The Different Stereo Realist Models
There are several versions of the Stereo Realist, including the obscenely expensive Custom, but the main variants you will see are the f3.5 standard models and those with the slightly faster f2.8 lenses, which run in the $150-250 range on eBay. I’ve shot a lot on both, and the images they take are indistinguishable. Unless you really need that extra half-stop, save yourself the cash and get the f3.5. The f2.8 has a faster top shutter speed setting of 1/200th of a second, but according to George Themelis (“Dr. T”) who services and sells these cameras, it basically performs identically to the f3.5 model’s 1/150th of a second shutter in practice. The “Realist 45” is branded as a Realist camera, but was built by Iloca and lacks a rangefinder.
Other Realist Format Options
While there are a number of other reputable cameras out there, few outside of those recommended above combine all of the features that I consider to be desirable in a well-rounded general-use camera. Those features are:
Full manual control
A rangefinder (requisite for precise focus in dimmer conditions)
Top shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second (the faster the better)
Mechanical operation (repairable, unlike most electronic cameras)
The Kodak Stereo Camera for example, has all of these features except the rangefinder. Not an issue when shooting in bright light with the aperture closed way down, but quite limiting when shooting in dimmer conditions, especially for closer shots. Since some of the most beautiful light you can shoot in can be quite dim (sunrise, sunset, bright artificial light), this was not the ideal choice for me. If that’s less important to you, it’s got good lenses and can often be found for around $50.
The TDC Stereo Colorist II does combine all of these features, and in a more modern touch, has the rangefinder integrated into the main viewfinder, rather than being housed in a separate window like on the Wollensak, Revere and Realist. While this can make it quicker to focus and frame in many situations, it can also be slightly harder to focus precisely compared to those cameras, because the rangefinder view is not magnified like it is in their dedicated rangefinder windows. (It may however be easier to focus then than the Realist’s fairly primitive rangefinder.) It’s a little lighter than the other cameras, and is probably a decent alternative. However when I used it, I found the aperture, shutter speed and focus rings to be a little loose and cheap-feeling compared to the other models. It could have just been that that particular copy needed some servicing, but I ended up preferring the more solid build of the other cameras.
What if I want to shoot 7-perf format?
There weren’t as many 7-perf models produced compared to Realist-format cameras, but some notable models that can be found these days are the Verascope F40, Belplasca and FED Stereo. Please note that the only one of these I've handled is a Belplasca, which I'm still in the process of testing out.
The Jules Richard Verascope F40, a French camera distributed under the Busch brand in the US, can usually be found on eBay in the $400-550 range for a decent copy. Unlike the other two 7-perf cameras mentioned, it has a coupled rangefinder. From what I’ve read, it is susceptible to flaring due to the internal design of the camera, resulting in images that can be lacking in punch and contrast. However, they can apparently be modified to address these issues.
The East German Belplasca falls in the $300-400 range for a decent copy. It comes with sharp and contrasty Carl Zeiss Jena f3.5 lenses, but must be zone-focused, lacking a rangefinder. As mentioned above, this is not an issue in bright conditions, but is less than optimal in dimmer conditions. I have seen some people mount a rangefinder attachment to the cold shoe of these cameras, but I don't know if this can be as precise as having an internal rangefinder coupled to the focus mechanism.
The FED Stereo is a Ukrainian camera from the 80’s with full automatic operation and a nice form factor. Unfortunately, I’ve heard it has some reliability issues. While it can work fine if you get a “good” copy, the fact that it is electronic and can’t be repaired makes it hard to recommend. (My understanding is that you can still take photos manually should the electronics fail, but only at the not-very-useful shutter speed of 1/30th of a second.) Supposedly those with the “FED BOY” badge are more likely to be reliable. They run around $200-300 on eBay, but are often sold as “auto mode not working,” so be sure to check for that if you decide to purchase one of these cameras.
There used to someone who would modify f2.8 Stereo Realists for the 7-perf format (only the f2.8 version had a large enough image circle to cover the wider frame), but unfortunately this service is no longer available. Apparently they were quite nice, and a favorite among the stereo photographers who had them.
What if I want to shoot Medium format?
A Chinese company called 3D World made a very modern and fully featured medium format stereo camera called the TL-120 in the 2000s. Those who have them seem to like them a lot, but I’ve never handled one. They are very expensive at $2000-2500 on eBay, and come up very rarely.
Fortunately, there is a cheap alternative in the Russian Sputnik camera, a quite basic TLR (Triple Lens Reflex) that can be had for about $200. The lenses are a slow f4.5, the viewfinder is pretty funky and can be hard to frame with (though that could just be an issue with my copy), and it has a body made of bakelite that is famously prone to light leaks and internal flaring. Nonetheless, I’ve gotten good results by avoiding pointing it into bright light sources and thoroughly taping up all the seams of the film compartment with black paper tape. For the price, for the images it can make, it’s a neat little camera.
What if I want to shoot Full Frame (8-perf) format?
If you are shooting stationary subjects with a tripod, you can simply use any regular, non-stereo camera and a slider bar. Otherwise, you can try to build your own (Olympus XA2s seem to have been a popular choice for this) or spend thousands of dollars for one of RBT’s custom-built full frame stereo cameras. RBT produces 8-perf mounts.
What about the Nimslo/Nishika?
These shoot four images in half frame (4-perf) format, the outermost pair of which can be mounted and viewed as a stereo image. They have fixed-focus lenses and automatic exposure, can take a modern flash, and RBT produces mounts for them. You often see animated gifs (the so-called "wigglegrams") made with these cameras, and for this purpose they are better suited than stereo cameras that only take two images, as more frames = smoother animation. That said, the fixed focus lenses make accurate focus tricky in dimmer conditions without a flash, and the automatic operation offers limited control. They also have a narrow stereo base (the distance separating the lenses) compared to most stereo cameras. The Realist format cameras mentioned above place the lenses between 62-70mm apart, right in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to the average distance between a person’s pupils, while the the Nimslo and Nishika’s outermost lenses are only 55.5mm apart. This is still within the broader range of normal (most people having an inter-pupillary distance that falls between 54mm and 74mm), but the 3D effect produced is more subdued than with those stereo cameras.