Graham Flint trains his specialized 4,000 megapixel camera and lenses on Skagway from the top of Mount Harding. Photo courtesy of Shay Dolberry, TEMSCO Helicopters

The Gigapxl guy comes shooting

Capturing places for all time

Graham Flint isn’t what you would expect of a high tech photo genius in our new “nerds rule” world.
He’s not young. White-haired and gap-toothed, he looks the part of any 70-year-old visitor from the Lower 48 who pulls up in a small sedan on Broadway after arriving via ferry from the Lower 48.
His camera isn’t even digital.
But the things that camera and its operator can do are amazing. And during a half hour conversation, you realize that the picture he took from the top of Mt. Harding the previous day might have your face in it.
Flint is one of three partners in The Gigapxl Project, a photo chronicle of North American heritage sites through the use of 4,000 megapixel images.
Think about that for a moment. The largest commercial digital cameras on the market today shoot in the 10-12 megapixel range. With the right lenses, one can blow up the whiskers on a seal 100 feet away.
To get 4,000 megapixels, you would need a camera as big as... and think about what it can enlarge from long distances.
There is no such thing as a 4,000 megapixel camera, at least not on this earth. Flint worked with big cameras in his old job with the Air Force and NASA. Those cameras are on satellites and have lenses that weigh between 300 and 600 pounds. One of them is on the Hubble Telescope.
When Flint retired from working with the military, he wanted to take a technology that was previously classified, and “make something useful.”
He partnered with his wife Catherine Aves and Michael T. Jones, one of the creators of Google Earth, and sought the help of a lot of friends whom he had worked with in the space program.
What started as a “mom and pop” idea has turned into one of the most popular Websites in the world.
Graham set a goal of making pictures up to 1,000 megapixels, but advances in film technology – yes, film – with smaller grains enabled the partners to shoot for 4,000 megapixels.
They developed a camera that could be hauled around and used on a tripod. It looks like a fancy version of the old box cameras used by panoramic photographers.
Then they had to have the right lenses. He knew a friend at Schneider who would help. It took them three years, using seven types of glass, polishing and testing each one, until they got it right.
Then they had to build a scanner to handle the images. His friend at Leica helped.
Then they had to make sure the images could be downloaded on a computer, and that’s where his wife and friends at Adobe, makers of Photoshop, helped push PS’s capability from 30,000 megabytes to 300,000.
The images take an hour to scan and download and they are still too big for a DVD – they have to be stored and shipped on a stack of four tetrabyte hard drives.
The shooting part is easy, or so it seems.
Flint says he can set up his camera, get the shot, and take it down in about 15 minutes. But when he gets back to his hotel room on the road, it takes about that long to block out the light and remove the 125 feet of film from the cartridge to get it ready for shipping.
Flint wasn’t as rushed on Mt. Harding on Sept. 14. The Skagway CVB helped arrange a TEMSCO helicopter ride to the top, and he stayed there for two hours on one of this summer’s rare sunny days. He shot “close-ups” and wide angle shots.
“For the shot I did up on the mountain, I shot the whole area,” he said. “Skagway is just a little place (in the photo) but you’ll be able to read the names on the storefronts.”
Once the film gets down to his wife in the Southwest, it’ll take about eight months before it appears on the team’s Website: It’s just one of many shots on a long road trip.
Since he embarked on the “Portrait of America” project, he has logged about 150,000 miles over the past five years. He has shot most of the state capitals, and even the Indy 500.
“They built a special cage for me above the track at turn one,” he said. “There were 100,000 people in the shot, all as good as passport photos (when zoomed in), and cars going 200 miles per hour. They were slightly blurred.”
His current trip has taken him to Alaska via ferry and he will make his way to Anchorage, Kodiak and Denali, and then back down through the Canadian and U.S. Rockies.
Flint views his work as a documentary, and as the technology develops, he pictures teams of photographers going around the world to record all of the heritage sites “before they aren’t around to visit anymore.” He cites the city of Rome as an example. Acid rain over the past 50 years has eroded ancient chisel marks in the columns of monuments there.
The Internet has made it possible for everyone to see places they may never visit. You can already see cities from space on Google Earth, and now you can zoom in closer on the Web with The Gigapxl Project.
What’s next?
Flint says this is the beginning of virtual reality technology that will make you feel like you are there.