Story and Photography by Gary Crabbe
One of the more challenging photographic projects I’ve had the privilege to work on came about several years ago as a result of an assignment for an architectural design firm. It started off the same way most incoming assignments do, with me sitting quietly in my office when the phone rings.
When I answered the phone for this project, a gentleman on the other end told me that he had looked at some images of redwood trees on my website. He was working on an interior design project for a hotel renovation in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California. The theme of the redesign was nature-oriented, and since Santa Cruz is situated more towards the southern end of the 400-mile-long habitat belt for the redwood trees, his design team wanted to include the redwoods as a predominant part of their plans. The registration desk in the lobby was going to be modeled after a fallen redwood tree, and they wanted to create a meeting room that would embody being inside a redwood forest.
I was expecting to be asked how much it might cost for a large six, eight, or possibly ten-foot-long photographic mural to be made from one of my photographs. So not a beat was skipped when I was told they were looking for a big print of redwoods to be used in the meeting room. What did cause a few beats to be skipped was when it was revealed they were looking for a single panoramic redwood forest photograph to be printed 10 feet x 80 feet in semi-opaque fashion and printed in glass, which would then be placed onto three of the four room walls in an unbroken seamless presentation.
I met the design team in their downtown San Francisco office and got to see some mockups of what they had presented to their hotel client. I was then asked if I could successfully create a specific photograph of a redwood forest to achieve their design goals and preserve the best possible printing quality at that size, deliver a print-ready file at actual size at 300 dpi. Like many photographers being handed the opportunity for a choice assignment, the reply was a quick and reassuring, “Sure, I can do that.”
I planned on shooting various redwood forest scenes over the course of two days and provide the design firm with a dozen possible candidates. They could then select the one that would eventually be used.
The first consideration was based on the size and quality the client wanted. The best solution was for shooting each scene as a multi-row panoramic photo. Getting a native 1:8 ratio image that also properly reflected the height of the redwood trees would be difficult, so I searched for scenes that had an approximate 270-degree field-of-view.
The other primary consideration was to have an open and inviting feeling to the scene, as if you could walk right into the forest. They didn’t want a lot of sky in the image, since that would introduce distracting bright visual elements into the composition, just as they do with many other types of scenes.
Given these considerations, I made the decision to head up to the redwood forests of Humboldt and Del Norte counties in the northern part of California. I knew the redwood forests near Santa Cruz had a completely different understory, which usually consisted of a much denser, uninviting brush, whereas the more northern groves had more of a fern-laden forest floor that provided the more open sense of space that the client wanted in the finished image.
The final selected image was a panoramic photo that combined nearly 80 frames stitched together using Adobe Photoshop. The file was resized to client specifications for delivery at the actual 10 feet x 80 feet size at 300 dpi, which meant my computer turned out an 8-bit color file for printing that was a whopping 32 GB in size. However, despite the design firm’s best intentions, they were immediately informed by the print lab that its machine was incapable of working from such a large file. So for all the computer work and effort needed to deliver the biggest, best quality file possible, the fact remained that the lowest common denominator in the whole process was the actual printer itself, which required downsizing the file to 100 dpi at nearly one-quarter of the intended size before the machine could render the print. Still, once it was done, the finished product turned out to be awesome. I had the privilege of seeing the finished installation in person when the hotel had its grand reopening six months later.
Gary Crabbe is a widely published nature photographer who, fresh out of college, went to work for Galen Rowell, managing his stock photography. In addition to many magazine and advertising credits, Gary has written seven books, including the award-winning The California Coast. His murals and prints are in both private and corporate collections and he is a popular workshop leader and lecturer. To see more of Gary’s work, visit his website at http://enlightphoto.com.