Now you can take photographs in 3-D

Turn your lenses this way. Consumer camera technology has entered a new era.

It began with Kodak's new ''disc'' camera, introduced earlier this year. Dr. Leslie Stroebel of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) calls it ''the nearly perfect camera for amateur photographers.'' Why? Because Kodak went to fully automatic, small-format technology. It's embodied in a shirt-pocket-size camera with a sharp, short lens and wide aperture (f2.8), enabling fast shutter speeds up to one/two-hundredths of a second.

With set focus and exposure levels, it's not for professionals. But the amateur will find it ideal - push the trigger, the disc does the rest. And it produces high-quality pictures in an expanded range of light conditions, with a price tag of less than $70.

More recently, the fledgling Nimslo Company has achieved a goal that has eluded both Polaroid and Kodak - designing a reasonably priced camera that produces high-grade 3-D photos.

The Nimslo system has four lenses that record four separate images on two frames of any type of 35-mm film. Nimslo then takes those images and - by injecting thousands of tiny prisms into the film - translates them into a 3-D print.

Dr. Jerry Nims and associate Allan Lo (for whom the company is named) had begun their quest for the three-dimensional camera back in 1970. Their first success, a 1974 model, was three feet long and many pounds too heavy. Gradually, the camera has been refined to a quadra-lens, 35-mm wonder that weighs only 12 ounces.

Nimslo has exclusive rights over its three-dimensional technology and is naturally reluctant to reveal any of the camera's inner workings. But Prof. Andrew Davidhazy of RIT's School of Photo Arts and Sciences had some admiring and enlightening comments to make on the new camera.

''The print process is the real technical breakthrough,'' Professor Davidhazy said. Unlike any previous three-dimensional prints, the film is developed in a single layer. Included in this layer are thousands of microscopic lenses that act as prisms. He explained that ''they incorporate the prisms into the emulsions (the material containing the light-sensitive chemicals on the film), adding them by lamination previous to the film being exposed.''

He says he believes the prism is a permeable plastic material. It acts as a separator when one views the 3-D print, distinguishing for the eye the four images printed on the single picture. The result is a three-dimensional effect.

Mr. Davidhazy foresees a number of limitations to the system. He noted that ''because it has fixed focus, it is basically a snapshot camera.'' Further, he said, the camera is not designed for close-up or scenic photography. The 3-D imagery, he explained, breaks down for object distance under six feet and over about 20 feet. Also, the company is limited to producing 3-by-5-inch prints at this time.

He summed up by saying: ''There is potential for serious photographers, but that is not (realizable) as yet. The question remains whether the novelty factor of this camera will wear off and the impact on the photography market will be diminished.''

But despite the drawbacks, he added, ''Taking the image made in the customer's camera and turning it into a three-dimensional print is magnificent.''

Camera-buyers in Florida (Nimslo's current test market) apparently think so, as demand for the $250 Nimslo 3-D 35-mm is far outstripping supply. According to chairman Nims, 50 percent more pictures are being shot by Florida owners than had been anticipated by the company's most optimistic projections. The company will be expanding its market to the entire East coast, West Virginia, and Tennessee this fall.

With this initial success, he said, his company hopes to dispel the gimmicky 3-D postcard image of older multidimensional photography. From the prints coming so far to the company's photofinishing lab in Atlanta, he observes, hobbyists are doing ''very exciting experimentation work'' with the new camera. ''Even Ansel Adams sent a shot of trees that he took with our 3-D camera,'' he said.

Dr. Nims also predicts that, with the technology Nimslo has used in this camera, ''three-dimensional images will be commonplace in television, films - in all media - by 1990.''

Meanwhile, the seemingly more prosaic photography of which Kodak's disc system is capable also represents a complex new technology. To understand it, one must look into its past. Jim Dierks, who presided over the development of the camera, recently told of Kodak's eight-year search for the perfect snapshot camera.

Mr. Dierks explained that the ideas for the new system sprang from a six-year critical study of amateur photographs. A team of Kodak technicians viewed thousands of pictures from Instamatic and 35-mm cameras. They found camera shake or tilt, under- or overexposure, and blank frames to be persistent but solvable problems.

Dierks said, ''All of this led to the conclusion that improved camera capability'' would be crucial to the new system. Thus Kodak developed an ultrashort 12.5-mm lens - giving the camera increased depth of field and light-gathering capability. This erased many of the under- or overexposure problems. Also, with more light entering the camera, a wider aperture is possible. ''This enables us to have a fast shutter speed, which freezes subject motion and camera motion, solving the problems of shakiness and blurry prints,'' Dierks said.

The short-focal-length-lens, however, produced a small image, which meant small negatives. So Kodak came up with miniature 8-by-10-mm filmstrips, six of which could fit on a postage stamp. They rest on a round cartridge. Hence the name ''disc.''

The paper-thin disc cartridge can be automatically rotated by a low-power motor. Also, the disc core can be encoded with customers' reprint orders, enabling photofinishing plants to produce reprints automatically.

In the process of the disc development, Kodak made ''two very important breakthroughs for photo technology,'' according to Dr. Stroebel, who is chairman of the Department of Photographic Technology at RIT.

The first is the new ''HR'' disc film. Through advances in chemical makeup (which are strict company secrets, according to Dr. Stroebel), the film has higher resolution and finer grain. This has allowed Kodak to increase the speed (sensitivity) of the film to 200 ASA without sacrificing quality.

The second breakthrough concerns the composition of the lens itself. Lenses in most popular cameras have anywhere from one to three elements, or pieces. The new lens has four elements, available for the first time in a mass-market camera because Kodak has a new high-speed, low-cost production process.

Even more important, Kodak has achieved another first - the mass production of an inexpensive aspheric element (an undulating, nonspherical surface). This high-power correcting lens, Stroebel explains, enables Kodak to ''minimize all light aberrations with a fewer number of elements.'' The outcome, he says, is that the disc's four-piece lens corresponds in quality to a spherical and flat seven- or eight-piece lens. The disc lens is so superior, he says, that it approaches the limits on diffraction correction set down by the laws of physics.

Dr. Stroebel says the only significant drawback for the disc camera is the grainy quality of prints in sizes 5 by 7 or larger. Given also that the disc has fixed focus and aperture, and no black and white option, its professional appeal is limited. But he forecasts that Kodak's advances in film emulsions and aspheric surfaces are bound to spin off into the professional field.

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