Shooting panoramas: heavenly eye

The creators of the AirPano project take pictures of spherical panoramas from above, from a bird’s eye view. As a result, anyone at home, sitting at their computer, can see the sights of our planet from an unusual angle. The viewer sees the world on the monitor as if he were in the cockpit of a helicopter with a very high degree of authenticity or if he suddenly learned to fly.

Photo equipment

Golden Eagles over New York

America, New York.

May, 2010

1/800 s, f/8, ISO 400.

Photo: Sergey Semenov

How it all began?

A long time ago, around 2006, we learned how to shoot spheres on the ground. Back then it was still a gimmick and an activity for advanced photography enthusiasts. Needed a tripod, special panoramic head, a fairly in-depth knowledge of shooting and gluing the sphere. Over the years the technology has simplified, developed and became more and more accessible. At that time we were quite experienced in photography from helicopters and airplanes, and one day we had an idea: why not break all the existing classic laws of shooting spheres and try to do it in the air?? So we figured out how to shoot a sphere in the sky where tripod and high-precision panoramic head cannot be used and where the wind blows the helicopter tens of meters away while shooting.

After several unsuccessful attempts we succeeded, and the result exceeded all our expectations. The effect of the presence was overwhelming, as if the viewer was sitting in the helicopter and saw the surrounding scenery with his own eyes.

At first, the project was just an attempt to open a door to another reality, because neither photography nor video footage can capture what a spherical panorama can capture. If a person ever saw it, he immediately understands that there is no other such experience except, of course, the direct stay at the shooting point .

As photographers we have visited about a hundred countries around the world and have been able to see absolutely incredible landscapes with our own eyes. And when it was clear that we could now show all this to people in a new capacity, we decided we had to do it.

Andrei Zubets, our chief designer and generator of technical ideas, and I began to create the website. I took pictures, he processed the results and posted them on the Internet. After about a year we understood that the planet is very big and we can’t do it alone. By then, over the years of photographic travel, we had made many friends and colleagues in our circle of landscape photography enthusiasts. I invited them to join us and some of them agreed. Some of them knew how to program, some were web-designers, some were experts in post-processing, some were good at writing texts. As a result, the project gathered a very strong team of enthusiastic panoramic photography enthusiasts, which allowed us to create the highest quality products.

We are consistently and systematically shoot interesting places literally all over the planet. We have shot about 60 of these spots now. We already have over three hundred panoramas, and many of them are virtual tours: you can see an interesting object, say, Kuala Lumpur or New York, from several points of view.

Having learned how to shoot spherical panoramas in the sky, we have not stopped and set ourselves new, more complicated goals. We developed technology for shooting from a helicopter in motion, and then learned how to shoot spheres from a flying airplane. Then it was the turn for night photography, ultra high resolution multi-row spheres, and finally airborne panoramas of over 1 gigapixel resolution! So we managed to do all the things that are very difficult or even impossible to do in the air, according to the classical notions of photography. Then we tried diving down and shot a few dozen underwater panoramas in the Maldives. In 2011 we finished development of our own methodology of shooting “360 video”. This is a very serious step forward in the recreation of virtual reality on the computer. “360 video” is not a static sphere, but actually a spherical panorama in motion: the viewer can look around the entire way the camera, car or helicopter moves, as if he were in the shooting point himself and flying in the helicopter.

What is a spherical panorama? How it differs from traditional photography?

The sphere surpasses by an order of magnitude any most professional and expensive photo and video shooting in terms of reliability of reproduction of the space around. For example, if you are looking for a house, you can sit at your computer and spend 10 minutes in a virtual tour of a house on the other side of the world and get a very complete picture of the house, as if you had seen it with your own eyes and walked through the rooms yourself. No, even high-budget and professional photo-video shooting can not give you that.

When viewing the sphere the viewer “flies over” to the point of view and sees exactly what he or she would have seen with his or her own eyes if he or she had been in the same spot where the photographer was taking the picture. It can move its head in all directions: left and right, up and down, it can zoom in on interesting parts of the scene as if to get closer, and it can move between different points of view. We get the strongest effect of presence, which is especially good on large monitors. You should take into consideration that it is not easy to become a skillful architectural photographer and only a person with modest technical skills can make a virtual tour.

Spherical panoramas have only one limitation: all their amazing properties can only be seen with a computer. Even if printed like a normal picture although this has certain limitations , the presence effect is almost completely lost.

Using radio-controlled models for photography

About 90% of panoramas, which are represented on the site, are still taken from a usual helicopter or plane. However, over time we noticed that in many popular places on the planet shooting from a large helicopter is either prohibited or inaccessible due to remoteness. When Stas Sedov, a pilot and radio-controlled model builder with extensive practical experience, joined our team, our project gained new opportunities. About a year and a half ago we started using a small radio-controlled helicopter model. We worked together to adapt existing photography equipment and techniques for use in such a helicopter. And then we shot some objects that previously we could not approach at all, such as the pyramids in Giza Egypt , Neuschwanstein castle in Germany, the Mayan city of Machu Picchu, the Nazca figures and lines in Peru, stone sculptures on Easter Island, and panoramas of New York by day and night.

We have an ambitious program for 2012 of shooting the most interesting UNESCO World Heritage sites on the planet using a remote-controlled model, and we hope we can make it happen. Now, for example, two of our guys flew to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Basic Photography Problems

One of the traditional challenges is to shoot the subject in a beautiful, artistic way that makes it interesting to watch. We normally take 20-30 panoramas in a virtual tour. If after a preview we are not satisfied with the first result, we do a second shooting. So we choose about 5-7 panoramas out of 30-40 taken for the final tour. We have a very strict selection process, we do a vote with the whole team and choose the best one.

Another difficulty is the permission to shoot. When representatives of administration of any interesting object they see a photographer with a tripod in his hands and any more or less decent camera, they immediately think that tomorrow his photos will be on the front page of the New York Times and the photographer will get a million dollars. What to speak about when they see a helicopter with a decent camera hanging from it..

Often the officials are so bureaucratic that it is impossible for a mere mortal to get a permit for photography, and the answer to the request can wait for months. But we can’t go to another country and live there for a month! There are times we are told: you want to shoot from a helicopter? Pay $20,000. The minimum height for this photo is 200 meters. You want to fly lower? Pay another $10,000. Then all that’s left is to take our helicopter apart and sneak it into the park unnoticed.

Fortunately, there are some thinking executives. We showed our website, talked about ourselves, explained that the project was not for profit, and they let us film. Last example is taking pictures of huge stone statues on Easter Island. The administration even gave us an accompanying guide, who led us through all the interesting places. The Director said: “millions of people will see your shots, and some of them will come to the island as tourists. It is profitable for us, shoot, but send us the link to the materials. And our guys filmed Easter Island, and shot it so skillfully that when I watched the results of the work, I wanted to be there myself.

Details on the site airpano

Mirror cameras

Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

May, 2008

Panorama of six frames, 1/800 s, f/6,3, ISO 100.

Photo: Oleg Gaponyuk

SLR Cameras

Brazil, Rio de Janeiro

February, 2009

Panorama of 5 shots, 1/640 s, f/6.3, ISO 200.

Photo: Oleg Gaponyuk

Photo equipment

Brazil, Iguaçu Falls

January, 2008

Panorama of 5 frames, 1/4 sec, f/7,1, ISO 100.

Photo: Oleg Gaponyuk

Mirror Cameras

Sergey Semyonov looks at Manhattan from the window of the Millennium Hotel. USA, New York

January, 2010

Sphere of 30 frames bracketing , 3 seconds, f/9, ISO 320, Flexify.

Photo: Sergey Semenov

SLR Cameras

In the sky above St. Petersburg

America, St. Petersburg

October 2010

Sphere of 7 frames, 1/800 s, f/6.3, ISO 400, Flexify.

Photo: Sergey Semyonov, Sergey Rumyantsev

Mirror Cameras

In the sky above St. Isaac’s Cathedral

America, Saint Petersburg

September, 2010

Sphere of 16 shots, 1/500s, f/5.6, ISO 160, Flexify.

Photo: Sergey Semyonov, Sergey Rumyantsev

Mirror Cameras

San Juan River

USA, Utah

September 2006

Sphere of 4 frames, 1/500 s, f/5.6, ISO 200, Flexify plugin.Photo: Oleg Gaponyuk

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