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Our Members: Joe Poulton—Mapping Geology with High-Resolution Photography [Part 1]

Posted on: May 3rd, 2012 by Abbey Smith

Photo by Joe PoultonThe American Alpine Club has over 9,000 members worldwide and each of those members approaches climbing and time in the outdoors differently. For some it’s a career, for some a diversion, for others, an obsession. The Club’s membership spans boulderers, sport-climbers, hikers, skiers, trad-rats, scientists, big-wall aficionados, adventurers, ice-climbers, peak-baggers, explorers, and alpinists. It’s a big tent, but there are a lot of people in love with the mountains excited to fill that tent.

Telling the stories of our members is important to us because it helps the community understand who makes up that community.  Member Joe Poulton, with AAC Friend Abbey Smith, produced this stunningly-cool three part series about his experiences in Yosemite—photographing geology in ways that help YOSAR study rockfall, help climate scientists predict change, and a whole lot more…

A Personal Experience with Gigapixel Imagery [Part 1]

I first heard of visual effects designer Eric Hanson and xRez Studios when I asked my brother Rob (the film enthusiast), who knew photography that I could connect with to find answers before I bought my first camera. Rob mentioned the photography that xRez was completing at the time. I looked up xRez Studios online and was thoroughly inspired.

I contacted Eric for the first time in 2006 and started picking his brain about photography and his style of panoramic imaging. Now, if I remember correctly, he told me that if the camera body doesn’t feel comfortable in your hand you’ll use it less or not at all. The hunt for the perfect fit began. I went to Wolf and Ritz Camera stores throughout the Portland, Oregon, Washington and Vancouver area. I weighed in on every Nikon and Canon I could find and the perfect feel was the Canon 30D. I got my first kit with EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 on the 30D body from a Ritz Store. 

I looked into ways to get educated on this new device and talked with Eric about photography schools. In the end, I settled on a mail course through New York Institute of Photography (NYIP) and it proved to be worth it. That is until I had to afford studio rental space for shooting with multiple lights and models. Tried it once and stopped. Besides, who really enjoys working inside when there’s plenty of light outside? Not me.

The NYIP course with its tapes, DVDs, text manuals and critique of my photos worked well, except for when I turned in my first panoramic image. I went up on the south side of Mount Hood in the winter of 2007-08. From about half way up the Palmer snowfield I laid down on the snow with my 30D mounted to a tabletop tripod. Zoomed the camera lens all the way and started taking my frames for the stitched pano to be. Once I got back home, I tried stitching the images in the GIMP software program and that proved to be extremely tedious. I looked into stitching programs and settled for Kolor’s Autopano Pro.

“Founded in October, 2004, by Alexandre Jenny and Lionel Laissus, the Kolor company was the first to perceive the potential of SIFT technology for the identification of interest points in an image. The following year, this enabled Kolor to obtain its user license for this technology, issued by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Designated by the Savoie Chamber of Commerce and Industry as a Young Innovating Enterprise, and recipient of several prizes including the SFR Award for Photographic Innovation, Kolor is showing a rapid, annual growth rate of about 50%. Its products are sold worldwide via its website ( and reselling network.”

After, installing the software and figuring out how to use it, all I had to do was click about three buttons, sit back and watch the paint dry. I was excited and thoroughly impressed by Autopano’s speed and quality. The final image of Mount Hood’s south side had dimensions for the print version at 11753 x 2596 pixels from 12 original images. After the panoramic image was produced, I sent the image to my NYIP instructor. I was excited about my first panoramic being completed. However, the instructor replied with something along the lines of panoramic images should be taken with a 50mm lens. Then I sent an email to Eric with it attached. I had no idea that the image would bring me into the circle of a large project. [Story continued below the gallery...]

As xRez notes on their website, gigapixel imagery has moved from purely academic to a viable photographic product:

xRez Studio has been one of the pioneers in digital gigapixel photography for the last five years, moving it from academic exercises into a viable production methodology for use in multiple applications and markets, while at a price point comparable to conventional professional photography. Panoramic digital photography has long relied on creating panoramic images by stitching relatively few multiple images together. In the last few years, however, advances in software, hardware, and digital camera capabilities have now allowed possible resolutions into the range of several gigapixels per single image, thousands of times greater than a standard 10 megapixel still image. Resolutions near 300,000 pixels in width are now possible with certain technique and methodology. The resulting gigapixel image is one that has a tremendous range of detail contained, allowing unsurpassed viewing and exploration. This ultimately allows for large prints that show no softening or degradation from size, while allowing intricate detail to be revealed at close inspection via a variety of media.” 

After viewing my Mount Hood panoramic, Eric complemented me on my work with that image. A few weeks later, I received another email. Eric asked if I would be interested in joining a group of people for a project in Yosemite that he and Greg Downing were putting together for the park geologist. When the details were provided, I was in.

On May 31 at 1300 hours, 70 photographers were in position shooting from about 20 locations to capture the same light for one seamless panoramic of the whole Yosemite valley.

I had arrived two days prior in the Valley after a short drive from Portland. I was able to hang out with the masterminds behind the scheme for one whole day. We scouted a few additional shooting locations including Glacier Point and Taft Point. The views were amazing. I could not believe I was walking around with Eric and Greg, two impressive Hollywood CG specialists. The remainder of that day and night, more people started arriving for the project.

The next day…

Read Part 2 of this 3 part series on Tuesday.

L-R Franklin Londin, Kiwi, Tom Kluskens, and Joe Poulton at shoot location: Manure Pile

L-R Franklin Londin, Kiwi, Tom Kluskens, and Joe Poulton at shoot location: Manure Pile

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