PURPOSES: (1) To develop the methodology for the grading of macular one-frame stereoslides and to assess the reliability of the system. (2) To determine the prevalence of soft drusen (> 63 microm) and pigment abnormalities synonymous with age-related maculopathy (ARM) at baseline, in a clinical trial of volunteers aged between 55 and 80 years of age. (3) To ascertain the power of the study to detect the 4-year incidence and progression of ARM in vitamin E versus placebo treated participants, given the baseline prevalence. METHODS: The 1204 participants enrolled in the Vitamin E, Cataract, and Age-related Maculopathy Study (VECAT) had colour stereoslides of their fundus taken using the Nidek 3-DX mydriatic fundus camera. The stereoslides were graded by two masked graders according to the "International Classification System for ARM and AMD". Assessment of inter- and intra-observer reliability was carried out on a regular basis on 15% of randomly selected slides. Anticipated rates of incidence and progression were based on results reported by the Beaver Dam Eye Study and the Chesapeake Bay Waterman Study. Power estimations were determined using the "nQuery Advisor" software program. Analyses were carried out on the worse affected eye. RESULTS: Inter-observer reliability was moderate to substantial (Kappa 0.5-0.88) whilst intra-observer agreement was high (0.6-1.0). The prevalence of any soft drusen was 32%. Significant associations were found between soft large indistinct drusen, hypopigmentation, hyperpigmentation and age (p = 0.0001, 0.024 and 0.0001, respectively). The study has at least 87% power to detect an odds ratio equal to two for the progression of soft distinct, soft indistinct, hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation. CONCLUSIONS: The VECAT study methodology appears to be highly reliable and to have sufficient power to detect the differences in the four-year progression of soft distinct and indistinct drusen and pigment abnormalities between the treatment groups.