Taking Macro Photography into 3D

Macro photography has always been a passion of mine, and exploring the universe at our feet can be almost magical. As beautiful as this genre of photography is, it really comes to life when you literally add an extra dimension to it. If you’ve never attempted to see a stereo 3D image before, you’re about to go down the rabbit hole.

Sadly, 3D photography is underappreciated because there is no “easy” way to see the results. You’ll need to cross your eyes, used a special viewer or VR headset, anaglyph glasses (those red/blue ones) or load an MPO file onto a 3D TV. Without running off to get special hardware, lets’ try and cross our eyes to see these images in 3D:

The goal is to cross your eyes just enough so that you see three images (too far and you’d see four). The middle image is going to appear in 3D, as you’ll be overlaying the two photographs and mentally creating the depth. Once you have it lined up, continually try to focus on the center image and it’ll “snap” into perfect focus.

At this point, you can let your eyes wander around the image freely. It can take multiple attempts, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Don’t let the image take up too much of your field of view, however, as it would require you to cross your eyes to an uncomfortable degree. A more in-depth tutorial on this viewing technique can be found here.

If you can’t cross your eyes, don’t worry. There are different ways to see 3D:

  • Side-by-Side might look the same as the displayed images but the order is reversed to be viewed in a stereoscope or VR headset (you can load your phone into Google Cardboard and see this version correctly)
  • Anaglyph is for those of you with a pair of red/blue glasses hanging around
  • MPO is the file format recognized by 3D TVs. Load the image onto a USB stick, put it into your TV, grab your 3D glasses, and voila.

Creating these images can be easier than you think. There are a number of techniques that don’t require much additional hardware. If you have a focusing rail for macro photography, you’re set. Instead of the normal orientation for focus stacking, mount the camera that it will move horizontally to the subject. Shifting the camera from one position to another will give you a 3D effect when properly processed and viewed.

How much do you move the camera? Experiment! The greater the distance the greater the depth effect, so long as your subject stays within the frame. The above image was taken with a Lumix GX9 and Leica 45mm f/2.8 macro lens using this technique.

If you want a ready-made solution and are a Micro Four Thirds shooter, Panasonic produced (now discontinued but widely available on eBay) a 12.5mm f/12 3D lens for their cameras. It’s not great at photographing human-scale subjects because the lenses are so close together and the depth isn’t dramatic, but the lens can be easily modified by placing washers between the lens body and lens mount screws to act like an extension tube.

In fact, you can find lenses already modified for sale on eBay. This shifts the lens into a macro lens where the smaller separation is more applicable. This lens is capable of images like the following:

My personal favorite tool for 3D macro is a series of lenses produced by de Wijs apparatenbouw, a company in The Netherlands that produced a variety of them from 1994 through 2007 at different magnifications and for different sensor sizes. They are currently discontinued and sold out, though they periodically show up on eBay which is where I purchased most of my collection. The company produces other 3D equipment, and I’ve been trying to convince them to crowd-fund another production run of lenses.

These lenses can be tricky to use because of their rather small fixed apertures – I almost always use flash with these lenses. Even if they could be designed with wider apertures, 3D works best when you can see detail from front to back, letting your eyes wander around the frame and finding points of interest. Composition is different than 2D work, as visually interesting things usually have stronger depth, like this freezing soap bubble on a flower:

These images are all processed for proper alignment and framing in a free piece of software called Stereo Photo Maker that is still actively maintained with the latest beta released a month ago. Under the “Adjust” menu, auto alignment usually does an exceptional job at setting things up, and “easy adjustment” can help you fine tune the stereo window. The hardest part for me was understanding exactly what the “stereo window” is and how to define it properly.

It’s best to avoid something on the edge of one frame that is missing entirely from the frame associated with the other eye. This creates a ghosting effect that pulls you out of the 3D experience because that object is only visible to one eye. A proper “stereo window” tries to minimize these as much as possible. It’s not always possible to get it perfect, but trying to align the image such that the left and right details of the composition is what the “easy adjustment” tool is for. The software can then save in any 3D format.

I try to get creative with my subjects, like the above image of frost growing on an orchid. In 2D it looks like cluttered nonsense, but when viewed in 3D all of the structure and shape become visible and clearly defined. The depth of a 3D image should pull you in and make the viewing experience much more immersive, and it’s much easier to feel like Alice in Wonderland when the images are created on a macro scale.

I believe we’re on the verge of a revival of the format with new technologies that allow for 3D content to be seen without tricks like the RED Hydrogen smartphone. Having used a Hydrogen as my daily smartphone for over a month now, I’m eager to see this technology catch on and continue to evolve. While there isn’t yet software available for me to convert my existing 3D imagery into the RED “H4V” format, I am certain it’s coming.

Hydrogen could finally be the push to bring 3D content to the masses, but at the very least I can have fun making people cross their eyes.

About the author: Don Komarechka is a nature and macro photographer who specializes in snowflakes. He has published a book, Sky Crystals, which details the wonderful science of snow in addition to an exhaustive photographic tutorial from equipment through settings, techniques and post processing. His work on the subject has been featured in documentary films from CBC, BBC, and National Geographic as well as on limited edition Canadian currency. Komarechka hosts the podcast Photo Geek Weekly. You can also find more of his work on Facebook and Flickr.