Early British Stereo Cameras

This section looks at the types of stereo equipment used in Britain from the 1850s to the start of the twentieth century.


The first period of interest in stereo photography dates from the Great Exhibition of 1851, although stereoscopes for use with photographs were on sale prior to this they created little interest either amongst photographers or the general public. At this time stereo images were taken either by two cameras arranged side-by-side on a common mounting or with a single-lens camera which could be moved rapidly between exposures. Ordinary cameras were also adapted for the smaller stereo plate size by using inserts in the dark-slide and simply moving the camera between exposures.1 2

Two-lens cameras were available commercially from the middle of the decade, Dancer's patented model of 1856 being the best known. Sir David Brewster wrote of a binocular (two-lens) camera as early as 1847 and in an article dated 1852 claimed that several had been made and fitted with half lenses by Slater i.e. a single lens cut in half. If that was the case they no longer seem to exist.3 Dancer and others produced two-lens models from 1852 or 1853 but these were not commercially produced.4

The image above shows the photographic carriage of Symonds & Co., they had premises at 39 High Street Portsmouth and 15 Union Street Ryde.

Daguerreotype, wet-plate, paper and early dry-plate processes were all used during this period.

Interest in stereo images lessened by the end of the 1860s but revived in the late 1880s thanks in part to its promotion by W.I. Chadwick. This second period, though not as intense, lasted much longer and was kept alive by amateur enthusiasts into the 1930s. Stand cameras of the period were often made to be adaptable for stereo by having sliding lens panels and provision for a septum, two-lens cameras were also available.

Stereo Separation
The correct separation of the images is around 2 ½" which is the average separation of the eyes. It was common at the time to exaggerate the stereoscopic effect by using a much larger separation, single-lens cameras often allowed a movement of up to 13" and a separation of a few feet was not unheard of when photographing distant objects.

Toeing In
It was the practise for the main subject to be centred in each image by slightly rotating the camera between exposures. This, like excessive separation, died out when two-lens cameras became the norm.

Early Single-Lens Cameras

Single-lens cameras were smaller, lighter and less costly than two-lens models, they also had the advantage that the two images did not have to be transposed at the printing stage. When taking the right-hand image the dark slide was positioned to expose the left side of the plate (as seen from behind the camera), the left-hand image is taken on the right half of the plate.

The image on the right was taken with a single-lens camera, unfortunately a horse and carriage appears in one image but not the other.

Types of Movement

Several arrangements were devised in the 1850s that enabled the camera to be moved rapidly between exposures and maintain horizontal alignment of the subject.

This design was introduced by Latimer Clark in 1853 and shown at the Photographic Society meeting in May of that year. It comprised a board with two laths mounted on it, each lath was pinned at the front of the board and able to pivot, the laths were joined at their other end by a platform for the camera, the fixing to the platform was via pin joints. With the two laths parallel to each other the camera on its platform would remain facing forward as it was moved between exposures. Fixed stops limited the movement. Toeing-in was provided by setting the laths at a slight angle rather than being parallel.

In Clark's original design the dark-slide, held in a repeating back, was attached via a wire to a peg in the board, as the camera was moved so the slide would be automatically positioned for the next exposure. In these models the camera rested on two strips of wood running parallel to the back of the camera with the laths working beneath the strips. Cameras closely following the original design were produced by several makers including Cox and Ottewill.5

A common arrangement, sold as a Tourist Outfit, was to mount the laths on top of a carrying case which held the camera and dark-slides when not in use. In these models the platform for the camera rested directly on the laths, the repeating back was often replaced by the more compact alternative of a dark-slide with double draw-slides.

A simple arrangement was for the camera to slide along a rail. Pegs on the rail were used to limit the movement, toeing-in could be provided by fixing the rail to a turntable which formed part of the carrying case.6

Powell's Registered Design
This design of 1858 was for a folding box camera mounted within the lid of a carrying case which formed a tray when opened. The camera was slid within the tray between exposures, one part was hinged for toeing-in. The camera, folded, together with its repeating back fitted in the lid for storage, the dark-slides fitted in the main part of the carrying case.7

Sliding Lens Panel
The simplest arrangement was for a full-width camera to be fitted with a lens panel able to slide within the front standard to give the stereo separation. This was proposed by John A. Spencer in 1854, his camera was shown at a meeting of the Photographic Society and is listed in the 1854 Griffin catalogue. Unless a repeating back was used the images would need to be transposed.8

Types of Slide

Where a repeating back was fitted the dark-slide would have a single draw-slide, slides for single-lens cameras without a repeating back have two draw-slides.

Two-lens cameras generally have a single draw-slide but may have two if the camera was to be used for exaggerated separation.

Two-Lens Cameras

In a period when exposure times were long, two successive exposures with a single-lens camera was not a hindrance but by 1860 instantaneous photography was becoming possible: requiring a camera with two lenses. The larger plate size of 7 ¼" x 4 ½" also became popular around this time allowing a full-width camera to be used for single exposures of reasonable size. The larger plate size could also be used for the newly introduced carte-de-visite where two images would fit on one plate, a point emphasised in advertisements aimed at the professional photographer. Cameras that were adaptable for stereo or mono, were of heavier construction in order to provide the longer focusing extension required by the mono lens. The Dallmeyer model of 1861 is a good example, it took the larger plate size, had a removable septum and was sold with an additional lens for single exposures, it was also supplied with a flap shutter for instantaneous exposures.9

On some models the lens separation could be altered to a limited extent either by simply sliding the lens panels apart or by fitting two racks either side of a pinion. Right and left-hand worm screws on a common shaft probably date from the early 1890s. A rising front is sometimes present. Although equipped with two lenses some models fitted onto a rail or box for separate exposures when an exaggerated stereo effect was required.

It was common at this time for each lens to be matched to a particular flange and for the Waterhouse stops to be matched to the lens.

An 'O' has been engraved on one lens and flange from a Dallmeyer stereo camera.

Camera Types

During the first phase of stereo interest (to around 1870) distinct camera designs were developed, some were based on existing sliding box models others, especially those with bellows, were fresh designs that were to influence later stand camera models. Their small size allowed thin sections of wood to be used in a less bulky construction, this was helped by dark-slides sliding into a rebated slot in the side of the camera rather than dropping into a recess at the top. Focusing frames fitting within the baseboard carrying the front or rear standard and operated by rack and pinion tended to be used rather than worm screw or sliding focusing. Hinged focusing screens also made an appearance.

In the second period of interest (from the late 1880s) two-lens stand cameras followed the design of their mono counterparts and were produced in tailboard, field and, less commonly, folding bed designs. As the use of stand cameras diminished, stereo versions of hand, reflex and other types of camera were produced.

Some typical designs from the first stereo phase are shown below.

Sliding Box
Early models were often scaled down versions of conventional rear-focusing tailboard cameras, less common are models without tailboards and only a short, rear, focusing movement, essentially a wider version of the single-lens type that was fitted to a parallelogram or rail.

Front focusing models without tailboards were popular with makers in Manchester, J.J. Pyne being an example. Small recessed lenses and a swivelling plate shutter are also typical. The Dancer model of 1856 was of this type though more elaborate than others.10

The Dallmeyer of 1861 introduced front focusing with a substantial baseboard at the front of the camera. As well as rising front some models had a tilting back.11

A camera in the Oxford Science Museum by Rouch is similar but with triple extension.

Solid Body
The small image size meant that focusing by the lens alone was practical, this allowed a simple box to form the camera body. The sides of the body might fold to save space. A common pinion was usually fitted to focus the lenses and simple pivoted shutters might be present.12

An example by Meagher has a hinged focusing screen that folds on top of the camera when not in use; an arrangement that was not generally adopted until much later.

These were either front or rear focusing models with short non-folding tailboards. On some front-focusing models the rear standard is fixed to the tailboard, on others it is movable and clamped in place, often by rods running from underneath the tailboard to thumb screws at the top of the camera.

Mostly single bellows were fitted allowing the camera to be used for mono exposures but some models had two bellows of parallel section.

Pyne made cameras of this type with moveable rear standards, recessed lenses and a swivelling plate shutter. The carrying case acted as a tripod mount.13

A curious design, favoured by George Hare, had the front movable and clamped to the baseboard, the rear standard was fixed to an inner focusing frame operated by a rack and pinion. A cross front movement was usually fitted.14


To prevent one image overlapping the other a baffle, or septum, ran the length of the camera.

Overlapping Baffles
One baffle is fixed to the front standard the other to the rear. Used on sliding box cameras, only a short focusing movement was possible. The septum is fixed in the camera.

Made of wooden slats with a cloth or leather backing. In the example shown the tambour moves in a U shaped track at the 'lens end' of the camera when focusing. The septum is removable and held in place by sliding catches.

Made of pleated cloth or leather and often kept upright by an elastic cord for which there are holes at each end of the septum. The removable septum fixes into slots in the front and rear standards.

Roller Blind
Made of cloth wound on a spring-tensioned roller. In the example shown the septum is fixed in the camera but is able to slide to the edge of the bellows for mono exposures.

Later Single-Lens Cameras and Attachments

In the second period of stereo interest (from the late 1880s) conventional mono cameras were sometimes made to be adaptable for stereo use by providing a septum and a sliding lens panel. However, many cameras adaptable in this way, especially in the larger sizes, were intended to take two, half-size, mono exposures. Using a camera much above 7 ½" x 5" in size would have been awkward and the lens excessively long for the small stereo images.

Sliding Lens Panel

The design introduced by Spencer in 1854 continued to be used on later tailboard cameras, a fitting for a septum is usually provided. The arrangement is the same as a cross front but considerably more movement is possible, the lens panel is also wider than normal.

Moveable Front Standard

The sliding lens panel worked well on tailboard cameras but was not so suitable for field cameras, Holmes Brothers introduced a field camera in 1896 where the whole front standard could be fixed to the baseboard in two positions to provide stereo separation. This was not a very successful arrangement as the front standard was fixed only at its lower edge without any additional side struts.

Rear Standard with Mask

An alternative to using a septum was to fix a mask in the back of the camera that covered half the image area. Between exposures the mask had either to be moved to cover the other half of the image area or removed and the draw-slide only half withdrawn, a catch being provided to position the draw-slide.

This arrangement was used in conjunction with a sliding lens panel or moveable front standard, it was also used to give two, non stereo, images on a plate.

Mirrors and Prisms

Angled mirrors in front of lens
Two mirrors set at an obtuse angle near the lens will form a stereo pair in the camera. First proposed by Gill and Newton in 1857, the same arrangement was later used by Theodore Brown in his Stereoscopic Transmitter of 1893. Each image is laterally reversed.15

Double sets of mirrors
Two pairs of parallel mirrors are fixed in front of the lens, one mirror of each pair faces the subject the other faces the lens. This produces a stereo pair of images, the stereo separation being the distance between the two sets of mirrors. Used by Theodore Brown in his Stereo Photoduplicon.16 Many similar arrangements were produced the most successful being the replacement of the mirrors by prisms, an arrangement adopted by Leitz in their Stereoly attachment for the Leica. The images do not need to be transposed.

In a later period similar prisms was used to provide stereo separation with two-lens cameras where the lenses were close together such as when using 35 mm film.17

Right-angled prisms
W.K.L. Dickson patented the use of a prism in front of each lens of a stereo cine camera to provide variable stereo separation on the narrow width of film.18

Tripod Attachments

Many fittings were produced allowing the camera to be moved between exposures. These ranged from simple sliding movements to parallelogram movement working in the horizontal or vertical plane.

Stereo Camera Sizes

  • 6 ¾" x 3 ¼" This was the common plate size in use from the early 1850s, it was adopted as a standard at the 1891 Photographic Congress.
  • 7 ¼" x 4 ½" Used from around 1861, the larger size allowed the camera to be used for mono exposures of reasonable size. Defects introduced when coating a wet-plate tended to be at the edges of the plate and so would not show when the print was trimmed to the normal stereo size.
  • 6 ½" x 4 ¾" and 7 ½" x 5" Popular from the late 1880s as standard-size plate cameras could be adapted for stereo use.
  • 6 ½" x 4 ¼" Used with hand cameras where either a full-width plate or two quarter-plates could be used.
  • 6 ½" x 3 ¼" Some use in hand cameras where two lantern plates could be used.
  • 5 ½" x 3 ½" The post-card format was briefly popular from the early 1900s.
  • 45 x 107 mm Introduced in 1895 for use with the Verascope hand camera. 45 x 107 mm, 6 x 13 cm and to a lesser extent 7 x 13 cm sizes became popular sizes for use in hand cameras.

Except for special purposes such as for use in a Wheatstone viewer prints from larger negatives had to be trimmed to the normal size of around 3" x 3", larger model plate cameras could have been fitted with smaller plate carriers in the dark-slide.


The camera lens inverts and laterally reverses the images, if a negative from a two-lens camera is printed from directly the right-hand image will be on the left and the left-hand image on the right. Normally this presents no problem as the print can be cut and the images swapped or a transposing frame used which prints each image separately. With a single-lens camera the transposition is made at the negative stage.

The main problem arises with processes such as Autochrome where there is no printing stage, either the plate has to be cut and re-joined or prisms used at the taking or viewing stage to laterally reverse each image.

Daguerreotypes and similar processes (direct positives viewed from the front) show the correct right and left images but each is laterally reversed unless a reversing prism was used at the taking stage. There was no advantage in using a single-lens camera.

The image on the right shows a transposing frame. Commonly used when printing transparencies, they allowed the two stereo images to be swapped left for right. Probably introduced in the 1890s.

F.E. Ives patented the use of prisms in front of the lenses of a three-colour stereo camera, the prisms reversed the images left to right to avoid cutting the plate.19

Jules Richard patented the use of four-sided prisms above the lens to revere the images so that the plate could be used directly in a stereoscope.20

Other early suggestions for using prisms and mirrors to laterally reverse the images were by Daubresse and Tournier.21

References & Notes

A good account of early stereoscopic photography is in Howarth-Loomes, Victorian Photography. A Collectors Guide.

[1] Two cameras mounted on a platform are shown in van Monkhoven, A Popular Treatise on Photography (1863), p. 95.
A patent by Jacob Brett of 1853 talks of two cameras being combined into one apparatus. BP 1629/1853. Possibly the same Jacob Brett who had connections with Latimer Clark through their work on telegraphy.

[2] An early advertisement for a stereo camera is in Willats's catalogue of c. 1853 which lists a pair of cameras priced at £12.0.0 to take 2 ½" x 2", 3 ¼" x 2 ¾" and 4" x 3" images.

[3] North British Review, vol 7, 1847; vol 17, 1852. Half lenses were used to ensure the images matched. Slater of Euston Rd. London was a leading lens maker at the time.

[4] An article on an early Dancer camera is in Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Photography, 1928. A photograph is in Permutt, Collecting Old Cameras. A camera in the Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester) is described as a prototype by Dancer, though it has some unusual characteristics.

[5] The Cox Catalogue 1858, p. 9. lists a Latimer Clark model made of walnut with a beech table at £2.15.0 or in polished mahogany at £5.0.0. They have the option to be fitted with backs to take 4" x 5" plates. An Ottewill model is shown in The Science Museum Photography Collection, p. 10.

[6] An example is shown in Sotheby's Cat. 7/7/1978.

[7] John Harrison Powell. Regd. no. 4143, 27/12/1858. Powell produced designs for two cameras, a single lens model and a similar two-lens version, the cameras were made by Horne & Thornthwaite. Both examples were shown at the Masterpieces of Victorian Photography 1840 - 1900 exhibition held in 1951. Examples are shown in Christie's Cat. 25/4/74 lot 139. Sotheby's Cat. 2/3/79 lot 224 shows the two-lens version.

[8] Journal of the Photographic Society 21/4/1854, p. 196.

[9] The shutter was suggested by G.W. Wilson.

[10] An example by Pyne is shown in Christie's Cat. 11/12/2002, lot 134 (Barron Collection).

[11] The camera was reviewed by van Monkhoven in Photographic News 26/9/1862.
An example with tilting back and characteristics indicating that the camera was made by Ottewill is shown in Christie's Cat. 11/12/2002, lot 130 (Barron Collection). A model without tilting back carrying a How label is shown in Sotheby's Cat. 7/7/1978, lot 109.

[12] An example by Meagher is shown in The Science Museum Photography Collection, entry 31.

[13] A Pyne model with twin bellows is in the collection of the Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester), a similar camera is shown in the 3/1979 Sotheby's Cat. A model with a Mawson retailer's label (with replacement lens panel) is shown in Christie's Cat. 23/6/1976, lot 129.

[14] A good example is shown in Christie's Cat. 11/12/2002, lot 120 (Barron Collection).

[15] BP 2903/1857.

[16] BP 21406/1894.

[17] Two parallelepiped prisms were used with the Contax stereo adapter.

[18] BP 6794/1899.

[19] BP 3232/1897.

[20] BP 2142/1908.
A later patent, BP 26265/1911, by Richard used two prisms within the viewer to laterally reverse the image taken with an ordinary stereo camera.
Much later Zeiss used prisms in a viewer to laterally reverse the images on 35 mm slides and to increase the separation.

[21] Daubresse BP 26249/1902. Tournier BP 25149/1903.


Early Single-Lens Cameras

Types of Movement

Types of Slide

Two-Lens Cameras

Camera Types


Later Single-Lens Cameras

Sliding Lens Panel

Moveable Front Standard

Rear Standard with Mask

Mirrors and Prisms

Tripod Attachments

Stereo Camera Sizes


References & Notes