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Really big photos at Pop!Tech

Graham Flint takes really big pictures. Really, really big pictures. My digital camera captures 4 megapixels – Graham produces digital images that are 1000 times that size – 4 gigapixels. What this means is that Graham can start his talk at Pop!Tech with a distant landscape shot of
San Diego, shot from 3 kilometers away. Graham selects one percent of that image and zooms in – there’s no meaningful blurring or distortion. So he zooms in again. Now we’re looking inside a hotel room – from 3 kilometers away – and we can make out the bed, the paintings on the walls, the patterns on the curtains.

Yep, that’s the image. It’s high enough quality that you can look into each of those hotel rooms…

Oddly enough, the way to make really huge digital images is to shoot film. Really big film. Why would you make digital images using film? Since each image is shot in as little as 1/200th of a second, the data transfer rate you would need to capture these images would be 38 terabits per second – that’s an amazingly high data rate you’d need to capture – without massively parallel computation, there’s no way to handle that much data in that short a time.

So Flint has build a film camera. (Indeed, it’s a really, really big camera.) It uses film magazines salvaged from U2 spy planes (Flint used to run one of Lockheed Martin’s laser labs, which gave him access to some interesting technologyy.) It shoots 460mm x 230mm film stock using lenses that are anywhere from 200mm to 500mm in length. Those lengths would usually be telephoto lenses – but with film this big, these lenses act like wide angles, letting Flint photograph landscapes from 10-20km away. No commercial lenses are sufficient for this work – he and his team grind their own lenses, made of six different types of glass, and custom fit them to 30 kilogram cameras. The sheer geekery required to build these cameras is astounding – and the geekery to take a shot (laser rangefinders, adjustment screws that are tuneable to a thousandth of a centimeter…) is profound as well. And then scanning and digitizing the picture involves hours, terabytes of storage, and lots and lots of touchups in Photoshop.

So why the heck is he doing this? One is that he wants to create real, compelling virtual reality. To give a hemisphere of visual information (as you might get in an IMAX theater) at 20/20 vision, you need 75 megapixels. Add a 10x zoom in any direction and you need 7.5 gigapixels… and the cameras Flint is building aren’t quite adequate yet.

Flint and his wife have been travelling around the US and Canada, shooting a picture or two a day, for a “warmup project”, Portrait of America. In three years, they’ve got 1,300 (very very big) pictures. The long term project is a portrait of the world, being put together in cooperation with the CTO of Google Earth.

There’s some disturbing implications of this technology, though – Flint shows us a beautiful photo of a paraglider over a stretch of beach. As we zoom in, we discover it’s a nude beach, and Flint has photographed a bunch of nude bathers from over a mile away. Not his intention, but certainly a consequence of being able to take really big photos.

18 thoughts on “Really big photos at Pop!Tech”

  1. I don’t know what comment would be more appropriate than ‘wow,’ but especially it’s interesting that it’s more efficient to move information in analog form than digital. And, I’ve been insisting forever that film cameras make higher quality images than *any* digital — it’s nice to be right (once in a while).

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  3. Every time this pops up, I get really annoyed. He’s not doing anything magic. Put a 600mm lens on your Digital Rebel and you’ll get the same view of the nude sunbathers and the hotel windows.

    The rest of what he’s doing is just large-format photography. There’s lots of good engineering that went into adapting an aerial camera for lanscape use, but there’s nothing revolutionary here. In fact, he has to do as much work as he does because everything he’s doing is gloriously obsolete.

    He’s applying (some) modern technology to methods of the 19th century, with predictably good results.

  4. Zandr has a good point. It would be quite possible to assemble an array of digital cameras with big zooms and create a computer controlled tracking system to simply scan across a landscape and then stitch the images together. Indeed, such a system could take full 360 degree panoramas. Some relatively simple software could then be used to view the image and ‘zoom’ in or out at will.
    Not to diminish the accomplishment of making a huge film image but yes, it is actually an obsolete idea.
    I envision the adaptation of one of those telescope slewing systems to a camera that could be positioned extremely accurately in almost any position and incremented precisely through the panorama.
    Cost? Probably under $5000 for camera, laptop and positioning system.

  5. Utter Crap. a Howtek 8000 drum scanner can scan at 8,000 DPI. a 8×10 sheet film scanned at full resolution can produce a 22GB file. I have personaly scanned 4-8×10 sheet films and digitaly spliced them together to creat a 7GB file the image will be printed 22×113 feet @85dpi for a TV show backdrop… He admits that he uses a Hidelberg drum scanner (produces upto 11,000 DPI) other then paying much more for custom film which any one can get for a price and creating a wider angle lense its nothing special. How about he buy a 8×10 camera shoot a shot and then move it over a foot and take another shot… he would still get his 8×20 sheet of image…

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  8. You’re so missing the point. Yes, he could have taken an ordinary, rather small, camera, moved it around, taken lots of shots (maybe using some fancy computer controlled tracking device), and then stitched together the result. But what often makes photography exciting is the way it catches a moment. When Flint takes these huge photographs, the whole photo is one moment. Everything happening across the whole cityscape in one tiny moment, frozen onto film.

    Technically it’s clever and interesting, but not revolutionary. Artistically, it’s amazing. I think the whole idea is beautiful.

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  11. Anybody who uses Flint’s work to ‘prove’ film is superior to digital imaging has their head so far up their own donkey that they can’t see the pictures to be able to tell.

    I think Flint’s work is great stuff, both artistically and technically, and there is nothing obsolete about it at all. He is doing stuff that can’t be done with today’s digital cams for simple reasons of bandwidth and capacity. But it is a fringe sort of project, so I sure won’t be holding my breath waiting for the 4gp dSLR to be released by Canon. :)

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