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Procession of the Saints
THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN EXTRAORDINARY 360˚ VIRTUAL PANORAMA
In 1989, I was commissioned to photograph a major mosaic installation newly completed by Italian artist and iconographer SIRIO TONELLI in the dome of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles. Titled "Procession of the Saints," the mosaic includes 24 life-size figures portraying Christ, the Archangels and Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church.
SAINT SOPHIA CATHEDRAL, LOS ANGELES
Saint Sophia Cathedral Interior
My assignment was to capture on large-format film the individual mosaics flanked by stained glass windows. The mosaic was accessible from a platform atop a 100-foot (30-meter) scaffold. My assistant and I climbed the steps up to the platform several times a day for more than a week, to do the photography during a severe heat wave in Los Angeles.
BEFORE MOSAIC WAS INSTALLED

Saint Sophia Cathedral Dome BEFORE
LOOKING DOWN FROM THE CATWALK

view from scaffold
PREPARATIONS BELOW PLATFORM

working on the scaffold
photographing mosaics
SHOOTING THE PHOTOGRAPHS

The physical task of photographing the artwork involved hoisting the camera and lighting equipment up onto a narrow catwalk with a rope and pulley, then lifting it through a hole onto the platform. My assistant and I climbed the steps several times a day for more than a week during a severe heat wave in Los Angeles.

The stifling atmosphere trapped above the platform in the dome was nearly unbearable, especially when compounded by heat from my modeling lights. Only a small fan could be used, because any vibration of the platform would have degraded image sharpness. The scaffold was very shaky, even with wedges inserted around the periphery of the platform to stabilize.

Shot from a central camera position, the sequence in which to photograph each of the mosaic figures needed to be timed according to the position of the sun, to provide sufficient rear-illumination of the stained glass windows. Fairly long exposures were needed, as I held my breath to keep from shaking the platform. Flash units with polarizing filters were placed and directed to provide evenness of illumination, definition of the tiles’ relief, and highlighting of the gold-leafed tiles. Flash was balanced with the ambient light through the stained glass windows.

CATHEDRAL DOME HEMISPHERICAL VIEW UPWARD
(Composite of circular fisheye photo and warped cylindrical panorama of mosaic)

Saint Sophia Cathedral Dome BEFORE
How the 360˚ Virtual Panorama evolved

About a decade later, Apple introduced QuickTime VR Authoring Suite, the ground-breaking software for seamlessly stitching digital images together and mapping to a cylinder for interactive viewing on a computer screen. I conceived the idea that this series of images would make an ideal subject for a 360˚ virtual panorama.

The panorama stitching was challenging because I had not captured the mosaic images using a panoramic camera rig to align the lens’ entrance pupil with a center of rotation. Due to the resulting parallax differentiation, processing the images and tweaking the stitching parameters took more than a week, but I felt the effort was worthwhile.

More recently, HTML-5 formatting of 360˚ virtual panoramas became available, and linked below is my presentation of the high resolution panorama. Computer users everywhere can now view the glorious color and detail of the lifesize mosaic figures. Here, the parishioners will see them close up, where previously they would have needed binoculars — one might say, questionable etiquette in a church :)

Preview: Saint Sophia Dome Mosaic 360˚ Virtual Panorama