Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Statehood photomosaic poster

Photo credit: Craig Bauer

I have been taking photos of Alaskan license plates since 1996. People send me photos they took, or photos of their collection. I also save photos that I find on eBay and the Internet. My Alaska photo archive currently contains over 19,000 photos, representing 15,000+ unique Alaskan plate serial numbers and vanity strings (not counting pairs).

"Why?" seems to be a common question (way up there with "Are you crazy?" or "What the heck are you doing to the back of my car?") The main reason is that the more photos you have, the more you can tell about when various features of plates changed, etc. Partly for historical research, partly for collector information. But I've always wanted do something more.

A couple of years ago, I had the idea to make a photomosaic. After a long search for software that would handle license plate photos properly (see below), here are my dad and I holding the results of my first attempt!

How it was made

To create a photomosaic, you first collect a large pool of photos to use as tiles, and select a single photo to use as the base. The pool of photos are resized to match the tile size needed. The software then divides the single base photo into a grid of smaller sections, analyzing each section for color and brightness. Finally, the software analyzes each of the smaller photos for the best match on color and brightness, and assembles the final image.

Here's a close-up of the top-left corner of the image. You can click on it to see more detail.

The full image took seven hours to generate (on one core of an AMD Athlon X2 dual-core 2.4GHz processor running Ubuntu Linux). The software I used is a free, open-source package called Metapixel, for Linux and other Unix-like operating systems. (For Windows, I recommend the free AndreaMosaic, which lacked a key feature.)

I used Metapixel because it had the right features for the right price. Most importantly, it lets you specify the dimensions of the tiles. Most photomosaic software assumes a photograph's dimensions (3 by 5, etc.), but most plates are 6" x 12", so the photos come out stretched and the plates look wrong. Also, Metapixel is open source, and I'm a big fan of unencumbered software.

I had the resulting image printed as a 3' x 6' poster at the Kinko's in Grand Junction. (They were extremely helpful and friendly!) And thanks to my family for waiting in the car while I explained in great detail what I wanted to accomplish to the Kinko's folks!

Where it's been

I made the poster while I was home in Grand Junction because I was headed from there to the 2008 Convention of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association in Salt Lake City. The poster drew a comment or two, though most of the license plate folks are there to see license plates, not derivative artwork thereof. ;-) We weren't allowed to hang anything on the walls at the convention center, so I wrapped it around a column instead:

And here the poster's current home: in the hallway of the Benson Boulevard office of the Alaska DMV!

If you're at the Benson office and have a few minutes to kill (and who doesn't?), it's down the hallway to your right as you enter the building. Just turn right past the written driver test area.

So ... have enough photos now?


So this is one of the things I'm doing with the photos. I have other plans in the works. The more photos that I have (both for making mosaics, and for historical purposes), the better. I don't care if it's a 1921 or a vanilla blue-on-gold; I don't care if it's mint, covered in road tar, or half rusted through. Send me your photos!

Update 10:29pm: A couple of folks asked me how many individual images were in the poster. 115 plates wide by 119 plates high = 13,685 total license plate photos!

Update 9/10 7:09am: I can't believe that I forgot to thank the many people who made this possible! So many folks helped by sending me photos, giving me permission to use their photos, and letting me take photos of their plates at garage sales, at meets, in private collections, at the Museum, and on their cars. I couldn't have done it without you!

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