Behind the scenes with a Google trusted photographer

Businesses across the world are being photographed as part of Google's mapping and Street View services. We spoke with a Google trusted photographer about how these images are taken.

Across Australia and the world, Google trusted photographers are taking detailed images of businesses for inclusion on Google Maps, Street View and search results.

(Screenshot by CBSi)

Since May 2011, Google has offered businesses the chance to have the interior of their store profiled by professional photographers, so that customers can stroll through the location virtually. The service has expanded across the country since its inception, with 19 photographers currently offering their services to businesses for a set fee. Potential clients contact the photographer directly, and then their images and photographic tour appear on Google Maps within days.

John Warkentin is a Google trusted photographer based in Melbourne, and a top performer in the program. With a background in the engineering and explosives industry, Warkentin moved to Australia from Canada in 1999, and has been involved extensively in panoramic and professional photography since 2002.

He is the photographer behind the Street View tour of Michaels camera store in Melbourne, and he gave us an insight into the Google trusted photographers program.

Getting started

Google's photography program first came onto Warkentin's radar around three years ago, when he was shooting a panoramic image in a Melbourne restaurant. Later, he found out that a Google photographer had also shot the location, with the search giant providing the service free to businesses.

Finding out more information about the Google photographers program proved to be difficult in its early stages. While there was much online discussion about the program among the panoramic imaging community, very little was known about the process itself. Eventually, Warkentin found some existing panoramas, including one from the same restaurant that he had shot previously, within the business listings on Google Maps.

An example of one of Warkentin's fine art "Little Planets" photos, in Times Square, New York City. See a full 360-degree interactive panorama here. (Credit: John Warkentin)

After getting in touch with Google and showing the company his existing portfolio, he managed to get a trial run. "The next part of the process was to study Google's training material, and complete a test to prove I understood the concepts presented. After I completed this part of the process, I needed to shoot some samples to Google's standards for quality-control purposes."

At this stage, there was just one Google-approved lens — a Sigma 8mm circular fish-eye — and a small number of SLR bodies that were allowed. Because Warkentin's existing kit, including a full-frame fish-eye lens, wasn't on the approved equipment list, he needed to downgrade to get into the system.

The problem was that he didn't have the required lens. A trip to Michaels camera store in Melbourne's city centre was required, where he found the last one in stock and picked it up. It was there that he got chatting to store owner Peter Michael about his existing panoramic portfolio, and discussed the possibility of profiling the interior of the store for a Google Tour. By the time the wheels were in motion, Warkentin had already completed his first tour profiling the interior of another camera store, Borges Imaging.

A panorama of Darling Harbour, Sydney. See the full version here. (Credit: John Warkentin)

"Interestingly, the day I met with Peter at his shop to go over the details was the same day Google finally tied the Street View database to the interior panoramas. This was the key to changing everything for this product," he said.

"At the same time, the 'tours' now worked on iOS — both iPhone and iPad via maps. This meant one could demo the product anywhere you had a phone handy, 15 seconds with a possible client and some 3G internet."

Before commencing a shoot, photographers and the client or business need to sign an agreement. Photographers transfer ownership and intellectual property rights to their images over to the business, with Google able to display and store those images in delivering a range of services. The photographer sets a fee for their services — and Google doesn't take any money from the agreement.

The Google kit

By the time the shoot had rolled around, Google had approved the use of the Canon 8-15mm f/4 L fish-eye lens. In conjunction with the Canon EOS 7D, Warkentin now had a kit more suitable for his needs.

"I really wanted to use that lens for his shoot to push the system to its limits ... Peter had no problem, and just pulled one of the lenses out of inventory so we could test it out on his Google shoot."

Warkentin said that the fast burst rate of the 7D makes it ideal for Google's three-exposure HDR system. On top of the 7D and lens, he also uses a panoramic head, the Manfrotto QTVR 303SPH, which needs to be mounted on a sturdy tripod.

Warkentin's Manfrotto head, with a different camera and lens than what he uses for Google shoots. (Credit: John Warkentin)

Some interior views found on Street View and business photos can show the footprint of the tripod, as seen in this example. To get around this, Warkentin came up with a quick fix.

"All I did was mount a taped-up CD-ROM to the bottom of my tripod to give me a repeatable 'stop' for pulling the tripod legs in against. This then required the hanging of a 5kg shot bag from the tripod to give it some more stability. I often do that anyway, as a 'heavy' tripod is always best for better image quality."

This makes for a much smaller footprint, and produces a much more desirable effect, as demonstrated in this view.

On location

A typical shoot starts with a few panoramas outside the location, to help bridge them with the existing Street View nodes. From there, the photographer will walk through the business, "keeping in mind how a human would move in the same space. We don't jump through walls or hop over furniture (for the most part)".

"The panoramic tour images are key to this product, and as such I put most of my effort into planning and shooting them," he said.

Warkentin's interior of Port Melbourne Cycles. Click the image to see the full version on Google Maps.
(Screenshot by CBSi)

On average, Warkentin can get a big location done in 90 minutes, and a small, cafe-sized location in 30. Providing that the business is well laid out, he can capture 30 to 40 panoramas per hour while on-site.

As is the case with regular Street View imagery, any faces need to be blurred out due to privacy issues.

"My job as photographer is to work with this system and make the most of it. I need to predict motion that will cause problems, and do my best to mitigate it. I may not have much control over camera positions — but I control the shutter, and I must do my best to make sure the 'time of capture' is the correct, or at least the best it can be given a difficult shooting environment."

 

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