The Stereo Portrait Project: famous figures in 3D photos

With the ever-growing trend for three-dimensional products reaching fever pitch, two artists have created a series of 3D photographs of well-known Australian figures with a unique camera set-up.

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6 min read

With the ever growing trend for 3D products reaching fever pitch, two artists have created a series of 3D photographs of well-known Australian figures with a unique camera set up.

Jamie Nimmo and Alex Fry are visual effects compositors at design and animation studio Animal Logic in Sydney. Together they have created the Stereo Portrait Project, a series of 3D images taken with two Nikon D90 digital SLR cameras carefully rigged together to make stereoscopic photos. The images read like a document of influential Australian creative figures such as Morris Gleitzman, Craig Ruddy and Rai Thistlethwayte.

Morris Gleitzman
A 3D photo of children's author Morris Gleitzman. (Credit: Stereo Portrait Project)

Working together on the upcoming feature film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole gave Alex and Jamie the impetus to create the images for the Stereo Portrait Project. Unlike the 3D glasses used to watch films through, the exhibition can be viewed using slightly older technology; traditional red and cyan glasses.

People just look different in 3D ... You see a face through depth, whereas in a photograph it's just through shadow.

"Being able to see people that you've only ever been able to see in 2D before, it is a different experience, it's a lot more like looking at sculpture," says Alex. "There's something a lot more intangible about it. When you look at a 2D photo there's your world and the photographic reality. Stereo stuff crosses over this."

"People just look different in 3D," adds Jamie. "You have a photograph of yourself and it doesn't really look like how your face looks when you look in the mirror. You see a face through depth, whereas in a photograph it's just through shadow."

"The photos come out more like dioramas. So they're like little scenes that you're viewing, like a play. Especially being able to see around bits of detail and the skin on people's faces is really quite amazing; you get to really see the texture of it. It's almost like presenting these people that [others] may have heard of or have seen before and almost being able to meet them."

Taking the images and setting up an integrated system presented a unique challenge. It involved setting up RF triggers, flash guns, a soft box, and a custom-made rig to hold the cameras together at an approximate distance between the eyes. The full set-up is documented on the Stereo Portrait Project website.

Stereo Portrait Project
The custom-built rig showing two Nikon D90 cameras. (Credit: Stereo Portrait Project)

Outside of their day jobs, both Jamie and Alex are avid photographers. Jamie runs the Oh Really Gallery in Sydney, where the exhibition will be held, and also acts as the gallery's in-house photographer. Both photographers are used to taking portraits and interacting with their subjects, but the set up for the Stereo Portrait Project was a little different. "It became this weird situation where I would be standing next to the subject, pointing them at the cameras, while Alex was standing behind the cameras pre-loading the triggers. Trying to engage with the subjects at the same time became really difficult because they're trying to look at either Alex or myself."

"I'm theoretically the one behind the camera at this point, but I'm not the one taking the photo," adds Alex. "Jamie is the one over there taking the photo, talking to the person, because he knows when he's taking the photo."

But that scenario was the back-up plan, enacted when cables failed. When everything worked properly, there was just one hand-held radio trigger and a receiver split into two shutter release cables between the cameras. They weren't content with letting the technology do all the talking, though. "People only show you what they want to show. It's a matter of trying to get them to give you something, or for them to show you a side of themselves. When the person is in front of the camera, the technical side of it seems to be the lesser part," says Jamie.

Stereo Portrait Project
(Credit: Stereo Portrait Project)

Working in the animation industry gives both Alex and Jamie a unique position to observe the shifts in film-making thanks to the growing popularity of 3D. So is there a new language developing in the process of making 3D films as opposed to traditional 2D ones?

"I don't think it's fully happened yet," says Alex. "A lot of the films we're seeing now, they're still shot as 2D films with 3D just kind of tacked on as an afterthought. I think two or three years from now when people are making films primarily for 3D, you're going to see different styles, different things that work well. Using telephoto lenses is probably going to go out of fashion as it doesn't really work well in 3D."

Jamie compared this period we're experiencing now to the transition from black-and-white to colour films; the same as when hand-painted films tried to emulate the colour look but wasn't quite right. The underlying technology needs to evolve a bit until "people start thinking about composing in 3D".

Stereo Portrait Project
A 3D photo of director Michael Gracey. (Credit: Stereo Portrait Project)

During the shooting process, Alex and Jamie used a Fujifilm FinePix W1 3D camera to help them think about their portraits. They managed to sync the W1 with the SB900 flash gun, using it as a pre-trigger, where they got some interesting results. "It's great," says Jamie. "None of the photos in the show were taken on that camera. I think it gives us more confidence to try some more complex set-ups next time." Being able to quickly preview what certain shots would look like without having to set up the rig proved invaluable — almost like a modern-day incarnation of photographers using Polaroids to take a quick snapshot of a scene before the final shoot.

As for future applications of 3D technology in still cameras, Alex and Jamie are optimistic. "It's not much of a leap to have stereo [images] in your iPhone, even just as a base-level consumer," says Alex. "People will be able to shoot video on that, and stills. Especially with YouTube support and everyone moving towards it, you can't really see that as much of a stretch. You could put it horizontally to have it closer to the distance between the human eyes, the interocular, too."

That's one of the nice things that's going on in photography right now, is what's happening in the iPhone.

Both cite the iPhone as an exciting development for photography, particularly in relation to 3D applications. "That's one of the nice things that's going on in photography right now, is what's happening in the iPhone," says Jamie.

Traditional camera manufacturers have more closed systems, which is something that Alex and Jamie would like to see shift in the future. "There's no real access to the software and the processor in the high-end cameras (D300, D3)," says Alex. "It would be cool to have a Nikon app store so you can just download new modules to take advantage of the hardware in the camera in new and interesting ways."

Stereo Portrait Project
A 3D portrait of musician Rai Thistlethwayte. (Credit: Stereo Portrait Project)

"It's really a side effect of technology; it tends to make more things similar to each other," Jamie adds. "Now there are subtle differences in software running on the same hardware; having high-end image capture devices and image processing is becoming a generalised thing. The Sony NEX cameras and the camcorder are going to have the same mount and the sensor will be pretty much the same, but it's the ergonomics and what's going on behind that which is the differentiator."

Another idea would be to have a modular camera system that relies on the processing power of a device such as the iPod or iPhonein conjunction with the quality optics from a traditional system. Jamie says that instead of its own screen, the NEX or other interchangeable lens cameras could have "a dock for an iPod Touch or something, so all the computation gets uploaded to this common platform, and all [the camera] is bringing to the table is a nice big lens mount, nice big sensor, a battery, and that kind of stuff."

The Stereo Portrait Project has quite detailed photos and descriptions of the particular set up of the camera rig — are they scared that they've given away their methods?

"It would be great if there were more shows like this. I hope a lot of people think that they can do it."

The Stereo Portrait Project opens on 27 May at Oh Really Gallery at 55 Enmore Road, Sydney. You can take part in your own 3D photograph when Jamie and Alex set up the rig at Creative Sydney on 4 June and stream the results direct to Twitter.