The advent of digital technology has caused a revolution in the way we think of photography. Before this revolution, most of us thought of photography in terms of images captured on film that subsequently would be transformed into prints by way of photographic enlargement. However, rapid proliferation of digital cameras, scanners and printers has changed this perception. Even the prevailing jargon has changed. Where previously an image was described in terms of granularity and acutance, it now more often is defined by pixel count and dpi. Meanwhile, those of us who have spent much of our lives in the pursuit of film-based photography keep asking ourselves whether such photography can survive; and, if it does, what role will it play? When we debated this question in late 2000, it seemed reasonable to assume that digital cameras with resolutions in the 10-megapixel regime would become commonplace within a few years. This would put them in head-to-head competition with 35-mm film-based technology; perhaps even displacing that technology entirely within a decade or so. On the other hand, it seemed unlikely that digital cameras with resolutions much in excess of 10 megapixels would appear in the near term. Especially unlikely would be the emergence of digital cameras with resolutions approaching 100 megapixels. As a consequence, we felt it likely that film-based large-format photography would for the time being remain unchallenged. With this in mind, we have concentrated recent endeavors upon the application of ultra-high-resolution techniques to the field of large-format photography.
In defining the term "ultra-high-resolution," we have analyzed each factor that bears upon the image forming process; especially taking into account the effects of atmospheric blurring, lens aberrations and film granularity. When it became apparent that the sought-for resolution could not be preserved via conventional photographic enlargement, the scope of our analysis was widened to include film scanners and digital printers. We concluded that, consistent with the largest practicable roll film format (9"x18"), we could expect to achieve a resolution equivalent to 1000 megapixels. Hence, came the name Gigapxl&trade. With recent developments, this figure approaches 4000 megapixels, but the name remains unchanged.
Subject to the limitations of human vision, a minimum of 8 square inches of print area is needed to convey the information contained in a 1-megapixel image. When scaled to 1000 megapixels, the minimum print area becomes 50 square feet. For prints made from our 9"x18" format, this equates to a print which has a height of 5 feet and a width of 10 feet. Likewise, a 4000-megapixel print has dimensions of 10 feet by 20 feet. Meanwhile, close-up sharpness matches that of a 4"x6" print from a 3-megapixel digital camera. The information content of a Gigapxl™ print can be compared to that available in a real-world scene which is viewed through a pair of binoculars. In the case of 1000-megapixel images, one would require 6X binoculars; twice this power at 4000 megapixels.
The first Gigapxl™ cameras were completed and ready for test in February 2001; the first color landscapes being produced a month later. Early images had a pixel count of 260 megapixels (20-micron scan resolution) and were printed on photographic paper. Within a year, however, the count had increased to 670 megapixels (12.5-micron scan resolution). At which level, although substantially higher resolution was being achieved on film, the pixel count temporarily became constrained by issues related to scanner resolution and the file size limits of Adobe Photoshop. Meanwhile, with second-generation cameras (combining superior lenses and a variety of focal lengths) nearing completion, we switched from photographic printing to pigment ink printing. Working closely with Adobe, issues related to Photoshop file size have slowly but surely been resolved. Meantime, collaboration with Leica Geosystems (manufacturer of the DSW500 digital scanner) is about to yield scans with a resolution of 6 microns. At which time, numerous existing negatives will be redigitized at 2,900 megapixels. By year end (2004), we expect to push scan resolution to the 5-4 micron range; the corresponding pixel counts being 4,180 megapixels and 6,530 megapixels, respectively.
Extensive viewer response to Gigapxl imagery was first obtained in 2003. In March of that year, a 21-foot panorama of San Francisco was exhibited at The Albuquerque Museum. Four months later, a similar image was exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts/Exploratorium in San Francisco. Aside from general expressions of awe, feedback mainly has centered around the extent to which ultra-high-resolution adds a humanizing touch to subject material which otherwise tends to be dominated by its monumental scale. Especially it has been noted that the ability to capture the minutiae of everyday life provides a level of interest not found in conventional cityscapes.
While technical issues which relate to scanning and digital processing continue to be addressed, current efforts are focused upon the expansion of an image portfolio. At this point, we have stockpiled some 500 images; a fair proportion of which already have been scanned at the 10-micron level. Subject material for the most part typifies the American landscape. To date, photographic forays have been made to all Provinces and States, with the exception of Hawaii. Notable urban subjects include cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Calgary, Colorado Springs, Dallas, Seattle, and Denver. Work in the National and State Parks/Monuments extends to Yosemite, Point Lobos, Mount Tamalpais, Mono Lake, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, White Sands, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Devil's Tower, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands of South Dakota, Denali, Jasper, and Banff.
In terms of the future, we have been much encouraged by the diversity of applications which continue to emerge. One of particular appeal relates to the documentation of cultural and archaeological sites which cannot be preserved and which inevitably will deteriorate with the passage of time. Many thousands of these sites are present around the world. Prime examples include entire cities such as Rome, Italy. In this instance, limestone structures which have stood for thousands of years have become the victims of acid rain. Stonemason's chisel marks, until recently clear to see, have all but vanished. Only through a massive program of ultra-high-resolution documentary photography can such details be preserved for enjoyment and study by future generations.
See more from the author at Smashing Tips