Guidelines for Stereo (3D) Composition.

by Donald Simanek.

The pictures on this page are formatted for cross-eyed free viewing. For instructions on how to do this, see: How to View 3d. This page requires a monitor width of at least 1000 pixels in order to see both images for cross-eyed stereo viewing. Since the photos also have large vertical dimension, it helps to toggle the "full screen" view (F11 in Windows). However, if you haven't mastered that viewing method, these may also be appreciated as 2d flat photos. All are copyright by Donald Simanek.

I dislike "rules" in art. But there are some guidelines that are worth trying. Here's a list for photographers new to stereo. Most of these are applicable to any kind of photography. I've included examples of the principles, and also examples of violation of the principles.

It should be obvious that you can't observe all of these guidelines in one picture. Nor should you even try.

One personal rule I try to follow in nature photography is "Don't alter the scene." I prefer to record it as the eye sees it. I have sometimes violated this rule by removing a dead leaf or stick that obscured part of the subject. This is a matter of personal taste. One can argue that using artificial illumination, or even light diffusers and reflecters alters the scene. And shooting pictures in gardens isn't exactly a natural scene, for it is partly the creation of the gardener or landscaper. Professional photographers will often chill an insect in the refrigerator so it is inactive, before placing it on a flower to photograph. I would not do that unless I was being paid big bucks for the photo.

  1. Pictures benefit from a "center of interest". Avoid multiple and equally strong centers of interest that compete for the viewer's attention.

    This picture violates the center of interest rule rather badly. Maybe that's why it never won any prizes. Or maybe judges just don't like cockroaches.

  2. The center of interest is strengthened in effect if other picture elements cause your eyes to move to the center of interest. This can be especially effective in stereo, if this movement is a smooth progression from near to far.

  3. It helps to have the center of interest displaced from the center of the picture frame. Forget the "rule of thirds" or the "golden ratio". Just move the center of interest off-center if you can, while also observing other principles of good composition. "Bulls-eye" compositions are only effective in special cases.

    Here's a case of "broken symmetry" The flowers form a highly symmetric arrangement, the bumblebee destroys that symmetry and thereby becomes the center of interest, for the eyes are drawn to the object that breaks the pattern. It just illustrates that composition is not a simple matter of following the rules.

  4. In stereo, the scene should not be flat (without depth). Distant mountains may be pretty in themselves, but a picture of them needs a foreground that is nearer, to help establish scale. A foreground can also lead the eyes to the more distant scene.

    Foreground adds interest to the essentially flat rendering of the mountains. The river provides a picture element leading to the distance. The nearby foreground and tree give scale and depth to the entire picture. This scene at the Snake River in Wyoming has been photographed so often it has become a photo cliche.

  5. Objects that appear nearer than the picture frame ought not be cut by the frame edges, especially if they have detail or texture.

    Here the cattail at the right comes perilously close to the frame, and protrudes into the space between the viewer and the frame. So do the green grasses below. Generally not a good idea.

  6. Avoid bright patches that can be seen only by one eye, such as a patch of bright sky seen through leaves or branches.

    In the first picture, a bright background flower shows in the left eye picture only. Even though this is only a small portion of a larger picture, it is still distracting. Fortunately, since it wasn't the center of interest, it was easily cropped out with the clone tool of an image editor.

  7. Don't forget the rules of good 2d composition, which still apply to stereo.

    Stereo parallax isn't the only clue to depth. Classical perspective can be very strong when there are straight lines in the scene. Converging parallel lines dominate this composition. [Picture taken in 2008 at the Cornell Arboretum.]

  8. You are not constrained to the rectangle recorded by the camera. The best composition for a given picture might be square, or even vertical.

    Actually, I find myself gravitating to square in most cases. Maybe the original Stereo Realist Format was on the right track.

  9. Don't be afraid to crop a picture. Less may be more. StereoPhotoMaker (and other software) makes it so easy in stereo that it's worth trying.

    In the film days of stereo, all composition was done in the camera, for cropping stereo transparencies was tedious and usually unsatisfactory. Not so with digital. Set your camera on wideangle at its highest resolution and then trim the image down to size in post-production. Besides, it's fun. Even a picture you thought was well-composed in the camera may be improved by further cropping. Be ruthless, sometimes.

    Cropping is partly a process of removing things that don't contribute interest to the picture, and those that detract from the center of interest. For example, featureless sky, repetitive foliage, blank walls.

    This picture, taken in 2008 at the Cornell University Arboretum (The Plantations) was a hand-held cha-cha stereo taken with the "wide angle" setting of the Traveler DC-XZ6 camera. Do we really need the confusing foliage at the right? This was taken late in the day with the sun low in the sky, and I brightened it a bit.

    Same scene, cropped and this time I didn't tinker with the brigtness. It has a serene feeling of late Autumn, anticipating cold wintry days ahead. The bench looks like a good place to pause briefly during a liesurely walk.

  10. The picture edges define the "stereo window" or "frame". This frame has a location in space, and is therefore much more a part of the composition element than the frame in 2d photography.

  11. Consider using nearby objects as a natural frame for the picture, or a partial frame. This is especially effective in stereo, but also in 2d photography.

    The leaning tree helps frame this scene. The creek leads the eye to the distance, making you wonder where it leads. Wind and water present problems for 3d by the cha-cha method, since some objects will appear at the wrong depth, or as doubled images. This was a calm day, but leaves floating in the creek in the foreground had moved. The solution was to crop out the bottom, where there were more floating leaves, and physically move others with photo software. Another solution would have been to erase the ones that didn't fuse properly. [Picture taken in 2008 at the Montour Nature Preserve in Pennsylvania.]

    But framing can be overdone. This picture nearly crosses the line. [Picture taken in 2008 at the Cornell Arboretum.]

  12. Keep it simple. Simple picture elements and simple arrangement of them usually produce a stronger picture. Avoid complex arrangements of things and busy textures unless your theme is complexity.

    One way to achieve simplicity is to get closer to your subject. In this case, a stereo interaxial of less than an inch was used. The background, only a few feet away, is at stereo infinity of this picture. Though out of focus, it does not distact much, since it has no strong geometric structure.

  13. Simple geometric arrangements strengthen composition. Diagonals can be effective.

    This picture has a strong diagonal, and the center of interest, the Mantis's head and front legs, is displaced from the picture center.

    This indifferent chameleon provides his own geometric interest with his body and tail curved in a spiral.

  14. Reflections can be a nuisance in any photography, even more so in stereo because the reflections also have stereo effect. However, sometimes they can be an important part of the composition. This picture has weak stereo, being taken with the Lumix camera.

  15. The "some of the parts" rule: You don't need to see an entire tree to appreciate it as a tree. One side and the trunk are enough. The brain can reconstruct missing parts of familiar objects.

    This picture is a faithful record of an attractive house and garden. The sky is uninteresting and the tree behind the roof is distracting. This was taken from across the street with a moderate wideangle lens setting, which unfortunately makes the roofline slightly curved (barrel distortion). This is also distracting. The reason for taking the picture (the very attractive flowers) is lost here because it occupies such a small portion of the frame.

    By cropping, we lose the distracting automobile and garage, while emphasizing the flowers and still retaining the nice lines of the porch and gables. Flowers lead the eye smoothly from the porch to the yardlight and the larger plantings near it. The front door and yard light are both centers of interest and both are off-center in the picture frame, which is generally a good idea. Return to the original picture and notice that the picture elements we "lost" by cropping actually duplicate those we retained.

  16. Picture elements that smoothly lead the eye from near to far can add interest. Geometric "S" shapes are usually strong picture elements.

    Here the gently curved path adds an element of mystery—making one wonder where the path leads. This was cropped. We don't need to see the entire tree at the left to appreciate it. [Picture taken at the Cornell Arboretum.]

  17. Stereo can bring out distance differences that would be lost in 2d, especially when objects at different distances have nearly the same tone, color and texture. But color differences can still add strength and definition to spatial structure.

  18. Every rule or guideline can be broken if you have a good reason. The picture may be stronger if it defies expectations.

    Stereo camera instruction books often emphasize the "rule" that the camera must be level left/right. Some 3d film cameras had a level built into the viewfinder. They ought also to have mentioned that if the camera is aimed upward or downward, this rule is out the window. I think this picture of the miniature purple iris is more interesting with the diagonal composition caused by tilting the camera.

All text and pictures on this page © 2008 by Donald E. Simanek.

Return to Stereo Pictures for Cross-Eyed Viewing.
More cross-eyed stereos in 3d gallery Two.
Stereo view cards in 3d Gallery Three.
Building a digital stereo close-up photography system in 3d Gallery Four.
Review of the Loreo stereo attachment 3d Gallery Five.
Review of the Loreo macro adapter, 3d Gallery Five B
The Loreo stereo attachment—improved 3d Gallery Five C.
The Loreo LIAC attachment as a 3d macro device, 3d Gallery Five D.
Wildlife photography in your backyard, 3d Gallery Six.
A home-built digital stereo camera using mirrors 3d Gallery Seven.
Stereo close-up photography in your garden 3d Gallery Eight.
Stereo photography in your aquarium 3d Gallery Nine.
Stereo digital infrared photography 3d Gallery Ten.
Wider angle stereo with the Loreo LIAC 3d Gallery ll. A failed experiment.
Review of the Fuji FinePix Real 3D W1 camera 3d Gallery 12.
Macrophotography with the Fuji 3D camera. 3d Gallery13.
Panoramic stereo photography. 3d Gallery 14.
Tips for stereo photography with the Fuji 3d camera. 3d Gallery 15.
Mirror methods for stereo photography. 3d gallery 16.
The Fuji 3d macro adapter using mirrors, by Paul Turvill.
The Fuji 3d macro adapter with flash! 3d gallery 17.
Critters in stereo. 3d gallery 18
Wide angle stereo. 3d gallery 19.
Telephoto Stereo. 3d gallery 20.
2D to 3d Conversion. 3d gallery 21.
Stereos from outer space. 3d gallery 22.
Review of the Panasonic Lumix 3d digital camera. 3d gallery 23.

Digital stereo photography tricks and effects.
Shifty methods for taking stereo pictures.
Stereoscopy with two synchronized cameras by Mike Andrus.
Guidelines for Stereo Composition.
Return to the the 3d and illusions page.
Return to Donald Simanek's front page.