Jeffrey Martin – creator of stunning panoramic photograph of historic Strahov library

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net

Jeffrey Martin recently scored a hit on the internet with a spectacular 360-degree photograph of the Philosophical Hall at the library at Strahov monastery in Prague. In fact, his 40-gigapixel panoramic picture of the beautiful Baroque room – which users can zoom in and out of on their computer screen – is believed to be largest indoor photograph ever taken.

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
Martin, an American in his mid 30s, has been living in the Czech capital for 12 years. When we spoke at a café in the city recently, I asked him how he’d first gotten into the field of panoramic photography.

“I got into that nearly 10 years ago, when I got my first digital camera. It had a panoramic mode, which I guess all digital cameras do. It was sort of a breakthrough for me, having used only film, the idea that you could kind of fuse two photographs together.”

Was that technology in its infancy then? I’m not sure when I saw my first panoramic photograph, but it would have been probably eight years ago.

“Yes, it sort of was. Especially the built-in software in the cameras was very rudimentary. Even the most technically proficient types of software from back then were very basic compared to what we’ve got now.”

If you could explain briefly, how is it done?

“In the case of these very, very large photos that I make, I take a few hundred, or a few thousand, images that are overlapping. Then they’re fed into a computer programme which analyses the overlapping bits and figures out exactly how they fit together. That’s all. Then they’re joined, hopefully into a complete sphere, encompassing everything that you’re seeing around you.”

Jeffrey Martin
How high is the resolution of the individual photographs that you use?

“I use a regular professional SLR camera. The one that I’ve got is 18 megapixels.”

I guess you don’t just stand there and take photograph after photograph. You’ve got some kind of robot assistant.

“Yes, I do. I have a device which allows me to set exactly how much the camera should turn, each time. But that doesn’t let me sit back with a cocktail while shooting. I have to pay close attention to make sure that it’s working properly. In some cases I have to focus the camera each time. It can be very difficult, actually, even considering that the robot’s moving things for me.“

Once you’ve taken all these pictures, how long does it take you to then put them all together?

“It depends on the job, and how perfect it has to be in the end, but it’s usually a few weeks of work. First I convert the images from a raw format into something that’s viewable, and then I have to fit them all together. It usually doesn’t fit perfectly, so I have to fix a few bits manually, or work with the panoramic imaging programme to fix these parts.”

What do you use these pictures for? How does your business work?

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
“My company is 360cities.net. We are primarily a community of panoramic photographers. We provide a platform and publishing system for these types of images, these spherical 360-degree images. We have advertising revenue, we have site memberships, so people pay for certain priviledges of publishing these images.

“Then we also license some of these images to certain clients in advertising and industry. In the case of these very large gigapixel images, they have been licensed quite a few times for various advertising campaigns, and things like that.”

How important is the aesthetic aspect? I’ve got to say a lot of these photos are simply beautiful.

“Right, that’s one differentiator between us and something like Google Street View, which is the same type of image. But that’s meant as a navigation tool more than something to be enjoyed. Our images are quite enjoyable, so especially for things like advertising or websites, they’re very attractive for people to use.”

Of the photos you’ve done to date, which in particular have been memorable, or you’ve considered a great achievement?

Havana, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
“Well, these very large ones of course are easy to call great achievements because of the scale, they’re very challenging technically. I’m very proud of those. They’re easy to make headlines about, they get traffic on the web, so I’m always tempted to make more of these.

“I’ve done more low resolution spherical panoramas. I went to Havana exactly three years ago and I made a lot of panoramics. I’m very proud of these images; I think it’s a interesting portrait of a unique place in the world at a certain time.”

At the end of March you came out with an amazing photograph of the Philosophical Hall at the Strahov library. How did that picture come about?

“It was an idea that I’d had since seeing this place for the first time. I had been thinking about this for a few years – how to make a very high resolution image of this place.

“First we made an appointment. I guess you can make a private tour by appointment for a fixed amount of money, so we went there and I shot the other room, the Theological Library – the Philosophical Library was being fixed up at that time.

“I released a two- or three-gigapixel photograph of the Theological Library, and I made an appointment to go back to the Philosophical Hall. After a day of shooting I realised that I wouldn’t be able to shoot the resolution that this place deserved.

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
“It’s such a special place that I wanted to produce an image that would be really spectacular – because this place is truly amazing. I spent a total of about five days in the Philosophical Hall.

“I would like to thank Strahov library for letting me do that. I’m very happy with the result, I’m very proud of how it turned out, and I’m glad that people who will never have a chance to go there will there will get to see it and to zoom all the way in to the books and everything else.”

They could probably see more by not going and just looking at your photograph.

“That’s true. Yes. That’s one complaint that some people have. It’s true that you can zoom in and see even more than you could if you were there in person, but as a counter-argument being there in person is a very magical feeling that you cannot get with any photo. No matter how 3D or high resolution you get, it’s just never the same as being there and experiencing it.”

But what do people complain about? What’s the complaint?

“We had one interesting case when we were selling virtual tours and we were allowing our members on the website to go to different businesses and sell them a virtual tour. That means a series of panoramic images that are linked together with a map.

“One guy in Germany made a fantastic tour of an aeroplane museum. There was a huge hall with 20 or 30 aeroplanes and you could click to go inside each one and virtually sit inside the cockpit of some antique aeroplane, then go outside again and go to a different aeroplane.

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
“It was really fantastic. But the owners of the museum made us take it down. They were very angry. They thought that if this was online, nobody would ever come to the museum ever again. It was quite silly and unfortunate. I think the general opinion about this is slowly changing.”

Getting back to your Strahov library picture, that was featured on [the website of] Wired, it was a big hit on the internet – what did that exposure mean to you?

“In a business sense, it’s great to get that kind of exposure. A lot of people in different industries get a chance to know about us and our business, so from that perspective it was fantastic.

“Personally I really appreciate that people get to enjoy this, I’m proud that I get to expose a fantastic place. I guess there’s an element of adventure to making images like this and sharing it with the world.”

Looking to the future, or maybe not to the future but just to you imagination, is there any subject that you would absolutely love to photograph and to make a panoramic picture of?

“It’d be great to do the Sistine Chapel, I think, because the artwork there is truly amazing. That’d be something I’d like to do in my life. Otherwise, it’d be interesting to photograph North Korea, before it changes too much. Similar to photographing Cuba, it’s a place that’s sort of frozen in time, so I’d be very fascinated to witness that place and capture it before it changes.”

And is there any site here in the Czech Republic you’d like to photograph?

Strahov library, photo: Jeffrey Martin, www.360cities.net
“I’ve photographed the church of bones, the Sedlec Ossuary, in Kutná Hora, a few times, but I find myself going back there again and again to make it even better. And I always enjoy photographing these anonymous little town squares that I pass through by mistake. Those are very lovely. I always enjoy shooting those in the Czech Republic.”

The Strahov library panoramic photograph is here www.360cities.net/gigapixel/strahov-library.html while you will find a selection of Jeffrey Martin's work here www.360cities.net/search/Jeffrey-Martin