Gigapans: Panoramas that Bring You All the Way There

This clean roadcut exposure of Marin County's finest ribbon chert is documented in a gigapan image that can be enlarged 100 times. Image by Ron Schott.

This clean roadcut exposure of Marin County's finest ribbon chert is documented in a gigapan image that can be enlarged 100 times. Image by Ron Schott.

If you’ve ever wished your camera could take a humongous photo that captures everything, then gigapans are for you. Gigapans are billion-pixel images that are stitched together, like a patchwork quilt, from hundreds of shots made by ordinary cameras. A special mount and software programs the camera to take precisely overlapping images, which are then seamlessly merged into one colossal shot tens of thousands of pixels across.

Many of us first witnessed the potential of gigapans when photographers compiled them during President Obama’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2009. This example, by David Bergman, allows you to zoom in and study every face in the crowd that day, from four former presidents to Jane and Joe Blow (and Newt Gingrich is there too).

There are over 50,000 gigapans uploaded at Their subjects range from the night sky, to cityscapes, to hotel room interiors.

Naturally I would want such a thing used for geology. First I would want to see eye candy, like the Grand Canyon. And places I’ll never visit, like the South Pole. Scientists have made gigapans like those—how could they resist?—but they’ve also made real teaching and research tools.

For instance, you and I in the Bay Area can easily drive to the Marin Headlands or elsewhere in Marin County and inspect all the deep-sea red ribbon chert we want. But geology teacher Ron Schott, the leading geological gigapanner, has captured a fine roadcut exposure in the image at the top of this post. Now his students in Kansas can zoom into it as close as being there, inches from the rock face:

Detail near the left edge of the Marin County roadcut. Image by Ron Schott.

Any teacher, anywhere, can assign a lab exercise built around this image that’s almost as good as a day trip. Instructors can show students the classic wave-cut platforms of the California coast in a gigapan that’s every bit as good for teaching as standing on the spot with binoculars—in fact there’s a 3D version, too.

It gets better. Northern Virginia Community College’s Mid-Atlantic Geo-Imagery Collection (M.A.G.I.C.) has great outcrops, but also great macros of sand. A petri dish of Hawaii’s green sand, for instance, can be blown up to display every gorgeous olivine grain, microscope style. M.A.G.I.C. is the brainchild of Callan Bentley, an NVCC professor who features gigapans often in his Mountain Beltway blog.

M.A.G.I.C. image

The Obama inauguration gigapan hints at another thing scientists can do, which is to archive and document large-scale natural features in detail. A great example from Yosemite Valley is the Extreme Panoramic Imaging Project, which compiled a photographic dataset of the granite walls of the entire valley by stitching together 20 gigapans into something I can only call a humongapan. Then this image was tied to a 3D terrain model, constructed from laser scans, for real 21st-century analysis. The project has already pinpointed the sources of rockfalls to aid in analyzing where they may come next, helping protect the public from danger. You can explore the walls of Yosemite in a gigapan of the final product.

Gigapans: Panoramas that Bring You All the Way There 7 March,2012Andrew Alden


Andrew Alden

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as “Best of the East Bay” from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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