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What is this? Stereoscope

Learning activities


In the activities described below, students understand photography as a way of documenting family history, and consider the differences between photography today and in the past, recognise that 3D imaging began a long time ago and can be done in different ways and experiment with seeing and creating stereoscopic images.


  • 4-minute video about stereoscopes
  • image of a 19th-century German picture puzzle (print to share)
  • instructions for making stereoscopic images on the New York Public Library's Stereogranimator web page: make your own stereoscopic image
  • instructions for making 3D glasses: using markers to colour a clear surface or using coloured acetate
  • historical images (click on the images below to enlarge for printing or display)


With your students, watch the video 'What is this? Stereoscope'.

Does anyone in the class have a View-Master? (This is the modern-day equivalent of a stereoscope. If so, ask them to bring it to class.)

Ask each student to bring in a photograph of themselves and their family.

A black and white photograph showing a seated woman holding a stereoscope up to her eyes. She is wearing a dress with a high collar and her hair is pinned up. To the left of the woman is a tall narrow chest of drawers. Behind the woman, in the corner of the room, is a statue of a draped female figure holding an urn. To the right of the statue a glass fronted bookcase full of books is partly visible. The room is papered with repeat patterned wallpaper. Thumbnail image.

Stereoscopic photograph of a woman using a stereoscope. Source: Library of Congress

Black and white photograph of an Australian Aboriginal man, woman and child standing in front of low vegetation and a row of trees. They are all looking at the camera. The man is on the left and beside him the woman is holding the child on her right hip. All three are naked. The man has long hair and a beard. His right arm is behind his back with his right hand holding his left arm below the elbow. The woman has a large food carrier on her head supported on a pad, and she holds a digging stick in her right hand. Thumbnail image.

Dinjimanne and family, 1903. Photograph by Herbert Basedow.

A black and white photograph of a man, woman and two boys standing in a line and two smaller boys standing together in front of the woman. They are all wearing hats. The man is wearing a short-sleeved shirt tucked into long trousers with a belt. The woman is wearing a long-sleeved blouse with a bow at the collar and a skirt. All the boys are wearing knee-length shorts. The two older boys are wearing long-sleeved shirts, braces and boots while the two younger boys are wearing buttoned-up jackets and are bare footed. Thumbnail image.

McAuley family, 1919. Photograph by Herbert Basedow.

1. Discussion


Hold a class conversation about photography, covering the following questions and issues:

  • Do you sometimes look at photographs of yourself when you were younger? When do you take photographs and what for? Explore the circumstances in which the students appear in photographs, or in which they take photographs – birthdays, holidays etc. Discuss how photographs enable people to see something without being there, or to remember something from the past.
  • Have you ever seen photographs of your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents when they were young? Did the pictures surprise you at all? If so, what was surprising? As well as noticing that the people in their family looked different when they were young, the children might have noticed changes in clothing style, vehicles, or the setting for the photograph.
  • How do you think cameras and photographs today are different from cameras in the past? Today, almost anyone can 'do' photography; it is cheaper, easier and quicker to make an image. Many children now take photographs.
  • How does the stereoscope give you a better view of a scene than an ordinary photograph? (3D provides a more lifelike experience of a scene than a flat 2D image.)

2. Exploring stereography


If you have access to a View-Master and reel of photos, invite students to take turns in seeing the images through it.

Also show the class the stereoscopic image of the woman using a stereoscope.

Invite students to ask questions about either or both:

  • the View-Master and its reel of images
  • the stereoscope and the stereoscopic image

Write a list of their questions, then discuss how they might go about finding out the answers.

3. Family photographs


Most photographs are not stereographic. Ask students to speculate on when they might want to make a stereographic photograph, and when they might prefer to take an ordinary photograph.

Have each student look carefully at their family photograph alongside one of the historical photographs of a family – Dinjimanne and family or the McAuley family – and compare the two.

  • Ask students to consider, in each case, who took the photograph, where, when and why.
  • Write a caption for each photograph, describing the scene.
  • Create two lists: things that are the same, and things that are different.

A note on the historical family photographs: Herbert Basedow worked across central and northern Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century, see A Different Time: The Expedition Photographs of Herbert Basedow 1902-1928.

4. 3D imagery as an optical illusion


Show students a printout of the 19th-century German picture puzzle. Can they see how it shows two different scenes in one? Like a stereographic image, this image is actually two separate drawings in one.

The New York Public Library has made a website for easily creating 3D images from the stereographs in its collection. You can start by seeing a pre-made image of people in an early motor vehicle.

Next, follow the link to 'Create a new image', either using the same stereograph or a new one. Drag the images further apart or closer together until they are best positioned to create the illusion of three dimensions. You can set the speed of the animation to 'medium' or 'slow' if the flickering is too unsettling.

As an alternative to creating an animated GIF image (which flickers back and forth between the two images), you can create a 3D 'anaglyph'. To view this in 3D, you'll need to create some 3D glasses.


Go to What is this? and the teacher support video.

Go to other pages in this resource:


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