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El Capitan in HD: xRez Studio's Gigapixel Image of America’s Most-Famous Big Wall

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A zoomed-out version of the gigapixel El Cap image. Click the photo to see the full version, which overlays climbing routes and allows you to zoom in far enough to see climbers on the wall.

xRez Studio is a company the exists at the intersection of creativity and science. Founded by Eric Hanson and Greg Downing, they use high resolution photography to create immersive experiences of some the world’s (and solar system’s) most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Not only are these images beautiful, but they have helped inform natural science research, from tracking glacial loss in the Himalaya to gaining a better understanding of rock fall in Yosemite Valley.

Climbing, especially in Yosemite, has long been a focus of xRez Studio’s work. In fact, the company collaborated with Greg Stock, an NPS geologist, to use the impressive Valley walls as an area to fine tune their gigapixel imaging and terrain integration VFX techniques. The images have been used by Erik Sloan in his Yosemite Valley guidebooks and were integral to The New York Times and Sender Films in their coverage of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s seminal ascent of The Dawn Wall.

Most recently, Hanson and Downing worked with Sloan to produce an incredibly high-resolution image of El Capitan, that includes a shot by shot sequence of Sloan and Roger Putman climbing the Nose in a day. Prints of the 228,000 pixel wide image are available at Climbing spoke to Hanson to learn more about the process of creating a gigapixel image as well as the inspiration and technique used in the creation of the El Cap photo.

How did you get into gigapixel photography?

Eric Hanson: I am one of the early adopters and developers of gigapixel photography. I began to utilize it in 2006 as a method of producing high-resolution backgrounds for feature film visual effects, which has been my career focus. My first company xRez Studio was formed around that time with Greg Downing, and we forged the company on these early techniques.

An early spherical gigapixel image we produced of Half Dome from the Diving Board went viral on the net around that time. Yosemite NPS geologist Greg Stock saw it and asked us to shoot the entirety of the valley walls to assist him in his rockfall research. In 2008 we raised funding and organized 20 teams of photographers to shoot into the valley from major lookouts with 10,000 total images shot over 45 minutes. This online collection of zoomable gigapixel images of most major routes in The Valley became useful to the climbing community and Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR).

Can you give a short overview of the process of creating a gigapixel image?

Gigapixel photography involves dividing a standard field of view from a wide lens into a large mosaic of images taken successively with hundreds or thousands of narrow fields of view taken with large telephoto lenses. Typically, this is easier done with robotic motorized panning devices, which takes the precise rotations and shooting automatically. These days one can use a manual method that keeps weight down, if long hikes or alpine climbs are in store. Once shot, the many images have to be color graded and stitched with specialized software. This used to be a burdensome task, but these days it can be done quickly. Then the image can be put online or printed at outrageous resolutions and sizes. We have produced a print of Yosemite’s walls at 40′ x 5′ at 300 dpi (dots per inch)—it is quite enjoyable to walk the print and study all the detail.

What inspired you to take this type of photo of El Cap?

We have always used Yosemite as home base for developing our techniques. We began to work with Erik Sloan of Yosemite Bigwall, helping populate his climbing guidebooks with our images. We soon discussed what it would take to create a massive El Cap image and came up with the idea to shoot him and Roger Putnam doing the Nose in a day. This allowed us to shoot them at every point along the route, then incorporate them into the final image.

The first day we shot 2,200 images of them manually with a gimballed 800mm prime lens and 50-megapixel back, then the following day we shot a 2,000 image panorama of the entire face with a robotic head, yielding a 228,000 pixel image of just El Cap. Due to this being a side project, it took two years to complete all the post-production of the image.

What are some other projects that you are particularly proud of?

We have done a tremendous amount of interesting work since we formed xRez Studio over twelve years ago. We’ve worked with Bjork, Ai Weiwei, various national parks, and on visual effects for Imax and Fulldome Films. We have been active doing innovative work in volumetric virtual reality for the last few years, using photogrammetry, and have several projects in development planned for Yosemite. I will also be releasing a collection of 48 volumetric VR natural world experiences this fall called Traverse.

Do you plan on doing any more photos of other famous rock walls in the future?

We have had climbers from around the world ask what our plans are for that, suggesting their regions. We do a fair amount of international travel, but many of our projects demand some level of budget. The El Cap photo was a pure passion-based project though, which is the best kind, it just takes time.