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Victoria 3-D buff Gary Greenspoon used the landmark Empress hotel to create a new kind of life-like image called a phantogram
Grania Litwin
Times Colonist

CREDIT: Bruce Stotesbury, Times Colonist
Gary Greenspoon's phantogram photos use the opposite technique to traditional three-dimensional imaging. Images appear to be jumping off the page rather than having more depth. Greenspoon put in hundreds of hours of preparation and aerial photography to get his Empress phantogram right.

Gary Greenspoon is not the kind of guy who takes a few quick snapshots and tosses them in an album.

The last painstaking picture he took required three months of planning, four assistants on the ground, a helicopter flying at 400 metres, and massive amounts of digital processing by a computer expert in England.

The resulting photo is a unique, three-dimensional image of the Fairmont Empress Hotel called a phantogram.

"And it is the first ever done of a single building," says the award-winning Greenspoon, who lives in Victoria and drives a transit bus when not absorbed in photography. "It's almost a miracle the image exists at all; it required incredible precision."

A phantogram is an image of a subject that seems to rise vertically off a page when viewed through special blue and red lenses.

The old-fashioned 3-D images, by comparison, work the other way round, and seem to float down, or into the distance. Greenspoon first heard about the process four years ago, and began wondering if he could create an image of the Empress.

"I spent hundreds of hours in preparation prior to my helicopter flight, studying aerial photos and taking exact ground measurements of the area all around the hotel. I located a wooden scale model of downtown Victoria to work out the height and trajectory for the helicopter, then designed and built a special adapter for my Nikon FM," said Greenspoon, who studied cinema and music at UVic. He also studied broadcasting at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, before getting into still photography and producing medical videos.

He has won numerous awards from groups such as the Alpine Club of Canada and Nova Corporation in Alberta, and a show he made about Tibet won special recognition at the National Stereoscopic Association awards. (More details at his website

After waiting anxiously for the perfect day, he set off in a helicopter last June 28 and made six passes across the 200-metre Empress face, with his camera's motor drive hissing continually for five seconds.

This gave him 18 frames on each pass. Unfortunately, the pilot did not manage to fly a perfectly parallel course, so the images were not all identical in size. But Greenspoon managed to find an expert in England who used graphic imaging software to correct the difference. "My co-creator was Steve Boddy, who rendered it in an obscure but elegant program called Bryce."

The complexity of the project was daunting, commented Boddy in an e-mail from his home in London.

"Most phantograms are small objects and it's rare to see a single building used as a phantogram. Without Gary's enthusiasm and drive I don't think the phantogram would have materialized, as it's the longest time I have ever spent on one image ... but the result was well worth it."

A phantogram has to be taken within a carefully calibrated space and Greenspoon created that on the ground by telling four people exactly where to place colourful markers, which he could see from above.

On a flat table, with a small subject, it takes about an hour to set up the camera and tripod, but in this case the project was multiplied thousands of times, so the distance between shots, which depends on the height of the object and the height of the photographer, had to be 180 feet (54 metres). The distance between shots is related to the distance between a person's eyes and the angle from each eye to the object.

The result is a mind-blowing image that seems to pop up off the page to a height of 15 to 20 cm.

"It's a great piece of art and a very fine piece of work," says 40-year veteran of photography Barry Rothstein, author of Phantograms from Nature, which is the first book published about phantograms and including pictures.

"It's very difficult to do from a moving object, and very challenging," he said in a telephone interview from his home in California. "Gary and Steve Boddy did a heck of a job pulling it together."

Greenspoon spent $11,000 to create the image and various sizes of prints and cards, which each come with a special pair of glasses.

The prints are available at Seeing is Believing, Science Works, Butchart Gardens Gift shop and its online catalogue, ranging in price from $8.95 for cards, to $18.95 for a letter-size print and $28.95 for a large print in a folder.

How are sales going?

"People really love the phantogram and I've been getting a great response, mostly WOW!" says the smiling photographer who now has a new goal.

"I just saw my first aerial photograph of Stonehenge and it's gotten me thinking."

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The theory behind 3-D photography is simple, says Gary Greenspoon, who explains it is achieved by taking two photographs from two different perspectives, then laying the images over each other in different colours.

"We perceive depth because each eye sees foreground and background information from a slightly different perspective and the brain then calculates the depth. In an anaglyph print (red/blue), the left and right images are printed together, and the glasses decode the two separate images. Thus, anaglyph glasses are required to see this unique type of image.

"Normal 3-D images are viewed straight-on, whereas phantograms are meant to be laid flat on a table and looked down on from a 45-degree angle. The reality is staggering. When a real teacup is placed next to a phantogram of a teacup, you can't tell the difference."

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006

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