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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Capture The Gigascape

The GigaPan EPIC Pro creates the ultimate combination of camera technique and computer power for incredibly large, high-res images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

In the November 2009 issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine, we wrote about a way to achieve highly detailed landscapes, the "gigascape," with your compact digital camera. It was made possible by a robot called the GigaPan EPIC. The GigaPan system uses gigapixel-imaging technology employed by NASA's Mars Rover to capture a precise series of images which, when composited in GigaPan's Stitch software, yields a high-resolution image that can be uploaded and shared at GigaPan's website (www.gigapan.org) or printed to very large sizes.

Naturally, I wanted the same capability with my digital SLRs and full range of lenses, so using parts from Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com), I rigged up a complicated system of sliding rails and meticulous degree calculations while I manually applied the GigaPan concept to my landscape and macro photography. Results (like my math grades in school) were mixed. But now a new automated system, the GigaPan EPIC Pro, helps me to achieve ultra-high-resolution composites on pixel-packed sensors coupled with sensitive lenses, from macro to long telephoto. It's as if I were using a digital 8x10 view camera, which, if it existed, would cost more than $50,000. The GigaPan EPIC Pro works with most DSLRs and runs $895 from GigaPan (www.gigapansystems.com).

As you can see here, the GigaPan EPIC Pro can produce incredibly large panoramas with highly detailed resolution. The system works by stitching together multiple precisely aligned digital captures into a composite that looks as if it was taken with a single large-format camera.
The Essential GigaPan EPIC Pro
The GigaPan EPIC Pro is a computerized camera mount that holds a DSLR and lens combination up to 10 pounds. The computer is connected to the DSLR's cable release input via a supplied cable. The photographer sets the exposure time and angle of view of the camera/lens combination, and follows the EPIC Pro's prompts to set the parameters of the total image to be captured, from upper left to lower right, within a maximum vertical range of 155º and a horizontal range of 360º. The robot then moves and fires the camera precisely through a grid of columns and rows (the photographer can choose the order), overlapping the images as necessary to facilitate reassembly in the GigaPan software.

The composited file is very, very detailed, with the kind of optimum resolution and color fidelity large-format film photographers sought with their 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras. A typical "gigarama," for me, using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a 200mm lens, might cover six rows and 24 columns, resulting in an approximate finished file of about one gigabyte at 8-bits. Now you know why it's called a GigaPan. RAW files captured with longer telephotos can easily reach two gigabytes in size at 8-bits. What does that really mean? Divide your finished 8-bit file size by three to determine the megapixel count of the equivalent camera. I calculated a recent capture of Mount Rushmore at 473 megapixels.

You might think that managing these kinds of file sizes requires some serious computer power, but I processed the Mount Rushmore GigaPan on my MacBook Pro with 4 GB of RAM. First, I bring all of the RAW images captured by the GigaPan into Lightroom, then select one image from the sequence that's representative of the exposure range of the entire scene, typically a section at the edge of the horizon that includes both sky and foreground. Using the sharpening, contrast and color-enhancement tools, I optimize the single frame; then, using the Lightroom Sync function, I apply the same changes automatically to all the other frames in the series. Next, I convert all the RAW files to 8-bit TIFF files; then I use the GigaPan Stitch software, much improved and faster in the latest version, to composite all of the frames into one large file. Finally, I go to Photoshop CS5 to crop, clean and otherwise fine-tune the composited image. CS5 will work with TIFF files up to 4 gigabytes in size, while earlier versions will manage a maximum 2 GB file in TIFF format. You can reduce your file sizes by making your initial captures in JPEG format, especially if you don't intend to make gigantic prints from the finished file. Anyone can upload a GigaPan to the GigaPan.org website, where viewers can zoom into the image Google Earth-like and tag particularly interesting features. Look around the site to enjoy tours of Paris and Dubai to see how amazing this software is.


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