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Printing the Highest Resolution Photos on Earth Isn't Easy

Combining technical know-how and artistic expertise, VAST pioneered a method to print unbelievably detailed photographic work.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

‘Majestic’ by Tim Shields, a 255 megapixel VAST photo from British Columbia, Canada. Images courtesy of VAST.

Despite continual leaps in digital photographic technology, photo artist and engineer Dan Piech lamented that prints couldn't be as high resolution as original images. So he launched a gallery and startup called VAST, a group of fine art photographers, engineers, and artists who are aiming to create the highest resolution photographic prints ever made. They are doing so not with a super high resolution camera, but with software that digitally stitches a number of high resolution images together, and printing them with cutting-edging technology.

Piech went to countless physical galleries where he saw quality artistic work, but found the resolution lacking. Anything larger than 22 inches wide (300ppi) began to look blurry to the naked eye, from close up and occasionally afar. Piech also visited a number of websites to explore ultra-high resolution photos made by people with technical expertise but not the best aesthetics. With VAST, Piech believes he can fuse the technical and aesthetic to create breathtaking ultra-high resolution photographic prints.

'The Hand of Zeus' by Dan Piech, a 40 megapixel VAST photo upconverted to 5,449 megapixels.
Detail on 'The Hand of Zeus'.

After creating an early prototype of the VAST website, Piech began scouring the web for photographers who fell somewhere in the middle of fine art and technical expertise. Eventually he found a team of ten photographers who have now created 200 ultra-high resolution photographs that they believe are aesthetically and artistically beautiful.

"We've developed a number of new techniques for doing some pretty amazing things that allow us to have the best of both worlds," Piech tells Creators. "To be very clear, we're not innovating in the image sensor space. That's extremely advanced stuff happening in the clean rooms at giant companies like Canon, Nikon, Sony, and elsewhere… Our standard technique [is] stitching together hundreds of photos to create a single ultra-high resolution photo."

'A West Village Winter' by Dan Piech, a 756 megapixel VAST photo of the West Village in New York City.
Detail on 'A West Village Winter'.

For instance, VAST photographer Aaron Priest has been combining ultra-high resolution with ultra-shallow depth-of-field (the distance between nearest and farthest objects). Photographer Scott Dimond, on the other hand, has been working to do quite the opposite: create photos that have ultra-high resolution and near-infinite depth-of-field

"This is extremely difficult because increasing resolution decreases the effective circle of confusion you have to work within, thus decreasing your depth of field," Piech explains. "He's doing this using focus stacking, tilt-shift lenses, etc."

Detail on 'Majestic.'
Detail on 'Majestic.'

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is photographer Paul Wilson, who has taken on the nearly impossible task of dramatically improving dark-sky photo resolution, as the lack of light and motion in the night sky isn't conducive to high resolution image-making. But Wilson's latest photograph, a shot of the Milky Way galaxy at 300 megapixels, shows that he is making progress. VAST photographer Steve Webster is trying to improve the combination of multiple exposure timings for different parts of a scene, which can be seen in his images of a stream at Red Rock Canyon.

Piech notes that it can take hours to create an ultra-high resolution photograph, since one must carefully shoot hundreds of exposures. Technically-skilled photographers typically shoot around noon so that light and shadows remain consistent, while more artistic photographers tend to shoot around sunrise and sunset, though lighting shifts rapidly at these times.

'Redwoods, Ferns, and Light' by Justin Katz, a 536 megapixel VAST photo from California.
Detail on 'Redwoods, Ferns, and Light'.

"We've worked to create many of our ultra high resolution VAST photos like one [of Lower Manhattan and the Freedom Tower] at that beautiful sunrise or sunset time so we can have technical and aesthetic merit in our photos," says Piech.

To do this, VAST is—in addition to the digital stitching—using a cutting-edge printer formerly used by the US military to print surveillance images, a technology also used by governments to print currency. Piech says that VAST's printer is the largest of its kind, and only a handful of people are using them commercially.

Detail on 'A West Village Winter.'

Piech believes that photography and art buyers are looking for the highest quality, most beautiful photographs to hang on their walls. VAST is hoping to sell their hi-res photos to them, as well as to commercial buyers and interior designers who have a need for these prints. People can also license a VAST photo in a design of their own creation, much like Getty image licensing.

"An interior designer here in New York used this VAST photo [of a January dawn in NYC] to panel a brand new high-end office space for their client," says Piech. "The photo is printed 16 feet wide and still looks impeccably sharp up close."

"What we're doing is taking the best equipment on the planet today and using it in creative ways to make photographic artwork that is orders of magnitude higher quality than anything that has come before."

Detail on 'Redwoods, Ferns, and Light.'

Click here to see more work by VAST photographers.

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