Although the name for his mission, the Gigapxl Project ("gigapixel" won't fit on a license plate), implies digital photography, Flint is careful to stress that his camera is entirely analog. Once his film is processed by a lab in Ohio, Flint digitally scans the images using a high-end Heidelberg drum scanner he recently purchased, makes color corrections and other slight modifications using Photoshop, and prints the final product in sheets that are patched together into a single image of up to 8 by 16 feet. "It's a balance," Flint says. "There's no CCD [charge-coupled device, the sensor that acts as the "film" of a digital camera] that can catch this much information, but there's no film processing that can use this size negative and can go as big as we're printing. We've got to combine the two technologies." Flint believes that CCD technology will improve but that it has fundamental limits. "When you actually look at the details of a CCD device, each little photosensor has to have some circuitry with it," he explains. "If we want to have pixels closer together, what happens is that the processing circuitry starts to occupy a larger fraction of the area, and so now the area that's the sensor gets smaller and becomes sensitive. You squeeze one place, and you lose somewhere else."
Despite his camera's meticulous engineering and its ingenious marriage of technologies, Flint demurs that it isn't particularly cutting-edge. "This whole project is nothing new," he says. "It's just having a familiarity with all the different aspects and seeing where we can push them and how we can combine them to get the best end result." Flint's self-assessment is disingenuous, of course-he undertook the project precisely because landscape photography of this scale, with this detail, had never been attempted before. But it illustrates something about his outlook: that the hardest part of the project was, in a way, the realization that it could be done. Once that was established, success was a simple matter of insight, hard work and an unyielding application of logical problem solving.
His is a scientist's view of photography. For Flint, a photograph represents a whole process by which information is lost. Each step along the way, from the air to the lens to the digitization "noise" of the scanner, slightly corrupts the original signal. "What [my wife and I] have done is mathematically analyzed that entire chain," he says, "so we can predict from the scene to the final output what are all the contributors that convolve together to degrade your original information content. Then we've tackled them to make sure there is no weak link in the chain." Take, for instance, the weather. Flint tends to shoot just after a rainstorm. He explains that "immediately after a storm, the surface of the ground has been cooled. There's less turbulence from the ground from rising air. You also have fewer aerosols in the atmosphere, so you get less small-angle scatter and you get crisper results."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.