gigapan image of downtown Tucson from Tumamoc Hill

The Largest Photograph

This is the largest photograph ever. At least by me. It is a monument in itself: a mosaic of 170 smaller frames taken with a Gigapan robotic camera motor and a small Lumix point and shoot camera from the summit of Tumamoc looking east. You can zoom into the image using the Gigapan web software above. The flat phtograph I generated from the mosaic uses a gigabyte and a half of disk space and can be printed as a mural 8 feet high and 30 feet long.

It’s a lot of work making each image, not your usual point and shoot photography. It’s more like making a painting. The process is technical and one can get good at controlling the variables, yet when you get a good image, it feels more like good luck or serendipity than skill.

detail of downtown Tucson from Tumamoc Summit gigapan image
Detail of downtown Tucson from Tumamoc Summit gigapan image to show details.

It’s also the most difficult photograph I’ve ever taken. The lighting I was after lasts about half an hour or so just as the sun is going down and the shadow of the mountain starts to move down the slope in front of me. This is no snapshot, it takes about 15 minutes for the Gigapan to take all the frames, so the lighting is changing throughout the parts of the image.

Some other things I considered: I wanted to show the saguaros in fruit, maybe some flowers, just before the beginning of the monsoon season. (See if you can find a flower by exploring the Gigapan) I wanted to show petroglyphs, modern downtown Tucson, and some of the trincheras, or prehistoric rock walls on the hill.

I went up to the summit about eight times, carrying equipment, before I got the image I wanted. One can not tell until after processing all the frames with the Stitch software whether the image has succeeded. Here is some history.



Gigapan robotic setup with Lumix camera on tripod.

It can be spooky being up on the summit, especially during a storm or near sundown. I always went alone. The wind is strong and unpredictable, and makes different kinds of humming or moaning noises as it goes through the power lines and towers. In addition, I am carefully walking through a mysterious landscape of circular stone foundations and inscrutable rock art from a 2500 year-old archeological site. I know every rock has been digitized and mapped by Paul and Suzy Fish of the Arizona State Museum. I’ve been up there with them and I have been taught how to walk without disturbing anything, as much as that is possible. Still, it’s best not to go very often, but I became obsessed by my repeated failures and wanted to get my photograph.

The first time I went up to survey the gorgeous viewpoint, it was so windy that I could hardly stand up, much less set up a tripod. That was near the end of May, when the saguaros were in flower. The next time, May 28, it was relatively calm. But as I was well into the Gigapan sequence, I heard a loud howling sound behind me that I could not identify at first. A large swirling cloud of shifting shapes? rose up near one of the towers and moved off over the edge of the hill the direction my camera was facing. It took a few seconds to realize it was a dust devil, and I quickly held onto my tripod setup. That was all, the sudden gust of wind died down and it was relatively calm again.

A little bit rattled, I was fiddling with the hardware and lost a little washer from the Gigapan setup. I watched it fall into the rocks of the trinchera piled around me. There would be no way to ever find it. I went to a hardware store the next day and found something that replaced it close enough.

I got an image, but the sky was way overexposed because of the small exposure latitude of the small point and shoot camera that fits on the Gigapan. The large tonal range of this scene was overwhelming for that camera. I went back up the next day, but forgot to hook up the “button pusher” lever to the camera so the robot was pushing air. My lighting had gone by the time I noticed this. The following day I exposed for the highlights to make sure I got them: my foreground shadow areas were almost black.

That’s where it got even more interesting. In a weird way. Before creating the mosaic, I decided to try to batch developing all the individual frames to open up these shadow areas with fill lighting. It worked very well until I stitched together all the images and looked for the petroglyph rock? one of the things I wanted a viewer to find as they explore the image. The frame with the petroglyph looked like it had been censored out! There was was a fuzzy rectangle representing that one single frame, that was so dark one could not make out the target-shaped glyph, probably a calendar stone marking the sun’s position at an important point in the year. I still can’t understand how that happened. I plan on going onto the technical forums and asking the question.

The first and second? of June found me up there again. I exposed for the middle tones this time and got a good panorama each day. It was a good record of that time, when haze from the new Mexico wildfire was coming through the Tucson basin. But I wanted the distant mountains to show in the final epic. I was still not satisfied.

June 14: I mysteriously lost the rubber “finger” and screw for the Button-pusher. I did not see it fall that time. I had to stand and push the camera button with my own finger in sync with the sound of the robot lever that triggers each shot. After I tried to stitch the image together, I found that I must have missed one frame. If you are missing one frame, the whole sequence falls apart in the Stitch software.

I went up there one afternoon without any cameras. I’ve had a Hopi rattle hanging on my wall at home for decades and finally thought it might be more than interior decoration. I brought it, a Native American sage bundle from the Gem Show, and a bag of copal, up to the summit. The copal is from Yucatan, a dried resin from the succulent Bursera or “elephant tree.” Its use for ceremonial incense goes back to pre-Columbian times in Mexico, it’s black billowing smoke sometimes representing rain clouds. I figured that the Hohokam on Tumamoc would have been familiar with it through trade. I made some noise with the rattle, burned some sage and got a whiff or two of the copal before the wind blew it out so many times that I was out of matches. I’m embarrassed to even report this? naive ceremony, but I did consult with a shaman on the basics. If there are any ancestor spirits on Tumamoc, surely they should punish me severely, or else laugh themselves silly.

June 17: Somewhere, as I was walking with it to the site, I lost the knob that tightens one of the leg extension of my best tripod. I used another tripod, but accidentally left the the disabled tripod in the frame so it became part of my photo. That’s ok, I guess, but I didn’t want to have evidence of the bumbling photographer in the final image. There were still no clouds.

I went up again on June 25, father’s day, and made the image above. It is very close to how I visualized it: with the saguaros covered with fruit and a monsoon storm brewing on the horizon. It was even better than I could imagine because the light was changing during the series of exposures and I got some effects that would be impossible with a single image. Satisfied, I stopped with that image.

And yes, there are still imperfections in the panorama if you look for them.

One thought on “The Largest Photograph

  1. Paul,
    I like your latest LARGEST Gigapan photo of Horned Lizard Hill
    and environs, looking into the city. Hmmm
    “Saguaros and the City” not yet on television re-runs,
    and sexy in a different way.

    Heroic, fun efforts.
    Please do more!


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