My Israel Panorama Project

MyIsrael Panorama project is an ongoing creative effort aimed at providing audiences with a glimpse of how a potential enemy could view the main Israeli cities if Israel was to hand over lands that were under Jordanian rule between 1948-1967.

Although we enjoyed great weather prediction support from Meteo-Tech, this project did not reach completion yet, due lack of clear days during 2010-11 winter-spring.  The image from Alfei Menashe was created by Etay Bodel on a day of reasonable visibility during the project’s probability check.  We are hoping to add more images from various view points during the winter-spring of 2011-12.
I must say that although i am not new to the art of photography, this project has been a great learning experience for me,as it pushes the limits of technology in numerous ways.

Israel coastal plain as seen from the west bank

My Israel Panorama print screen

We began working on the My Israel panorama project in April 2010. Inspired by the famous Obama swearing in Gigapan image (Gigapan is one of the manufacturers of robotic tripod heads, which facilitate the automatic photographing of hundreds of pictures and seaming them together to form a single large picture through which one may navigate using a mouse or keyboard). Initially, we wished to check if we can succeed in creating an image that will enable the user to view detail on the western side of the Green Line while sitting on Israel’s Security Fence.  After choosing two observation points, and waiting for a day with reasonable visibility, we carried out several tests.   The conclusion: challenging but worth the try.

Visibility, long range and unconventional observation points would not make our life easy.  On the next few pages you can learn about the technical difficulties we faced and solutions found to creating a large scale panoramic photograph under challenging circumstances.

Selecting Photographic Locations

Choosing the photography locations was done during a few tours and receiving photos from friends in various settlements. Although some of the photographs could have been taken from points on the fence itself, we preferred going further east in order to show the fence itself and its surroundings. In fact, all the points selected were situated several kilometers from the security fence and the view could be seen from much closer.

Visibility limitations

We soon discovered that when taking photographs of object 10s ranging 8-35 km away in Israeli weather, the visibility conditions constitute the main hindrance to attaining a sharp and clear result. Haze, moisture and heat waves blur, distort and obscure the view in ways that even Photoshop manipulations cannot save.

haze taken with Tamron SP180mm and SPX2 teleconverter

Hazy Tel Aviv

heatwaves are a barrier to sharpness and clarity

Heat waves are an issue in our part of the world

Implementation Concept

In photographing a Parisian panorama, a team of photographers once waited for a year and a half for the appropriate visibility conditions. When the day finally came, it took the robotic camera head five hours(!!) to complete the shooting of over two thousand images. In Paris, at winter time, the sun hardly ascends above the southern horizon: a situation which facilitates a prolonged photographic session with no significant change in the angle or nature of the light. These 5 hours are not an option for the Israeli panorama maker. Transitions are fast in this part of the globe and the photo-shoot will have to take place in the early morning when the air is cold, the heat waves have not yet risen and haze is still at minimal levels.

We planned to photograph the panorama using a lens that was the equivalent of 1200mm – approximately double the focal length of other panoramas which we examined; Doubling the focal length means that each area unit that was photographed in one frame will now be photographed in four frames – this makes an enormous difference in the level of precision and control over the “area scanning” process.
The extreme focal length limitation, as well as the weather, became the most challenging factors in the project.

Experienced photographers know that when using long lenses the image “shakes” in the viewfinder and a higher shutter speed is required. The classic formula states that dividing a second by the lens’ focal length will suggest the minimal shutter speed for non-VR hand-held photography (i.e: when using a lens of 500mm the shutter speed should not exceed 1/500 sec). This limitation is reduced but still exists with long lenses even when they are mounted to stable tripods. The challenge of the increased shaking does not only clash with the aperture setting and the sensor’s sensitivity, but also with the robotic pan-head’s movement: click > alter the angle > stabilize > and take a photograph again – a process which may take about 8 seconds for a long super-telephoto lens. The calculation of 8 seconds multiplied by 1000 photographs results in about two hours (!) during which the cool Israeli morning air will turn into something different. The solution: Manual.

Lens

We carried out the feasibility study using a Nikon D90 using lenses with a focus length comparable to 540mm and 840mm in a 35mm format:
Tamron SP180mm f2.5 +Tamron X2 teleconverter and later a Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6D AF + Tamron SP X1.4 Teleconverter.

general view from pduel israel

General view from Pduel

The feasibility tests indicated that we are interested in pushing the focal length of the lens to the maximum limit that would facilitate good optic quality without reducing the required angle (Photoshop has a file size limitation of 300,000 pixels width and height). The ideal focal length for our purposes was defined as 700 to 800mm, which after the camera’s crop factor will become the equivalent of 1070 – 1220 mm in a 35 mm format.

Based on a few positive reviews I purchased a Tamron SP500mm f8 mirror lens that I intended to assemble on one of the designated Tamron converters: X2 or XI.4. The financial risk was not substantial and it was decided to give this lens a chance. Based on the experience gained during the feasibility checkup I was convinced that a compact, UN-intimidating lens would be of advantage in the event of trespassing or entering military firing ranges between the patrols of the border police or the IDF. I bought the last version of the 500mm f8 on eBay, still in its original packaging, but after several checks I realized that even though the lens is lightweight, practical and with no significant disadvantages for this project (a permanent aperture, doughnut bukeh and manual focus) its optical quality is not good enough to support even the X1.4 converter.
As the trial progressed I became acutely aware of the critical importance of the optical sharpness in creating panoramas: in max magnification of the panoramic image in the interface, about 15% of the camera’s CCD surface will fill the entire screen of the average user, pixel upon pixel. This is not much of a challenge with a 28mm lens, but a great challenge when using an 800mm with a crop factor. This realization drove me to plan B: Nikkor 400mm IF-ED f3.5 with its TC-301 X2 converter. The difference between the lenses is enormous. The Nikon, originally design for nature and bird photography, presented optics from the pre-photoshop-everything-era built on a reliable and precise metal mechanics. The absence of automation and or any electrical communication contact between the digital camera and the analog lens did not cause any difficulty since the choice of the focus is manual anyway.

Tamron SP500 VS. Nikon 400mm f3.5:

Tamron 500mm f8 reflex lens at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Tamron SP500 f8 1/250

Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IF-ED at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Nikkor 400mmED f8 1/250

Tamron 500mm f8 reflex lens at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Tamron SP500 f8 1/250

Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IF-ED at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Nikkor 400mmED f8 1/250

Tamron SP500+SP14 VS Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IF-ED+TC-301:

Tamron 500mm f8 reflex lens at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Tamron SP500+SP1.4 f11 1/250

Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IF-ED at f8 1/250 ISO500 on Nikon D90

Nikkor 400mm+TC301 f11 1/250

Tamron 500mm f8 reflex lens at f11 1/250 ISO800 on Nikon D90 Nikkor 400mm f3.5 w-TC301 at f11 1/250 ISO800 on Nikon D90

All images were taken with Nikon D90 on a heavy tripod, using critical focusing. the attached files are the original output of the camera’s jpeg conversion.
blue square marks the frame of the crop. crops are at original magnification ratio. 1px from the camera = 1px on screen. Photoshop bicubic jpeg compression level=80.
In order to reduce the penetration of light and a drop in the contrast I added a high-tech cardboard made sunshade to the lens – when it was required.
I replaced the previously used Gitzo 1228 Tripod + Induro Phq3 with a heavy Cullman CT400 tripod with its designated head with precise scale marks. Games over.

focusing

One of the major advantages of the Nikon Ai-S IF-ED series is the option to lock the focus ring in so that it can be released with a single click and then repeated – a feature that saved me the use of the traditional masking tape on the lens barrel.
To save us from any mismatches between the camera’s viewfinder prism and the CCD I focused using the camera’s live-view with a high magnification of the digital zoom. Since depth-of-field is so shallow, A black large-format-style cloth and the aid of a magnifying glass attached to the camera screen were also of assistance.

The Camera

Initially I worked with a ‘simple’ Nikon D90 which has a high resolution per CCD area and excellent image quality. After a few days in the field I have realized that the atmospheric condition will not allow the sharpness and resolution that can be produced with this combination: close objects appear sharp, but the main subjects – which are at a 20-30km range appear distorted.

1:1 60 km range 800mm

Port of Ashdod – 60km Range (1:1 magnification) – on a windy humid day

1:1 60 km range 800mm

Closer objects (at only 20km..) appear much clearer

 

In other words – i was producing huge files with very little detail; this recognition made me upgrade to a lower linear resolution camera – Nikon D700 hoping that the large CCD receptors will produce better separation and contrast with a file size that better matches the conditions.

Nikon D90 with 800mm lens at f16 1/500 ISO800

Nikon D90

Nikon D700 with 800mm lens at f16 1/800 ISO1000

Nikon D700

Both slices are from images taken with the Nikon 400mm+X2 teleconverter. The D90 shows a larger image due to its higher linear resolution projected as 1:1 on screen, the D700 has less noise, richer tonality and seems to be a better fit with the lens. Both images are camera processed jpg files.

The transition to D700 had a few implications:

  • With optimal exposure settings (400mm + X2 converter) at f16 1/800 the d700 can easily handle ISO800 without much noise.
  • The D90 exposure inconsistency (even in manual mode) was much improved.
  • Since my aim is to produce a 1:1 reproduction of the image -(each pixel on the camera CCD will present itself by one pixel on the users screen) – switching from 12mp DX sensor to a 12Mp Fx means 30% reduction in image size but it also means that each pixel has its proper place.
  • Easier to fit 180 degrees panorama within the 300000px Photoshop file size limitation
  • The larger angle of view enabled by the larger sensor shortened the duration of the image capturing sequence
  • The excellent separation of the larger CCD receptors compensated for the reduction of contrast caused by the tele-convetion

camera and lens

Note on Clouds

As previously mentioned, weather has a most influential factor on the clarity of the image and one of the most critical of these are clouds. Cloud movement during the course of the photographic session would not only appear unnatural, but would also make the digital analysis and stitching of hundreds of frames almost impossible. The motion of the shadows makes it difficult for the software to identify the connection between the hill, which was illuminated by the sun in frame 34 of line 7 and its neighbor – frame 34 of line 8 (after 3-4 minutes) that is now in shadow. To reduce the length of the photography session, secure possible “holes” in the mosaic and ensure a continuous sky, I backed up the main panorama with a background panorama taken with a wider lens of 180mm. In simpler words: two versions were created for each panorama – one high resolution of the focus of attention and another with a lower resolution to cover marginal areas and provide some type of “insurance”. The two layers will later be merged into one.
panorama layers structure

Photographic data

A 400mm f3.5 lens with the a X2 multiplier creates a maximal aperture of f7- a reasonable aperture for a 800mm. Although the lens presents good results with the aperture fully opened, I preferred to deepen the depth of the field and the contrast by shutting the lens to f8 in the original lens (f16 with the multiplier).

Image taken with Nikon D90 Nikkor 400mm f3.5 + TC301 X2 teleconverter from approx 300m. Camera and lens were mounted on a heavy Cullman tripod.
Manual exposure mode. Desktop RAW conversion with “as camera” native adjustments.

nikon 400mm ISO200 1/500 f3.5

ISO200 1/500 f7

ISO500 1/500 f5.6

ISO500 1/500 f11

full frame (blue mark selection)

Crop marking (in blue)

ISO800 1/400 f8

ISO800 1/400 f16

As a general note, when no depth of the field considerations are involved and the principal object is in the center of the picture, I find that most of the prime lenses are at their best about two clicks stopped down, well before diffraction kicks in.

Due to the extreme focal length and the dreadful ramifications of squeegeeing a critical frame, I had to keep the shutter speed at a minimum of 1/640 sec, even on a heavy tripod – as unpleasant as it may be for a low shutter speed fan as myself. The initial conditions forced me to push the ISO to 640 using manual camera settings and RAW file format.

RAW Conversion

Once all files landed safely on the machine and backed up on an additional hard-drive, I ran several tests and defined presets for several factors. The order of actions was set as a Photoshop actions sequence for batch processing. Now we can retire for the night.

Raw to jpg conversion samples:

Image taken with Nikon D90 Nikkor 400mm f3.5 + TC301 X2 converter from approx 300m. Lens and Camera were mounted on a heavy professional tripod.
Manual exposure: ISO500 f11 (5.6 on original lens) 1/500s.

original jpg from D90 camera

In-camera jpg conversion

desktop raw conversion

Desktop conversion

desktop raw conversion - frame size

Crop marks (desktop conversion)

desktop raw conversion with sharpening and adjustments

Desktop conversion with adjustments

I must confess that much of my image processing knowledge originates in the Lynda.com online video tutorials library. Photographers often focus on the equipment aspect of the profession while enriching our knowledge of the craft is a far superior investment than another piece of glass or rubber. On that note please take my recommendation of Lynda.com where you can access a wealth of knowledge organized in hundreds of in-depth courses on digital technology.

Image Stitching

To stitch up the pictures we purchased an Autopano pro software, which is a professional program with a user’s interface that was recently updated and a fantastic capability to restore deep layers and diverse aspects in complex panoramas. For small stitching jobs I highly recommend the program PanoMaker Pro.
One of Autopano’s outstanding advantages is its ability to manage the computer’s memory in a departmentalized manner, a characteristic where I found Photoshop to be less efficient.

Slicing

As previously explained, we photographed several hundred images that were then processed, seamed and balanced using a computer program. When ready this giant file (which could cover an entire house with excellent resolution) has to be somehow transmitted to the user’s computers. Downloading several gigabytes by each one of a few thousands of viewers is not much of an option.
We used automated photoshop command to slice the file into thousands of tiles, which later will be downloaded individually once “called to screen”. In actual practice, with a minimal zoom the panorama is produced almost from a single jpg, but when it comes to the max magnification the panorama is composed of several thousand tiles, most of which are sized 256+256 pixels per unit. It is not only the maximum resolution that needs to be stocked sliced on the server but each one of the intermediate magnification levels that is also composed of several hundred or thousand tiles. Out of a total of the 40,000 tiles of the average image in this project only a fraction will ever be seen be anybody (..that poor piece of sky above the fourth electricity pole on the 7th magnification level..).

Interface Design

Although photography is my art and passion since high-school, Interactive multimedia and web productions is what I enjoy doing most of my days. For the MyIsrael project, the three main creative guidelines were:
1. It should convey the message in a clear straight-forward manner.
2. It should visually communicate with MyIsrael Website.
3. Be simple to operate and accessible.
4. Adaptable to versatile uses: off-line presentation mode.

Since the required structure of a panorama viewing applications is far different than that of a blog, the visual connection was carried through color, font and texture. Suggested drafts were all drawn to propose a minimalist line that will enable the user to concentrate on the viewing experience, and not the technicality.

The fluid, full browser interface was modified from a previous project. As the work began we did not know how many panoramic photographs we would end up taking, therefore we programmed the uploading of all components, including text using external xml files, which “draws” the content from several external files while the flash file remains fixed. Such usage cancels the need for reloading the panorama tiles when the user changes language, and facilitates updating and modifying text. The application was programmed to enable direct link to a specific panorama, in a certain language with some additional flexible variables. The repeated use of Flash Symbols in different variations and adhering to a vector style assists in fast loading of the site.

The original intention of this site was to demonstrate not only to the public, but also to present to decision makers what are the actual distances we are dealing with when we discuss Israeli defense arrangements. For that purpose the application was created with a folding panel interface – to enable the presenter (experienced with the mouse navigation commands only) to take his audiences on a tour without the distracting navigation elements.

After creating an first demo application we put the interface to a test run by a number of random users and analyzed their behavior to improve on the user interface. The main changes we introduced were: adding a short opening explanatory screen, tooltips instead of static text windows, change default settings from closed to open panels, increasing the sensitivity ranges of the triangular buttons, increase the glow effect of hovered buttons.

At this stage, it was also decided to emphasize the security risk by adding a combat style element. The solution found was to impart the interface with two modes: Blue-white for Israel – in the colors of MyIsrael and green-red for MyPalestine, with directions, ranges and various text updates. Shlomo Blass from Rogatka, advised us to leave the applications in the ‘info provider’ janre and avoid exaggerated action. After several sketches, we transferred the updates to flash environment and AS3 coding. The missile data was gathered with the help of Uzi Rubin and the Israel Missile Defense Association.

Programing

Flash programing is not in the scope of this article, I will only say that we purchased a batch of Zoomify-flash AS3.0 codes that we heavily modified. The few Html-PHP-JS elements that were added were swf-object for making flash more searchable, PHP visits counter, facebook share coding and a few urls. Files were encrypted and than accelerated via a CDN service.

Sound

I only used buttons sounds, recorded with Zoom H2 and MDR100 earphones. I cleaned and compressed the sounds with Cubase6.

 

Last Words

The recent D800 would be perfect for this job. No converter needed, great resolution.. also the following year had many days of great visibility. Well..
If you read this all the way to down, you are probably in the business, and i hope that this article was of assistance to you.
Feel free to contact or leave a comment. Good Luck!