A Picture Worth a Thousand Pictures

GigaPan takes hundreds of pictures, for a zoom-in-able panorama shot, or a killer game of Where's Waldo

Image courtesy GigaPan and the Chicago Office of Tourism

Try this: See that bright blue sign on the far wall? Can you read it? Double-click it. Can you read it now? Now move in again. And again.

This impressive panorama is actually a collection of 592 distinct photos, shot with a Canon Powershot with a 360mm zoom, and the help of a nifty gadget called the GigaPan Epic. Plop your camera into the device and it will automatically take between 20 and several hundred slightly overlapping pictures of a scene. The GigaPan software stitches them together for you into one massive, ultra-detailed, thousands-of-megapixels collage.

In this pic, a 30-by-10-foot print of which will soon be on exhibit at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, it's most fun to check out the traders themselves, many of whom look bored out of their gourds, and several of whom I think have passed out on their desks. I zoomed in on a few of the newspapers littering the floor and found an article about Snoop Dogg and an ad for something called Uncle Fatty's Big Ticket Giveaway.

Almost any point and shoot will fit in the GigaPan Epic's adjustable mount. The GigaPan Epic 100 can handle larger models, though neither is designed for hulking DSLRs. With your camera in place, GigaPan's motor swivels from left to right for horizontal panning, and a rotating pivot on the side tilts up and down. All the while, a robotic finger, which you center over the shutter release button, presses down, taking rows upon rows of pictures.

Setting up the GigaPan is deceivingly easy. First you calibrate it for the camera you're shooting with by zooming in all the way and hitting OK; then raising the aim so what was at the top of the frame is now at the bottom, and hitting OK again. This shows the device how tall each photo is, so it knows how high to move the camera to get a slightly overlapping shot. It then extrapolates the horizontal span assuming an ordinary 4:3 ratio. (If your camera shoots wide-angle, no worry, it just means there will be more horizontal overlap, making for an even more accurate overall effect.)

Defining the boundaries of your shot is no more difficult. Point at the top-left corner of what you want to shoot, hit OK, then do the same at the bottom right. Using the calibration information the GigaPan calculates how many pictures across and down it will take, and displays a countdown on the readout.

Then, stand back while the GigaPan nods, swipes and snaps its way across the landscape. Once you've gathered the shots on your computer, the stitching software lets you choose or exclude individual shots before automatically combining them. Because the files are so large -- the photo above is 2,326 megapixels; a 2,000-shot image will weigh in around 6 gigapixels -- they're a pain to email, so upload them to gigapan.org to share with the world. GigaPan's viewer functions like Google Maps, sending only as much information as you need, and gathering more as you zoom in closer. That way it doesn't take forever to load, or to get near enough to read the expiration date on that Uncle Fatty's giveaway.