How to shoot a gigapixel image

Photography is the traditional cornerstone when it comes to capturing a magical, often iconic moment; a snapshot of time that’s a considered frame selected from a larger event. Or so it once was.

In the digital age, photographers are thinking about the bigger picture - and we mean that quite literally - in what have become known as "gigapixel" images. These composite shots are so large that you can zoom in and navigate around them, often through 180 or full 360-degree fields of view, in order to examine everything in ultra-fine detail. It's like exploring a miniature world.

Pocket-lint was on hand at this year’s Reading Festival with Fancam - a company that not only produces gigapixel images, but also then ties in social media tagging and other promotional videos and features, most famously throughout U2's 360 Tour - to get a behind the scenes of the work that goes in to capturing a gigapixel shot.

The purpose of Fancam's visit to the three-day-event? Nikon hired the gigapixel specialist to take a mega-snap just before the Kaiser Chiefs hit the main stage to use as promotional material. If you were there, then go check out the final image and tag yourself. You could even win a Coolpix S9300.

The man behind the lens

We met Lance King, freelance sports photographer and seasoned Fancam snapper, backstage at Reading Festival, to have a chat about the shoot.

Initial nerves are clear, but who wouldn’t have a bit of adrenaline pumping through their veins just before going on stage in front of tens of thousands of people?

"Yeah, that's the hard part. When you’ve not got a lot of time [to shoot] and there are a lot of fans, you just want to try and have as little impact as possible," says King.

But make no bones about it, this guy is one seasoned professional. He’s one of more than10 photographers which Fancam uses to promote its international presence, but it’s not his full time job - you’ll find many of Lance’s other images on ESPN.com and in Sports Illustrated.

The kit

You too - as in you, not the aforementioned Irish band - can buy the kit needed to shoot a panoramic image.

Lance’s kit is comprised of a single Nikon D800, a sturdy tripod and a Nodal Ninja Ultimate M1 tripod head.

"It’s a generic head, regular to something guys shooting panoramic images would use. We’re not using any equipment that anybody couldn’t get on their own," reassures King.

So there you have it, the kit might not be cheap but it’s straight off-the-shelf fare. Of course you'll need software, time, patience and skill too - but we'll address those points later.

The shoot

Now here’s the tricky bit: King will shoot on average 300-400 shots for a 180-degree shoot, but that could be as many as 700 shots for taller venues, 360-degree shots or other events that present other difficulties.

Lance ascends the Reading main stage to his platform position and begins snapping away at pace. And we mean at pace: he whisks through some initial "tester" images and then sets about shooting throughout all manner of angles, occasionally checking to see if he needs to make any tweaks.

"I may make some slight adjustments in camera. You know, you want the final image to blend together and look right."

So it’s all manual control, except for the focus, which he entrusts to the D800’s AF system. For most jobs it’s a 70-200mm that sits on the front of the camera, the longer focal length necessary to shoot the close up detail of those in the crowd.

We wonder whether all the crowd movement will cause issues, but it’s something King seems unfazed by.

"We're used to people moving about. I've only done one shoot where people were pretty much still throughout. But there's enough overlap between each shot so that if I take a shot 'here' [he gestures]and you're moving into it then the next shot I take just needs to have enough overlap and they [the post-production team] will decide what to use in the middle."

Somehow he makes it sound all too simple. Of the 20-minute slot provided - though that was cut into by the brawling crowd following Bullet For My Valentine’s frontman encouraging a "world record" crowd surf during their last song - King is done and dusted within 12 minutes. That’s one shot every 2.4 seconds.

We discuss other methods of shooting, which include robotic heads and multiple cameras working simultaneously which we're aware other photographers use, but our man points out the issue with automated system shooting live action.

"There's not really another way to do what we do," King says. "There are ways with a kind of robot that automatically goes around but they take too long. It scans the whole scene, so if you're shooting outside in the Grand Canyon for instance, and nothing's moving, then that's going to work fine. But if you're working with people and in real time the light changes then there are a lot of real time adjustments I'll make."

The processing

Here’s where the longer part of the process starts. The 36-megapixel D800 makes large JPEG files - Lance doesn’t shoot raw files dbecause of  size constraints and ailing Wi-Fi connections - and 300 of those files total almost 11 billion pixels. Yes, eleven billion. It’s not hard to see where the gigapixel name comes from. Larger scenes will be in excess of 20 billion pixels.

"When the final image is stitched together it would fit on a billboard about 200 metres long in real size. It's really big and could be 20 gigabytes in size."

"What they do [the post production team] is take that full image and then break it down into thousands of smaller images in certain areas so that if you're looking at it online you can see it a lot quicker, rather than having to wait for all of it to load up."

We’re curious what the team uses to stitch and process all the shots together, assuming it’s Photoshop, but it’s here that we’ve hit a secret spot.

"They have some software that they use, but we keep that to ourselves, sorry," King apologises. "We don't want to give away everything."

Fair cop, we reckon, as we’re only too aware that Photoshop is capable of stitching files, as is other third-party panorama software such as EasyPano.

It's not exactly one big photo

Not quite, no. The process of shooting multiple shots means the composite is comprised of different moments in time extending through many minutes. It's like a complex digital collage.

At an event where something important is going to happen - such as Henry Stuart's shot of the 100m final at the London 2012 Olympic Games - it’s key to shoot that part first (or last) and then quickly follow up shooting the surrounding parts of the scene so it all gels together coherently. Light can be an issue, as can weather and other difficult-to-combat issues.

Photographer: Henry Stuart / via Spherical Images / Getty Images 

The team at Reading, for example, was wobbling the stage by carting gear on and off, which meant King had to shoot extra images to ensure optimum final quality.

And how long does it take the Fancam team to process together its final piece?

"After I do the shoot, I sort the photos into rows, upload them and there's a team of guys that will start downloading them immediately and start stitching them together. They will do all of that and get the final image together, ensure quality control, then they break it down into smaller images and the last process is doing all the code. That’s all done within 24 hours."

That sounds like one busy day to us.

The results - while more interactive multimedia than "photograph" - sure do speak volumes though. It’s a lot of fun, but a whole lot of effort to get it done right.

- Nikon D800 review