the perspective of the left eye, then pan right so that a right-eye image can be captured.

Dual-lens cameras are superior for 3D photography because both images are taken simultaneously, meaning there is no risk of the composition changing between shots. This is the only way moving objects can be adequately captured in 3D. It's also the only way 3D movies can be shot, since every frame has to be shot with both lenses simultaneously. However, for still 3D photos, pan-style 3D cameras have powerful processors that will do the job fine.

The best subjects for 3D photography have a few elements in common. Follow these tips for ideal results:

  • Choose scenes without motion, unless you have a dual-lens camera. Even then, adjust your camera settings to totally eliminate motion blur, as it ruins the realism of a 3D photograph.
  • Choose scenes with a strong distinction between foreground and background so that the added dimensionality will be dramatic. Examples: Tree branches in the foreground framing a farmhouse in the background; a bridge stretching off into the horizon; a forest with trees at differing distances from the camera.
  • Don't go crazy with the zoom lens. Zooming more than about 4x will make shots feel unnatural because the triangulation is no longer the same.
  • Make sure some subjects are within 20 feet, where stereoscopic vision matters. Pure landscapes will seem just as flat as 2D shots.
  • Instead of shooting flat subjects head-on, capture them at an angle so that the depth matters. E.g., instead of the broad side of a barn, photograph it from a corner. Better yet, select subjects with curves.
  • Avoid overlapping subjects. Even though the added depth will keep telephone poles from appearing to grow out of the heads in front of them, a cluttered composition is distracting. Showcase one or two subjects and make sure they are distinct from one another and from their background.
  • Instead of posing people toward the camera lens, have them look at something within the shot.
  • Choose well-lit scenes to avoid differing shadows between the two shots.

With a little practice, you'll be composing compelling shots with a new sense of depth.

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