|This 144-image composite of Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge and Park was captured with the GigaPan Epic and the Canon PowerShot G10 with a 1.4x tele-extender. INSET: A very small detail of the Royal Gorge image. Printed to a size of 58x130 inches, the detail is still amazing. You can look at it by searching “Lepp” at www.GigaPan.com|
Do you often feel that photography is advancing faster than you can buy new cameras and computers? Since the advent of digital imaging, it seems the capabilities and complexities expand faster than we mere mortals can master them. Was it only yesterday that composite panorama techniques and large-format inkjet printers allowed us to capture and display the grandscape? Well, that was then. Now, the grandscape has become the gigascape! Our word for it is “gigarama.”
Imagine a panoramic subject captured in such high resolution, it could be printed at 20x100 feet, or even larger, with incredible detail. Or picture the same image uploaded to the Internet, filling your computer screen, and being able to zoom into it Google Earth-like to examine the smallest elements. The gigapixel panorama, only recently a fantastic idea, has become a reality. It’s a photographic capability readily available to anyone who wants to think really, really BIG.
Autopano’s Giga 2.0 software is designed to composite very large panoramas. It works well in combination with files captured with the GigaPan robot and has many additional features to facilitate high-quality results.
The Gigarama Concept
The basic structure of a gigarama is a set of tiled captures composited into a single image. A true gigapixel image is composed of at least one billion pixels, but the term is being used to describe any very large photographic composite. Capture is only part one, however. The second half of the gigarama story is launching the image in a way that enables the viewer to explore its extraordinary detail.
A great gigarama requires a deserving subject. Some large-file images are just big, boring pictures; if your viewer is going to go walking into your composition, there must be something there to discover. Already the gigarama movement has generated some iconic images. Two that come to mind are an outstanding rendition of President Obama’s inauguration (go to www.GigaPan.org; search “inauguration”) and a huge image of Yosemite National Park taken from Glacier Point (www.yosemite-17-gigapixels.com).
Capturing The Gigarama
A worthy gigarama combines art and engineering. It requires all the same artistic elements as any other quality photograph: content, composition, exposure, color, sharpness and controlled contrast. But the photographic process makes you think like an engineer: You must manage the precise capture of possibly hundreds of images in quick succession, correctly overlapped so as to enable them to be composited later. This isn’t anything like stringing together a simple panorama. In the gigarama, every individual image must merge properly with the images above, below and adjacent to it.
A Canon PowerShot G10 (14.7 MP) with a Canon 1.4x tele-extender (35mm equivalent of 200mm) mounted to a GigaPan Epic.
The capture process, therefore, requires a plan of attack. Photographing a gigapixel composite takes time, and you don’t want to get halfway through and find out you didn’t take some critical feature into account when setting your parameters. For example, if you’re photographing a landscape with mountains, you need to set a top margin for your image that will accommodate the highest peak. The best way to define and organize your gigarama is in columns and rows. It doesn’t matter if you work horizontally or vertically, but you need to choose a pattern that you follow scrupulously throughout the multiple captures. Most compositing software prefers that the photographer begin the composite from the upper left, sequencing the captures in columns from top to bottom.
Set your camera as you would for a basic panorama: exposure at manual for the brightest area of the scene, manual focus and manual white balance. If you’re using a zoom lens, be sure it’s locked into one position; a piece of tape might be necessary to secure it to a single focal length.
The capture requires patience, skill and precision. But keep it snappy because while you move through your image, the clouds, shadows, people and wildlife will change position. We have to warn you of an occupational hazard: the need for speed and concentration will be thwarted by curious onlookers who will invariably want to ask you what you’re doing when you’re capturing a gigarama in a public location. An assistant who diverts their attention can be useful.
|Displaying A Gigarama
Here’s the part where you get to amaze your friends, family and anybody on the Internet. No matter which program you used to assemble it, you can post your gigarama to the GigaPan website (www.GigaPan.org) using the GigaPan upload program. At the GigaPan site, a Google-Earth type of interface allows viewers to zoom in on the details, and a nifty snapshot feature lets you, and others who view your image, to extract interesting surprise elements that you may not have noticed before. There’s no charge for the hosting service. You can post your images on the public site or you can keep them private. There are tens of thousands of images already posted (as of this writing) for your zooming pleasure.
GigaPan software also has a format that allows you to post your gigaramas on your own website. You can see some examples at our site, www.GeorgeLepp.com.
If you have access to a large-format printer and are willing to deal with monster-sized files, you can achieve truly astounding resolution and detail with a gigarama print. The largest file you can work with as a Photoshop PSD or JPEG file is 30,000x30,000 pixels. The next size up in Photoshop CS-CS4 is the PSB format, which allows 300,000x300,000 pixels. If you wish to work with a TIFF file, the maximum size is four gigabytes. Another format for large files is Adobe Raw. There are labs out there that are willing to print by the square foot. Check to see what type of image files they require.
Keep in mind all the problems that have to be solved with a 5x20-foot print. How do you handle it, display it and protect it? In some cases, canvas is a good solution because it’s less fragile. But it weighs a ton in a really large print.
Your gigarama capture can be aided by some basic equipment. If you’re already a dedicated fan of the panoramic perspective, you may have everything you need to get started. A sturdy tripod is the foundation. A ballhead or tripod head that has a panoramic-rotation capability will facilitate the smooth horizontal transition from column to column. To be truly precise, you need a vertical axis control to keep you straight while you move the camera from top to bottom through the columns; these are available from Manfrotto/Bogen and Really Right Stuff.
The camera/lens combination you choose determines the ultimate resolution and detail of the image. The longer the focal length, the smaller the angle of view, meaning that more pictures must be taken to cover the entire field when you use a telephoto than are required with a wide-angle or normal lens. Higher-resolution cameras generate higher-resolution captures (and larger composited file sizes). As an example, a 21-megapixel camera with a 500mm to 800mm lens would yield the greatest complexity and ultimate detail. Good luck with that! You really don’t need to go that far to generate extraordinary gigaramas. A more typical combination would be a D-SLR with an APS-sized sensor and a 200mm lens. Capturing in 8-bit JPEG format also makes it easier to handle the resulting files, but some photographers prefer to capture in RAW with 16-bit files. Remember that this doubles the size of your already huge files.
This combination of Really Right Stuff accessories will allow the photographer to meticulously capture a gigarama. It’s important to have both a good panorama base and a vertical rotation that’s precise.
Capturing With The GigaPan Robot System
While the ultimate gigarama requires a D-SLR and long lens, all of the complex capture described above can be automated with a reasonably priced robot and a point-and-shoot camera. The GigaPan Epic and Epic 100 (about $300-$450) use robotics to calculate the positioning of the camera throughout the desired GigaPan capture. The instructions are simple. The robot calculates the camera’s field of view through a series of uncomplicated prompts. You specify the upper left and lower right corners of your image, and the GigaPan determines the number of rows and columns that are needed to cover the field. The robot walks you through the setup procedure each time you’re ready to take another GigaPan.
We’ve seen good results from the GigaPan Epic and a Canon PowerShot G10 14.7-megapixel compact camera. The lens zooms out to an equivalent 140mm. Lately, I’ve added Canon’s 1.4x tele-extender to make the G10’s focal length 200mm. More focal length means more images and higher resolution. With the GigaPan holding the camera and moving it through the capture grid, it’s a hands-off experience. You’ll actually have time to position yourself within the picture—even more than once!
The GigaPan Epic and Epic 100 accommodate a large range of point-and-shoot compacts and a few small D-SLRs. A full list is available on the website, www.gigapansystems.com. A rig for larger pro D-SLRs will be available from GigaPan later this year. If you’re really into this whole idea, check out Clauss, a German company that makes high-quality, expensive, precision robotic systems (Rodeon VR) for D-SLRs (www.dr-clauss.de/english.htm).
|Assembling Your Gigarama
First, buy a fast, new computer with lots of RAM. Then add more RAM. It helps if you have a big monitor, too. Now you’re ready to assemble files of one gigapixel or larger. An efficient way to initially optimize the images is to bring them all into Lightroom. Optimize just one of the images for clarity, vibrance and exposure, and sync the rest to apply the same corrections to all of the images at once. Then composite the images into a gigarama using the GigaPan or Autopano software described below. Both are available for Windows and Mac platforms.
A new program, Autopano Giga 2.0, is a more complicated, but more versatile, compositing software. You can use the program to correct common problems with gigaramas: ghosting, color and exposure variations, curved horizons and alignment problems. Autopano Giga 2.0 is available from www.autopano.net for approximately 179 euros.
The larger the file, the more time the compositing will take, so be patient. A 40-image gigarama taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (21 megapixels) took most of the night to assemble. The first few times you do it, it’s like waiting for Santa. If you keep waking up to check on it, you’ll get frustrated because there will be long periods of time with no visible evidence of any activity. Then, when you’ve given up and fallen asleep, the present shows up under the tree, or on the monitor.