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. But what exactly is a Gigapan?
Quite simply it is a series of images that are stitched together to make one larger one. 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. This is not only in the horizontal plane but also the vertical, like individual panoramic stacked on top of each other.
Like many technologies, Xerox for example, Gigapan has become a generic word for a massive stitched image. Although there are other companies producing similar technology, Gigapan, the company remain the technology leaders and innovators. They use a combination of hardware and specialist software to create these impressive images.
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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 the usual hardware. For the rest of us mere mortals, Gigapan Systems sell what is effectively a motorised 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 basically a large gimbal joint. On the base of the unit are all the electronics that control the movement of the camera. 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.
Once everything is set, the Gigapan will start taking the images, moving the camera to the next position automatically before remotely firing the shutter. As a photographer, you put your feet up and wait whilst it all happens. Once the process is finished, you need to stitch the images together.
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.
Viewing of a finalised Gigapan is also not as straight forward 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, some spectacular examples can be seen here: http://gigapan.com/gigapans?order=most_popular
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. You also need to carefully check the specifications to ensure that your camera will work with the Gigapan head.
In short, Gigapan technology is capable of creating some absolutely stunning, ultra high definition image, but it is very much a niche area that might appeal to some photographers.