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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).
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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Why would anyone do this? Right now, there's no other way to achieve the technical and creative versatility of the GigaPan system. Call me crazy, but I always want more from my photography: more resolution, more tonal value, more depth of field. And I want it in the studio and in the field. And I want to make prints so big that people can walk right up to them and get hit between the eyes with the tiniest details, rendered sharp as a tack and bright as a penny. Here's where the GigaPan EPIC Pro has changed how I work on a daily basis.
The HDR GigaPan
Most digital photographers have at least a passing understanding of high dynamic range (HDR), that method of blending multiple dark-to-light exposures to achieve extraordinary tonal detail for realism or creative effect. I love HDR for the power it brings to landscape photography, allowing the bright sky and dark foreground to be appropriately rendered in realistic fine detail, with a precision never possible by using filters. With my complicated manual system, I could linger at each position in the grid I was creating to capture three to five exposures at one-stop intervals, later compositing each set of frames with Photomatix Pro HDR batch-processing software before assembling the entire "gigarama" in the original Stitch software from GigaPan or the highly capable, but extremely complex Autopano Giga 2.5.
The GigaPan EPIC Pro automates this process by allowing you to program up to 20 shots at each position. Using this capability, my standard procedure in most landscape situations is to program the GigaPan system and the camera's auto-bracketing system to capture three exposures in two-stop increments—one over, one "on the money" and one under—to preserve my options for later treatment of the final composition. If HDR processing will yield the effect I want, I'll batch-process the individual frames in Photomatix Pro and then assemble them in the latest, much improved and faster version of GigaPan Stitch. If I decide not to use HDR processing, I use the "on the money" exposures to make the GigaPan.
The Expanded Depth Of Field GigaPan
One of the most revolutionary tools of digital photography is the ability to achieve unlimited depth of field by shooting several versions of the same image, captured at different focus points, and composite them in software such as Helicon Focus (www.heliconfocus.com) or, more recently, Photoshop CS5 Blend modes. The software retains the sharp areas and discards what's out of focus to render a final image that's sharply focused from front to back. I've been applying this technique to my landscape and macro photography with great success. In landscapes, I can render a foreground flower as sharp as a mountain range at the horizon. And in macro, I can capture all the depth and every facet of a snowflake or butterfly wing at 9x.
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The GigaPan EPIC Pro robot facilitates the capture process for expanded depth of field because it can repeat the same matrix of images as many times as you wish. When I can't capture the entire depth of a subject in a single image because I'm using either a telephoto lens or a macro lens, I treat each series of images as a single slice of a multiple-focus composite, making sure that the sharp focus of each slice overlaps the sharp focus area of the previous slice to avoid out-of-focus bands in the final product. In this case, I assemble each slice (that is, each pass of the GigaPan) individually into a composite image and then assemble the set of slices in Helicon Focus or CS5 software to eliminate all out-of-focus areas. When it all works, the result is an image of incredible resolution and depth of field that can be printed extremely large to cover an entire wall.
The "No Free Lunch" Clause
If you've been to my seminars, you know I'm fond of the term "No free lunch" to represent all the things that are imperfect about the photographic process. It applies here, big time. First, you must work in a concentrated, methodical way to achieve success with the GigaPan, especially when you expand into areas such as HDR and extended depth of field. Second, you must make sure that nothing in your entire range of capture moves during all of the sequences. Since that's usually not possible outside of the studio, be prepared to photograph (at exactly the same focal length of the original) individual areas or subjects within the scene and drop them into the final image later. Think about it. You can have fun with this aspect.
There are a few add-ons you'll need if you're going to do this in a serious way. The mounting platform that currently comes with the GigaPan isn't quite up to the task. Order the GigaPan Clamp Bar from Really Right Stuff to provide a more stable base for a big camera/lens combo. And since the robot itself is a fairly large piece of gear, it's helpful to carry it in its own case along with an extra battery and a lens and camera. Finally, when it gets to the processing, you're going to need up-to-date software and hardware to manage and store all those gigs.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of giga-photography is finding a worthy subject. A boring picture doesn't improve with size and detail! So before you engage in GigaPanning, get out there and mine for subjects that are pure gold.