Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings: Part One

9/4/09Follow @wroush

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collage and virtual reality; it analyzes a large number of close-up photos of an object or a place and assembles them into a common 3-D environment, a kind of 3-D jigsaw puzzle that you can explore using the Web-based Photosynth viewer. If you’re familiar with the famous David Hockney photocollage Pearblossom Highway #2, you already have some idea of the effect Photosynth produces—except that in the Photosynth version of Hockney’s work, you’d be able to move into the space, rather than simply glancing around it.

Creating your own “synths” on Photosynth can be a fun way to stretch your photographic skills—and I guarantee that it will give you a totally new way to think about the things you photograph. Be warned: the “synther,” the program that actually uploads your photos to Photosynth, only runs on Windows PCs. (You can download that here.) But assuming you’ve got access to one of those, you can get started by picking a Photosynth-friendly subject. That could be an interior space like your living room or an art gallery, where you’re basically going to stand in the middle and take lots of photos looking in every direction; it could be an outdoor object such as a building, where you’re going to walk around it gradually, shooting pictures as you go; or it could be a small object like a sculpture or a vase, which you’re going to place on a table (or even a turntable) and shoot from every angle.

A sample synth in the Photosynth web viewerThere are a few keys to creating a photoset that can be assembled into a compelling synth. They’re detailed in Microsoft’s excellent Photosynth Photography Guide, but I’ll run through them here anyway: Use a wide-angle lens. Make sure that each feature (say, the door of a cathedral) appears in at least three photos. When panning across a scene with your camera, make sure that each photo overlaps the previous one by at least half. When moving around a 90-degree corner, take at least 9 photos—every 10 degrees or so. Limit yourself to about 300 photos; if you try uploading more than that, in my experience, the synther tends to crash. And avoid uniform or repetitive expanses like blue sky, white walls, or the glass grids of skyscrapers—they don’t have enough detail for Photosynth to match adjacent photos. (As the Photosynth team puts it, Photosynth loves Venice, and it hates the Seattle Public Library.)

Photosynth isn’t a fully supported Microsoft product, and it’s not clear how it will evolve as a technology. There’s talk at Microsoft about integrating Photosynth into Virtual Earth and Bing Maps, perhaps adding Everyscape-like interior spaces to Microsoft’s Web mapping tools. But in any case, the team behind it has made some nice improvements and additions over the last year. One is a Silverlight-based viewer that lets you explore synths on Mac computers, not just Windows machines. (The synther, alas, is still Windows-only.) Another is iSynth, a very cool Photosynth app for the iPhone, which, thanks to its multi-touch interface, is actually a better platform for exploring synths than a regular computer.

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Next week I’ll tell you about four more cool digital projects that will take you beyond words and images to areas like podcasting, animation, mapmaking, and 3-D virtual worlds. Meanwhile, I can’t resist plugging a recent book that’s tailor-made for creative souls who are interested in expressing themselves through various (digital and non-digital) media. It’s called A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self-Reflection Using Photography, Art and Writing, by my friends Graham Gordon Ramsay and Holly Barlow Sweet. (Full disclosure: I helped Graham and Holly with the editing on the book.) It’s a fantastic source of ideas, guidance, and inspiration for anyone who wants to cultivate both their creative skills and their self-understanding.

Continue to Part Two

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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