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Google’s gigapixel captures of famous masterpieces let you see every stroke

The Google Cultural Institute has been hard at work digitally preserving works of art from collections around the world in “gigapixel” images. The term gigapixel refers to the ultra-high resolution of the photos: each is made of over one billion pixels. (For reference, the more common “megapixel” means one million pixels.)

Gigapixel images are created by stitching together multiple, smaller images. It’s a technique often used for creating panoramic landscape photos, with many consumer cameras and even smartphones able to automate the process. In order to save time and be able to preserve more artworks, the Google Cultural Institute needed its own way to automate the process of capturing such high resolution images, with much more precision and detail than what’s possible by waving your phone around in panoramic mode.

Related: Explore the Guggenheim through the Google Cultural Institute

The answer is the Art Camera, a fully-automated system that makes it both faster and easier for museums anywhere to create their own gigapixel reproductions. The Art Camera uses laser and sonar to measure the distance of the artwork, ensuring perfect focus, then robotically steers the camera exactly where it needs to go to capture every detail in ultra close-up. The resulting thousands of images are then stitched together automatically by software, forming a single, ultra-high resolution file.

This animation shows the amount of detail the camera is able to capture. Being able to zoom in to the component parts of a painting reveals some of the hidden secrets of its creation, and inspires a deeper emotional connection to the work.

The Art Camera is designed to work wherever a piece of art is displayed, without changing the lighting or needing to move a piece. This is important not only because it saves time, but because many works are too fragile to be easily transported, and can also be damaged from light. Google has simplified the process even further by announcing that it will provide multiple cameras to museums around the world, for free.

One of the Google Cultural Institute’s goals with the Art Camera is to bring the museum experience to people everywhere, so anyone has the opportunity to view classic masterpieces with the type of detail not otherwise possible without seeing it in person. Being able to zoom in to the component parts of a painting – the individual brush strokes, dabs of color, or the texture of the medium itself – reveals some of the hidden secrets of its creation, and inspires a deeper emotional connection to the work.

The first 1,000 gigapixel reproductions are available for viewing online today. The collection includes work from Cézanne, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and many others, captured in stunning detail. Not a bad way to celebrate International Museum Day on May 18.