The future of digital photography: It’s called 3D

Consumer Reports News: July 30, 2010 12:27 PM

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For his experiments with 3D photography, Claudio
Ciacci used a Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W1 camera,
which stores its ".mpo" digital 3D image files on a
removable SD memory card.

Here at Consumer Reports, we're big fans of 3D and its potential to change movie and TV viewing and the way videogames are played. Personally, I believe there's another 3D killer-app that might not be as obvious: photography.

3D photography, with stereo images, is nothing new, dating back to the handheld Stereopticon that arrived in the 1800s and the View-Master you might have enjoyed as a kid. Advanced 3D enthusiasts have embraced more exotic 3D film-format cameras, or have found creative solutions for capturing 3D using two cameras. But the difficulty of capturing, sharing, and viewing 3D images has greatly limited its appeal.

So when Fuji announced a 3D digital camera this year, it caught my eye. The Fuji FinePix Real 3D W1 dual 10 megapixel camera is the first of a new breed of cameras with two separate CCD sensors (essentially, two eyes) that can capture 3D as well as 2D images. We found its 2D picture quality mediocre, but I was more curious about its 3D capability. The built-in LCD screen and optional picture frame, produced a decent sense of 3D without requiring the viewer to wear glasses—impressive, but by no means the compelling viewing experience I was hoping for. The camera seemed more like an expensive View-Master rather than a modern technical marvel.

Claudio Ciacci Consumer Reports TV testing lab digital 3D still images frm a Fujifilm FinePix 3D W1 digital camera
3D digital still images from the Fuji camera looked
impressive when viewed on a Panasonic 3D TV with
active glasses, says Ciacci. (Click to enlarge.)

But then I took the SD memory card from the Fuji and inserted it in a Panasonic VT-series plasma 3D TV in our lab. The TV immediately recognized Fuji's proprietary ".mpo" 3D file format, and the first photo appeared on screen as a now-familiar double image. (The Sony and Samsung 3D TVs in our lab didn't recognize that format. The LG did play .mpo files, but at half resolution.) I put on the active 3D glasses and the screen snapped into focus. I nearly fell off my chair.

The depth and realism of the image were unprecedented in my experience, more like a live scene than a still shot. As I stepped through more photos, I saw spatial nuances such as windows and mirrors revealing continued depth beyond the glass panes, and people and objects in the room with palpable volume and unique positions in space with lifelike realism. These are attributes that are lost on a flat 2D image. And it was fast and easy to get 3D photos from the camera to the display. For the next few weeks I couldn't stop photographing all kinds of subjects, and then running to the TV to enjoy the immersive experience.

After two months shooting 3D pictures on the Fuji W1 camera and viewing them on the Panasonic 3D TV, I truly appreciate the power and potential of 3D images. What makes the images so involving is that I am looking at photos I've taken of people and places I know. My 3D photos of a recent trip to Europe have given me the pleasure of reliving the experience. Images of the "Sagrada Familia" cathedral in Barcelona, with its towering columns and sculptures, pull you into the space and evoke a response that is more visceral than cerebral. Travel slide shows will never be the same.

As beautiful as 2D images from the best digital SLR cameras may be, they will never provide the immersive experience you can get when viewing a 3D digital photo on a high-quality display. The fact that you need a 3D display and special glasses to view 3D photos means this technology won't replace traditional 2D photography any time soon, but I see these two formats as complementary rather than competing. The Fuji W1's ability to provide both formats proves they can peacefully coexist. It's clear to me that the next camera I buy must deliver both high-quality 2D and 3D images, but we need more 3D camera choices.

What do you think about 3D digital photography? Let us know. As for me, now that I have seen the third dimension, there is no turning back.

—Claudio Ciacci

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