Amateur photography goes 3-D

A growing number of amateur photographers are discovering the art of 3-D anaglyphs, creating online communities of geeked-out grown-ups who can't stop posting pictures.

When he was teenager in the late 1980s, Gary Johnson was looking around his high school woodshop for a project one day, and came up with an idea that fascinated him.

He stumbled upon slabs of colored acrylic, cut two pieces - one red, one blue - and turned them into a pair of viewing glasses.

He couldn’t wait to use them on the latest 3-D comic books, with their heroes and villains leaping off the page.

Johnson forgot about that obsession for 20 years, until the Mars rover reawakened it.

After seeing “anaglyph” pictures of mountains, rocks and the rippled red landscape of Mars beamed back as the Rover crawled the surface of the red planet, the 36-year-old record producer from California was hooked.

“If you are a geek like me, that was really cool," he said.

"It's as close as you can get to being on another planet."

Today, anaglyphs, the technical term for the misaligned photos that require funky red-and-blue fold-up glasses to be properly seen, are enjoying a resurgence online.

Just weeks ago, Johnson joined in, creating a series of anaglyphs of his own and posting them to the photo sharing Web site Flickr.

They ranged from his wine rack to his favorite guitar to the street his house is on.

"I was then and I am now totally geeked out by the concept," said Johnson, who has taken to carrying around a pair of glasses to show friends photos on his iPhone.

(The blue lens is, technically, the color cyan.)

Geeks like Johnson posted more than 1,200 anaglyph photos to the site in January 2008 alone, and continue to add dozens more each day.

The trend recently moved to YouTube too, which now hosts more than 400 anaglyph videos.

At Berezin Stereo Photography Products in Mission Viejo, Calif., store owner Steve Berezin has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of 3-D glasses being purchased over the last year.

Berezin attributes the increased sales to the release of new 3-D movies, the ease of digital photography, NASA's anaglyph photos of Mars and plain old nostalgia.

"No matter what the form, people are always going to be interested in 3-D," Berezin said.

Almost everyone has seen an anaglyph, even if they don't realize it.

Through the years, they have been included on cereal boxes, in comic books and movies, and are the basic technology behind the popular View-Master children's toy.

Anaglyph movies were widely released in the 1920s, but reached the height of their popularity in the 1950s with box office hits like "The Creature from the Black Lagoon."

Since that time only a few movies have been released in anaglyph format, as other forms of 3-D are clearer and friendlier to the eye.

In 2003, DreamWorks released a short Shrek 3-D animation – with Shrek wearing the red-cyan glasses on the cover.

Most recently, Hannah Montana and U2 3-D movies were released in a different form of 3-D called polarization, which plays two movie reels simultaneously to create the effect.

But amateur anaglyphs are easy for hobbyists to make.

At the most basic level, an anaglyph requires two identical pictures of one scene shot from two perspectives, usually two to seven inches apart, explained Ethan Killian, a soft-spoken and meticulous software engineer from Salt Lake City.

During editing, one shot will become the red layer and the other will be cyan, a greenish blue.

When a viewer dons the paper glasses, the red lens prohibits the eye from seeing red and the blue appears as black.

The brain registers the two black images from each eye as one, creating the 3-D effect.

Killian has made six or seven anaglyphs by using a slide adapter mounted on a tripod to ensure the photos are taken on the same plane and have a common center point.

One of his recent creations, a 3-D hydrant, is so colorful when viewed without the glasses that it looks like pop art, but with the glasses, the hydrant seems to pop out of the frame.

Watts Carr, a 39-year-old real estate broker, uses the "cha-cha method" of taking one photo and then either moving the camera to his other eye or taking a step to the side.

It is the cheapest way to make an anaglyph, but has a downside, since consistency can't be guaranteed.

Johnson plans to use yet another method by rigging two cameras together and synchronizing their firing.

Today's anaglyph makers are a sprightly bunch, united by the Internet and inventing creative outlets to keep the art form from dying.

Three weeks ago Carr was inspired to try making an anaglyph after finding his daughter's Shrek glasses.

"I just wanted to see if I could do the technique," he said.

"I figured I already take pictures and the software is free, so I tried.

And it actually worked!"

Since that first try, Carr has created more than a dozen other anaglyphs around his North Carolina home and can "spit one out" in as little as 10 to 15 minutes.

Carr plans to use his new hobby to promote his real estate business, by providing glasses to clients so they can view 3-D images of homes online.

"My wife thinks I am crazy," he said.

"She keeps walking in on me in the home office and I have the glasses on."

Johnson wants to see 3-D in more places, including video games, and has been begging a programmer friend to make it happen.

"It just seems crazy that they haven't created an anaglyph video game yet; they have all the technology," he said.

"One day we will see everything in 3-D."