By and large, as a professional of whatever description, clients hire you based on experience and expertise, grace under pressure, problem-solving skills, and your finely-tuned ability to transcend the limitations of the assignment and distill the essence of an idea into its most purely realized form.
Okay so that’s what they tell you in college, but honestly it’s mostly just blather. Assignment photography is a hot-dog factory where the end results are images rather than sausages. If people saw what went into some of this stuff there’s no way they’d want anything to do with it. The sad reality is that there are all kinds of reasons you’re brought in on projects, some of them more edifying than others. Sometimes you’re exactly the right person for the job, other times you’re just a camera monkey. My favourite is the “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” call, where everyone gets all excited about an idea that turns out to be completely impractical. Well, this is the story of one of those ideas that actually managed to see the light of day.
A bit of background. For the past couple of years I’ve been working with a company called Castor, creating a library of images to use online and in various collateral materials. Castor are well-known for lighting and furniture but are best described as a multidisciplinary design studio, involved in various ventures like restaurants and interior design as well as art commissions. We had come up with a very nice family of images, but in all honesty their web site needed some work. Which was what The Call was about. Brian from Castor had seen an article about the Gigapan, an automated camera mount designed for shooting epic panoramic landscapes. The images it generates are extremely high resolution and allow viewers to dive deep into photos to examine them in minute detail. What if we used a Gigapan image as the basis for the Castor web site! Cool, right?
Our initial concept was to create an elaborate panorama of the city, stationing various Castor products in different neighbourhoods throughout the shot. This quickly proved to be a nightmarish proposition. Between choreographing the various sites, obtaining permits on the number of streets involved, and planning for weather and traffic delays, it simply wasn’t going to work. The other problem was that the final image would look pretty much like just another Gigapan shot; not to take away from the Gigapan but it’s such a unique device that the photos it generates have become a genre all their own.
Then we came up with what seemed like a much simpler solution; lets shoot some shelves! The idea was that we would style them with various pertinent – and impertinent — props, and visitors would be able to zoom in and explore the shot. As a bonus, there seemed to be no precedent for using a Gigapan in a studio-based manner like this, which we found rather appealing; as we discovered there were some very good reasons for that. At any rate, Mike Blain from Taxi2, the interactive division of the renowned Taxi ad agency, signed on to develop and implement the idea, and I agreed to shoot it, with an eye to coming up with a seemingly matter-of-fact and straightforward image of shelves, the better to accentuate the Gigapan effect. In the end however it turned out to be not very straightforward at all. The shoot day was a lot of fun however; check out this behind the scenes video for a sense of how it all came together:
The main problem on the shooting side was the Gigapan itself. First of all, there weren’t any in the country. Once I found one and shipped it up here, I was stumped. Usually when I work with a new piece of gear I consult with assistants or photographers who’ve used it before, but nobody I talked to had ever even seen one. The main problem however was that the Gigapan is completely ill-suited to shooting anything close-up, which was of course what we were trying to do, and it quickly turned into a huge pain in the ass. At 75000 by 60000 pixels (4500 megapixels / 4.5 gigapixels) the final image is, as best we can tell, the largest photo of shelves ever taken. The gargantuan file we generated was an utter horror to work with. It took fifteen minutes or more to merely open, and then the various perspective, parallax, and stitching errors introduced by the short camera-to-subject distance had to be corrected individually. Even the tiniest edits took up to 20 minutes to render, with more elaborate adjustments taking even longer; as various photoshop layers were added the file ballooned crazily in size and Taxi had to resort to working on it in sections. And that was just the retouching.
The more complicated stuff turned out to be on the implementation end. We shot this in July of last year and it’s just launched now. By all accounts it was a titanic development project. A lot of man-hours were burned up behind the scenes and credit should go where credit is due; Mike and his team deserve a huge round of applause for their efforts. The end result looks incredible, and it’s easily one of the most amazing websites I’ve ever seen. Take some time to explore the page — there are all sorts of Easter eggs hidden and scattered throughout, and it’s oddly addictive to just scroll around looking at stuff.
So what to take away from the experience? Well, for one thing, with the right team, anything is possible. Secondly, nothing is ever as straightforward as you think. Third, it’s highly entertaining to use a piece of gear in completely the wrong way, but beware.
Last but not least, I should never grow a beard. I’d been cultivating one for six months or so when shoot day rolled around, and as soon as I saw the behind-the-scenes footage, I shaved the thing off. Nobody noticed for three days.