Morning in the arcades

388 megapixels of Stanford's arcade.

I've posted photographs from Stanford's Memorial Quadrangle before, but this time I found myself on the memorial quad early enough in the morning that the first trickle of tourists hadn't yet strayed into my frame. An opportunity as rare as this demanded a worthy photograph. I set up to capture something of the uplifting emotion that one feels when walking down these lengthy, resplendent outdoor corridors.

Golden light pours in from a sun still hanging low in the East and the air is perfumed by the various plants inhabiting the many gardens just off the beaten path. Dark wooden ceilings contrast with the warm, arched stones and the whole place is built on a scale to impress and accommodate the throngs of students, staff and visitors. The long, receding lines of the arcades pull you in and the warm of a golden spring morning makes you want to stay.

Morning in the arcades
Morning in the arcades

I'm continuing last week's theme by posting another mega-photograph of the Stanford University campus. Today's post is a truly massive photograph - weighing in just somewhere shy of half a gigapixel, it took some serious time and processing power to finally put together. If you browse around the internet, you'll find many folks who produce enormous photographs. I think the current record is somewhere above 250 gigapixels. These photographs, however, are remarkable only for their extreme resolution. With one or two notable exceptions, and including much of my earlier work, almost all panoramic images are lousy photographs. Why is this? In my mind, it is because a series of factors conspire to make most panoramas boring.

1) Most have extreme aspect ratios - i.e. are very tall or very, very wide. This makes viewing difficult as our monitors and eyesight have much smaller aspect ratios. (The Grand Canyon for example - even a modest panorama becomes impossibly wide.)

2) Most are poorly captured and stitched (generating obvious seams and alignment errors) or use strange projections, leaving an image that looks as though it was taken with a fisheye, without any of the fisheye's characteristic charm.

3) Most panoramas lack a clear compositional goal.

Now you say, "Parts of this criticism might be levied at all photographs," and you'd be right, but here we are talking about a photographic technique that is most popular amongst accomplished, talented and technically-proficient photographers. So why the big difference between the quality of my single-shot images and panoramic images? I think that the third criticism I listed is the biggest issue in determining the difference. Plain and simple, it is very hard to manage the technical complexities of shooting panoramic images and to careful create and execute photographic goal. Now, when I see a great panoramic image online (and despite the profusion of bad ones there are many breathtaking large images) I am particularly impressed.

As I get back into taking these panoramas, I'm interested in learning to see with my eye outside of the viewfinder. I want to take images that are high-resolution but that are also have high compositional values. In other words, I am looking for a happy middle ground balancing extreme resolution, great tonal range and careful composition. In short, as I mentioned on the post about The Gates of Hell, I'm looking to develop a workflow that would give me something like a large format digital camera. What would you want if you had a large format digital camera? What photographic issues would it create/solve? After I've published a handful or so of these images, I'll describe my thoughts on the subject and can't wait to hear what others suggest.