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Technical

A New York City multimedia display with the EOS-1D X

A New York City multimedia display with the EOS-1D X

© Lois Lammerhuber

September 2013

If you have been through Vienna Airport, Austria, recently you may have stood mesmerised in front of a bank of TV screens taking in the gigapixel photography of Austrian photographer Lois Lammerhuber. CPN writer Ian Farrell checked in for a closer look...

Lammerhuber – a self-taught travel and documentary photographer with an impressive history of awards and fine-art books – created the work with the help of his technical adviser Martin Ackerl and Harald Moser of Ars Electronica, the Austrian centre for technology-driven art that describes itself as ‘the museum of the future’.

The first in a series of installations, advertising the Austrian national airline, reproduces the Manhattan skyline with incredible resolution. From the top of the GE Building, an Art Deco skyscraper that forms the centrepiece of the Rockefeller Centre, we are transported around the city, zooming through buildings towards landmarks that are miles away, yet still perfectly rendered in glorious detail. Over a 30-minute timelapse the freshness of the morning gives way to the long shadows of the afternoon, which then transforms into a night-time landscape of the city that never sleeps.

© Lois Lammerhuber

Lois Lammerhuber’s stunning multimedia timelapse of New York City, shot with the EOS-1D X DSLR.

Lammerhuber explains that when Vienna airport was constructed, Ars Electronica was asked to install the huge bank of screens to present a piece of digital art called ‘Zeitraum’. In the months afterwards, the airport authorities set about trying to find commercial content that would not only amaze travellers, but also bring in revenue for the airport owners. “In the end it was a joint proposal by Austrian Airlines and Ars Electronica’s Future Lab,” he explains. “They wanted to create a different gigapixel image every year showing one of the destinations that the airline flies to.”

Gigapixel images are produced by stitching together hundreds of separately shot pictures to produce a single, very high-resolution photograph. By rastering across the scene with a telephoto lens, Lammerhuber was able to take in the same angle of view as an ultra wide-angle lens, but with resolution far higher than a conventional photograph. “We started with Manhattan since it is such a recognisable skyline. People have a real affinity with it,” he says, adding that such notoriety also brings it’s own set of problems. “It was always going to be hard to find a new angle for a place like New York, but our idea was to use technology to go well beyond what we have seen so far, even though we know it so well.”

Choosing a gigapixel location

Lammerhuber’s technical adviser Martin Ackerl describes the process of selecting a location as being crucial to every other technical decision that followed. “We made lots of calculations to find the vantage point, using Google Earth and even looking at the metadata of existing pictures on the internet to see what focal length had been used to capture certain views,” he says. “In the end we decided on the Rockefeller building, and chose the EF100mm f/2 USM and EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM lenses to go on our EOS-1D X body.”

Lammerhuber adds that at the start of the project they had the choice of going down the medium-format route but opted for the Canon EOS system because the choice of lenses ultimately gave more resolution in the finished gigapixel image. “We started with a wide shot at 16mm with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and used that image as a template,” he says. “The scene was then shot in detail with the EF100mm f/2 USM, and for those parts that we really wanted to zoom into, the EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM was used.”

While automatic motorised rigs are available for gigapixel shooting with compact cameras, the EOS-1D X and EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM required a more manual approach. “We panned the camera across the scene by hand, using a geared head so we could be really precise with the movements,” says Ackerl.

A load of hot air

The technical problems encountered and solved by Lammerhuber were not all down to gear selection and photographic technique. “Weather was crucial,” he recalls. “The project was commissioned in November and we had to wait until March for good conditions.”

Other practical factors were only discovered once he was well into the shoot. “An unexpected challenge was the shimmer we saw in front of the camera as hot air rushed out of the window we had removed. It met up with cold air from the outside and created big problems with sharpness. You don’t notice it when shooting with the smaller lenses [EF100mm f/2 USM] but with the EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM it’s a real problem. We had to move positions a bit, and this caused a slight glitch in the final zoom, which Ars Electronica have nearly eliminated in the final installation, though you can just see it if you look closely.”

Lammerhuber explains that it takes a significant amount of time to cover a scene this big with such an extreme telephoto lens. “All the time you are shooting, the light is changing and the shadows are getting shorter. It’s important to think about what to shoot first and what to leave until last,” he says. “A big part of the process was thinking about where we wanted to zoom in, as this defined which parts of the scene we wanted to shoot with the EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM and which we’d shoot with the EF100mm f/2 USM. We couldn’t shoot all of it at 800mm as this would have produced far too much data to deal with.”

“There are some parts of the sequence that are mind-blowing: when we zoom in on the Empire State Building we need four to five frames just to cover the aerial on the roof. I don’t know whether it’s important to see the aerial in that much detail, but it is important to be thorough,” Lammerhuber says.

“The night scene was difficult to shoot,” adds Ackerl. “Cars leaving traffic trails in a 4-6sec exposure make things really hard to stitch together. Even the buildings are moving and that’s noticeable at long exposures. Any mismatch between frames confuses the merging software and causes us problems. For this reason the high ISO capability of the EOS-1D X was a great help, allowing us to shoot at shutter speeds nearer to those we’d been using in the daytime.”

Putting it all together

Of the 2,500 images shot over the course of a day, Lammerhuber selected between 250-300 for each of the morning, afternoon and evening parts of the sequence. Using an Apple Mac Pro loaded with 96GB RAM and fast-access solid-state drives each image took a day to render using bespoke software written by Ars Electonica.

“This project is giga whichever way you look at it,” Lammerhuber laughs. “It gives you a more detailed view of the world than you ever thought was possible, but you never know until you’ve seen it this way.”

Back in Austria at the Future Labs building, the Ars Electronica engineers took a week to install Lammerhuber’s images on their computers and create the pan-and-zoom journey around Manhattan’s unique skyline. A computer is required for every four screens, and each one has to be synchronised with the others. The resolution of the video wall comes to a colossal 560 Megapixels.

“A project like this is not all about creativity – it’s about technology too,” Lammerhuber says. “One could say it’s technology driven. Defined by where photographic technology is at the moment. It’s on the limit of what we can do: the lenses, the cameras, the location, the processing – everything! The technical outcome of what we have achieved in this project is extraordinary.”

© Lois Lammerhuber

The finished project as it appears in-situ, located at the Austrian Airlines check-in desk in Vienna airport, Austria.

And how did Lammerhuber feel when he saw the sequence running for the first time? “It was amazing! First in the Ars Technica labs, in a dark box room with 20 screens, and then in the airport when we’d finished the installation. You just don’t know how it will look until you see it all together like that. So yes, seeing it for the first time was very special.”

Future gigapixel projects in the airport are already being planned, with destinations including the Maldives, Adu Duabi and Niagra Falls being considered. But the next destination to be photographed by Lammerhuber was decided by the public in a competition carried out using social networking platforms. 500 people submitted photographs of potential destinations and 18,000 votes were cast, with Paris emerging as the next place for Lammerhuber’s team.

“For me this is a call to people to use their eyes and look,” he says. “You don’t even need to travel, but simply open up to the world around you. The world is full of wonderful imagery and hidden beauty – secrets everywhere just waiting to be found.”



Lois Lammerhuber’s advice for shooting gigapixel images:

  • Choosing a subject. There are two types of subject to tackle with gigapixel photography: flat ones, like paintings, and three dimensional cityscapes.
  • Setting up. A tripod is essential. Make sure you plan out how much movement you need before you start shooting.
  • Shooting the frames. Move the camera by the same amount every time and ensure the correct amount of overlap from frame to frame.
  • Choosing a lens. Lens choice depends a lot on the subject and how distant you are from it. In Manhattan we used a 100mm lens for images in the foreground which were at a distance of 100 to 500 metres. More distant objects were shot at 800mm.
  • Be patient. Take into consideration that your work will take time. In our case about three hours. This means shadows will be moving as you move. Think about where to start and where to end.
  • Workflow is important. Take care with planning and timing. There are few rules with gigapixel photography, but you’ll find out lots along the way and develop your own way of working.

Biography: Lois Lammerhuber

Lois Lammerhuber

Lois Lammerhuber discovered a passion for shooting pictures on a road trip along the pan-American highway. Later on a vacation to Sri Lanka he shot a series of images that would be published by a local newspaper – his first venture into professional photography. In 1985 he began working for German magazine Geo and has enjoyed a close relationship with the magazine ever since, shooting over 250 stories for them. Lammerhuber’s photography has been published in a number of books, for which he has won many awards. He is a member of the Art Directors’ Club of America and co-owner of the picture agency Photoagentur Lammerhuber and publishing house Lammerhuber Edition.



Showcase

A detail view of a skyscraper. Just one of the many images that went into making up Lammerhuber’s impressive display. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/5.6, ISO 800.