Thanks to last month's Super Bowl commercials and a special episode of the geek-action show Chuck, everyone has been talking about 3D recently. I even got a set of awkward 3D glasses from the local supermarket to see what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, I found it all a little underwhelming. That inspired me to have some fun with the third dimension with my own photos. As you'll see this week, it's not too hard to make your own photos look 3D using some clever composition and a free animation program.

The Science of 3D
Why do things look 3D to begin with? The effect relies on the fact that our eyes are separated by a few inches, so they see everything from two slightly different angles. The result is a phenomenon known as parallax--the relative position of close objects varies more to your eyes than the relative position of more distant objects.

With a single lens, there's no way to capture the effect of parallax in one photo. But what if you had two cameras, or took the same photo twice, moving the camera between shots?

Build a 3D Rig
The best way to achieve realistic 3D effects is to use a pair of point-and-shoot digital cameras. Just mount them on a solid surface (like a short length of wood) so the lenses are between 3 and 6 inches apart. No need to get fancy here--duct tape is perfectly sufficient. Ideally, both cameras should be the same model, or at least very similar. If you can't arrange that, make sure the lenses are at the same height off the board (you might need to prop one camera up a bit) and, when you turn both cameras on, adjust the zoom settings so they are approximately the same.

If you have only one camera, don't worry. We'll get to that in a bit.

Shoot Your 3D Stills
Now it's time for some 3D action. Press both shutter releases at approximately the same moment. It doesn't have to be exact, though the more static your scene, the better your results will be if you can't get both photos to happen simultaneously.

If you don't have two cameras, that's okay. You can simulate the effect with just one. Take your first photo, taking careful note of the way you've framed the scene.

Then carefully move just a few inches to the left or right, keeping the lens oriented on the same subject as the first photo. Take the second shot.

When you're done, copy the photos to your PC and, if necessary, resize them so they're both have the same dimension in pixels. Since we're going to be animating these photos, I suggest that you shrink both images down to about 800 pixels across. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, you'd do that by choosing Image, Resize, Image Size from the menu. Make sure Resample Image is checked, and then enter a width of 800 pixels.

Animate!
Now it's time to reap the fruits of your labor. You'll need a program that creates animated GIFs from a series of individual photos. For this example, I used a shareware program called Easy GIF Animator, which has a 30-day free trial and costs $20 to purchase.

Choose Create New Animation from the list of Easy Wizards on the main screen, and then add the two stereoscopic photos to the project. Choose the option to play the video infinitely, and set the length of the display to 20 (which is 0.2 seconds). You can always adjust that number later. Finish the wizard, and then you'll be treated to a render of your animation, which quickly cycles back and forth between the two images. (Click the thumbnail on the left to see my final animation.)

Not all subjects are ideal candidates for this kind of animation, but some are quite fun.

Hot Pic of the Week
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