Over the last seven years, Henry Stuart has built an enviable reputation in the world of immersive imaging. His company, Visualise, creates hugely detailed 360° images and time-lapse videos, as well as vast ‘gigapixel’ images like the New Zealand All Blacks in Rome which, at 33 gigapixels, is the world’s largest sports photograph.
After being commissioned by the BBC to produce a gigapixel panoramic of the Royal Wedding, capturing William and Kate processing down the crowd-lined Mall in their open-topped carriage, Henry was then chosen to be official gigapixel photographer for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the world’s first-ever dedicated immersive photographer 2012 Olympics for Getty.
A life-long Nikon user, first with the D70, then the D300 and D3S, Henry recently moved over to the 36.3-megapixel D800 and its D800E brother. We find out how he broke into this exciting and rapidly-evolving field, and how his Nikon kit is helping him produce such stunning results.
So, how did you get into photography?
I’m basically self-taught, like a lot of the 360° panoramic community. There are great forums and Facebook communities for panoramic imaging, so we all learn from each other. When I left university after doing a degree in biology and my masters, I wanted to set up my own business. As I’d always been a keen amateur photographer, that seemed a good place to start, so in 2006 I started Spherical Images, which I still run today, initially doing virtual 360° tours for estate agents and hotels. At first it was very basic – just me, my Nikon D70 and a 10.5mm fisheye – but I was soon getting more and more clients. As the technology has improved and as more and more people are expecting richer content on websites, there’s increasingly more demand for hi-res 360° imaging, so the business has grown in tandem. I set up Visualise last year when I shot the Olympics, to bring all the immersive content to the fore.
How did the Getty Images job for the Olympics come about?
Getty contacted me after seeing our giant zoomable pic of the Royal Wedding, which they loved, and asked if I could do the Olympics for them. They were also interested because we provide such a broad range of immersive content – everything from 360° panoramic images and time-lapse to gigapixel images – whereas our competitors tend to just do one aspect. So one day I’d be turning up with my D800 and fisheye lens mounted on a carbon-fibre pole, the next day I’d be shooting gigapixel images with a robotic head and a VR lens…
It was the first time the International Olympics Committee had allowed an immersive Games experience, and it was so much fun. My role was to capture every single venue so we could create a virtual tour, giving people a perfect record that recreates the experience of attending all the Olympic venues, so I had to be in different places every day. I wasn’t competing with the other photographers for long-lens shots; I’d be standing behind them, with my D800 on the end of a 3m telescopic carbon-fibre pole extended over their head and taking shots of the events and everything going on, including the press jostling for position. With this type of imaging, it’s all about capturing the context.
360° stills, time-lapse, gigapixel… what came first?
I started off with normal 360° stills for virtual tours, and the next stop was 360° gigapixel photography. After the royal wedding, we added social media and tagging so people could find themselves in the crowd. You can also add Google Maps and social-media integration, like Facebook and email links, and it’s really taken off for corporates – it becomes a lot more rich than a ‘straight’ 360° photograph.
Then I started playing around with 360° video and time lapse, and the first one I did was taken from the London Eye. I believe that it was the world’s first 360° 24-hour time lapse. It was shot on a Nikon D700 and I had to camp out in the pod for 24 hours with two health and safety guys, because you’re not allowed to be up there on your own. We ended up having champagne and cheese – it was a pretty good bit of glamping!
I bought them primarily for their resolution. Nothing else can touch them. It’s so high that when I’m using them with the 10.5mm DX fisheye I can get away with taking just four shots. That lens is known throughout the industry as the sharpest there is for panoramic work – take off the lens hood and you’ve got a circular fisheye with a huge field of view, around 190° corner to corner, so you don’t even need to include a specific sky shot as the lens has already captured it in your four horizontals.
Then there’s the dynamic range. I used to have to bracket or use HDR but now I can do it all in one frame, because with these two cameras there’s so much detail in both the shadows and highlights. One of the major constraints of 360° work is the contrast you inevitably get in one shot between sun and shadow. In the past people would opt for a compromise exposure, but with the D800 and D800E you don’t have to. The ISO range is very useful too, although I don’t tend to go to extremes. For the interactive 360° video time-lapse of London from the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, I used auto ISO and capped it at around 3600.
What’s been your most challenging project?
The London Eye was a tough one, while the Olympics project was challenging in scale, but I’d probably have to say St Paul’s, not least due to the size of the video we created and the number of files we were dealing with. We had to erect scaffolding at the top of the Golden Gallery to mount four cameras up there, shooting one frame every 20 seconds for 36 hours. That gave us around 7000 shots per camera, and 28,000 images in total, from which we made over 7000 panoramas and created 2.20 minutes of film.
When you initially run thousands of time-lapse shots together in post-production they jump around slightly due to differences in brightness, so the first thing you have to do is run them through ‘deflicker’ software to smooth everything out and equalise the exposure. Then you can do your panoramic stitch, and that takes a long time. We have specially built computers for doing this, including one called the Beast, and it was kept busy for a week crunching everything for the St Paul’s project!
The gigapixel image of the All Blacks in Rome was quite stressful, too. I took it for Adidas on the D800 and 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, and shooting at such a high resolution meant I accidentally created the world’s largest sports photograph! Then I had to fly straight back to London to process it through the night because Adidas needed it live on their website within 24 hours.
And what’s the most unusual job you’ve ever done?
The weirdest must be taking the 360° image of Raja, a Komodo dragon at London Zoo. I wasn’t allowed to enter the enclosure – these are big, dangerous predators – so I had to teach the head keeper how to use my D800. He went in there armed with a stick, and bottle of fish juice and blood which he scattered around to tempt Raja out into the open. Just as we’d finally got the shot, Raja started to take a huge interest in the camera and tried to run off with it. The keeper managed to rescue it by hooking the strap on the end of his stick, and then Raja started to chase him round the pond. So there was this poor guy, fish-juice bottle in one hand, D800 dangling from the stick in the other, with the Komodo dragon in hot pursuit… When he finally got out and I got my camera back, the smell from where it had been licked was disgusting. I wasn’t allowed to leave the zoo until the strap had been boil-washed and my D800 had been completely swabbed down and disinfected. I could still smell that saliva on it two months later!
What are you currently working on – and what comes next?
We’re using some exciting new hardware – my favourite is the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset. It looks like a pair of big black skiing goggles, like something out of Star Trek. It was supposed to be for gaming, but we’ve hacked it to make it work for our immersive 360° panoramic videos. When you’re using it it’s like being totally inside the image, so it provides much more experiential content. It completely blows you away – I’ve even had people getting vertigo when they’re using it to experience the St Paul’s 360° video!
We’re also working on the tablet and mobile versions of our zoomable gigapixel images, as they’re still a bit clunky, and we should have cracked that in the next couple of months. I’d like to develop more functionality for embedding these images more naturally into videos and websites. A major constraint we currently have is the size of the 360° time-lapse or 360° videos you can stream or have the processor power to watch. I’m creating videos that are around 10,000 x 5000 pixels, compared to the 1,080 you get with HD, and you simply can’t stream all that at the moment, so I have to massively reduce the file size. But what I’d really like to do is work with a camera manufacturer on creating a 360° camera, because there’s a huge potential market for it…
Curious to know what’s in Henry’s Nikon kit? Here it is…
10.5mm f/2.8G ED DX fisheye