What Is A Gigapan? Carnegie Mellon University Project


Gigapan is one of those technologies that has slowly crept into the collective conciseness of photographers worldwide. From being amazing at the intricate details of massive images of stadiums and crowd scenes, produced by high-end photographers, and with the help of several assistants, today we have arrived now at a point where a Gigapan image is within reach of the enthusiast photographer.

Gigapan – Collaboration Between Carnegie Mellon University And NASA

GigaPan Systems was founded in 2008 as a collaborative project between Carnegie Mellon and NASA, with support from Google. The development team was led by Randy Sargent, a senior scientist at Carnegie Mellon. The project has grown into an independent company offering solutions for capturing gigapixel images, with an incredibly high resolution.

Quite simply, it is a series of images that are stitched together to make one larger one with high resolution. Wait, I hear you cry, isn't that just a panoramic? Yes it is, but it is also so much more. Whilst a panoramic might be 4 or 5 images taken in a pan around a scenes and stitched together, a Gigapan can incorporate hundreds of images to make one huge image, and of course huge file size with high resolution. This is not only in the horizontal plane but also the vertical, like individual panoramics stacked on top of each other, with a very high resolution.

Massive Stitched Images

Like many technologies, Xerox for example, Gigapan, has become a generic word for a massive stitched image with high resolution. Although there are other companies producing similar technology, Gigapan, the company remains the technology leader and innovator. They use a combination of hardware and specialist software to create these impressive images with high resolution. Because of that, Gigapan is one of the most interesting side projects of Carnegie Mellon University.

GigaPan at Thingvellir carnegie mellon university

A massive Gigapan image being created in Iceland, by Alan Levine, on Flickr

How Is A Gigapan Image Made?

If you had the patience of a saint, a lot of time and an unswerving ability for minute accuracy, you could probably make a Gigapan style image yourself, without the usual hardware. For the rest of us mere mortals, Gigapan Systems sell what is effectively a motorized head that can automatically move your camera in the pan and tilt directions.

You attach this head atop a good solid tripod then mount the camera inside what is a large gimbal joint. On the base of the unit are all the electronics that control the camera's movement. Into this you program details of the lens that you are using. This is so that the computer can workout exactly how much to move the camera. You then tell the unit where the outer limits of your image will be. This is done by programming the upper left corner and the lower right. The unit communicates with the camera via an electronic cable that plugs into the remote shutter socket.

Gigapan Process

Once everything is set, the Gigapan will start taking the images, automatically moving the camera to the next position before remotely firing the shutter. As a photographer, you put your feet up and wait while it all happens. Once the process is finished, you need to stitch the images together.

Taking the Old Gigapan Out for a Run carnegie mellon university

Gigapan has become affordable technology in recent years, by Alan Levine, on Flickr

Stitching Software

The stitching software is entirely automatic but of course, you do have the option of using Photoshop or other third party products. This will give you much more control but will also be very time consuming. Whatever you use you are going to end up with some pretty enormous files. For this you will need a computer that can handle such files or a lot of patience whilst the image renders.

GigaPan Stitching carnegie mellon university

A decent specced computer is needed for stitching, by Alan Levine, on Flickr

Finalized Gigapan Image

Viewing of a finalized Gigapan is also not as straightforward as an ordinary image. Their sheer size means it is best to use the supplied software to watch on your own computer or to use a plugin to upload them to third party websites. You can also upload them to Gigapan's own website.

So Do You Need A Gigapan?

As an enthusiast photographer, it is certainly not an essential piece of technology. If you enjoy panoramic or landscape photography and have the eye and the patience then you might find a new passion in massively stitched images. From a commercial aspect, Gigapans are very specialised area. If you are commissioned to take a Gigapan image you might find hiring the unit the easiest option although given the complexity of these specialised heads they are surprisingly inexpensive. The Gigapan Epic, designed for compact cameras starts at $320 whilst to use a DSLR camera you will need to step up to the Epic Pro which is near on $1000.

In short, Gigapan technology is capable of creating some absolutely stunning, ultra high resolution images, but it is very much a niche area that might appeal to some photographers. In any case, it's an interesting result of the Carnegie Mellon and NASA collaboration that we photographers can benefit from.

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Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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