Photospheres Away!

Photographers are notorious gear-heads. Everybody has a favorite lens, camera or tripod and, no matter how much gear we have, more is always better! Hey, somebody has to stimulate the moribund Obama economy. Gear lust is not entirely irrational. Good cameras really do take “technically” better pictures than mediocre or poor cameras but here’s the infuriating thing. Technical merit does not make the image!

Image quality depends of many things and changes over time. If you doubt this imagine you have an old locket that frames a Daguerreotype of your great-great-grandmother. I’d bet that every single portrait on your shiny new iPhone is “technically” superior to that old Daguerreotype but I’d also bet you’d chuck your iPhone before giving up that old Daguerreotype.  An image’s quality goes far beyond MTF curves and pixel counts.  Photography and geometry are both bereft of royal roads.

In the early days of photography gear was a serious constraint. Getting a good picture was a technical and artistic struggle. Imagine shooting a panorama using large glass plates covered with a home-brewed ASA 0.5, (you read that right ASA 0.5), blue light-sensitive emulsion. Despite such limitations early photographers managed to create some great images. Imagination and gumption have always been the most important photographic tools with good lenses as a distant third.  Well, the 150 year reign of the lens has ended, software has displaced the lens as the primary modern photographic tool and Google’s Photosphere cell phone application neatly demonstrates this technological shift.

A photosphere is a panorama on steroids. It’s a complete 360 degree look around image. The Google photosphere app derives from Google Maps street view. Street views are shot with special multi-lens cameras that look everywhere at once but some bright spark in Google realized that you could get roughly the same result from a single lens if the photographer was willing to endure a vertigo inducing dance. Shooting a photosphere takes at least three twirling 360 degree passes. You have to shoot the ground, horizon and sky.  It takes about twenty frames to build a photosphere.

There is nothing new about multi-frame panoramas. Photographers started shooting multi-frame panoramas shortly after the camera’s invention. I shot them when I was teenager. Panorama software isn’t new either; it’s been around for decades. Two “new” developments make photospheres possible: photosphere viewers and cameras (cell phones) that are more software than camera.

I shot this panorama in the 1960’s. I rotated in my grandfather’s driveway shooting an entire roll of film with my Instamatic camera. Many years later I scanned the prints and used panorama software to stitch the images together. Click on the image for more panoramas.

The sphere cannot be mapped onto the plane without distortion. This mathematical fact limits how wide-angle your wide-angle shots can be before they are unnaturally distorted. A flattened 360 degree view of common rectilinear subjects looks wonderfully, or horribly, weird: straight lines become curves and areas lose proportionality. Many natural vistas can tolerate such torments but average street views cannot.  Photosphere viewers fix this problem by simulating how we look around.  Every time you browse a Google street view you are running a photosphere viewer.

Shooting panoramas and photospheres is like any other type of photography. It takes lots of practice! It was hard to “practice” shooting such images before cell phones could run stitching and viewing software because you couldn’t see what you had until you took your twenty frames back to the “lab” and tediously put them together.  Ten years ago panorama software required a lot of manual intervention. I spent hours putting three or four frames together. I didn’t put a twenty frame panorama together until I snapped my first iPhone Photosphere.

The iPhone lens is a pretty crappy short focal length lens. Any decent camera lens easily outclasses it yet I cannot shoot photospheres with my expensive Nikon’s while my cruddy little cell phone can.  What’s the difference?  Software!

iPhone Google photospheres are fun but they’re flaw ridden. You can easily see stitching errors, blending artifacts, ghost people, and other blemishes. Now that we can shoot photospheres the race is on to shoot quality photospheres! Software will dominate but hardware has to catch up to make this happen.  Before long you will be able to buy a special multi-lens photosphere ball camera that you can literally throw into the air. This ought to fix the viewpoint problem for people with good pitching arms and the rest of us can drop the little sucker from a drone. Photospheres away!

Panono Ball Camera
The Panono ball camera is a small multi-lens camera that shoots 360 photospheres by simultaneously capturing images from all its lenses and stitching the result together. It is designed to be thrown into the air. Photosphere baseball is going to be huge!

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