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40 gigapixel panorama takes you inside Prague's off-limits Baroque library

April 4, 2011 | Howard Lichtman
Prague's Baroque Library.jpg
By Evan Rain, via Wired

PRAGUE - On a brisk but beautiful February afternoon, Jeffrey Martin and his robotic camera stand inside one of the Czech capital's most gawk-worthy attractions: the gloriously decorated Philosophical Hall, a Baroque reading room in the city's 868-year-old Strahov monastery library.

Though he's a photographer, the 34-year-old Martin doesn't seem to notice the rare books, ornate marquetry or heroic statues in the recently restored hall. He doesn't even glance at the historical figures in the massive fresco -- depicting "the intellectual progress of mankind" -- on the ceiling.

Instead, he is listening, carefully following the click-focus-click rhythm of his robot-controlled Canon 550D.

"I've gotten pretty good at recognizing the pattern," he says. "If the shutter doesn't click, I can jump up and hit pause."

Occasionally his robotically controlled camera can't find a focus within the few seconds the GigaPanBot has allotted for each shot in the dim indoor setting. So Martin listens, jumping up once in a while for a do-over, knowing that later he'll merge a few thousand of these pictures into what he's calling the world's largest indoor photograph: a 40-gigapixel, 360-degree image of the hall that weighs in at 283 GB.

The finished Strahov library panorama, released Tuesday on Martin's website, is a zoomable, high-resolution peek inside one of Prague's most beautiful halls, a repository of rare books that is usually off-limits to tourists (a few of whom can be seen standing behind the velvet rope at the room's normal viewing station).

Martin's panorama lets you examine the spines of the works in the Philosophical Hall's 42,000 volumes, part of the monastery's stunning collection of just about every important book available in central Europe at the end of the 18th century -- more or less the sum total of human knowledge at the time.

Martin got special permission from the library to pursue the project. He didn't, however, get permission to wear his street shoes indoors. He's complemented his fingerless gloves and down vest -- it's cold in here -- with a pair of oversize, felt-soled slippers for the sake of the polished parquet floor.

To capture the images, the German-made GigaPanBot sends the camera on a pattern that starts at the very top of the library, going back and forth in rows, working its way downward over five days of shooting.

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