Illuminated River in 360: the making of a Google Arts & Culture exhibition

Click play to view Illuminated River in 360

Delivered from the bridges of the Thames to the screens of your computer, the Illuminated River artwork can now be viewed in the round by millions of people across the globe, thanks to Google Arts & Culture.

Illuminated River is the first ever night-time public artwork in the UK to have partnered with Google Arts & Culture. The online platform has been digitising the world’s most treasured artefacts and monuments for almost a decade; widening access to the collections of over 1200 leading museums, heritage organisations and archives. It was clear from the outset that their mission spoke directly to the project aim of Illuminated River: to ensure that great art is free and publicly accessible for all to enjoy.

To mark the launch of Illuminated River on Google Arts & Culture, new 360 degree photography of the first four bridges of the project - London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium - was specially commissioned, offering a unique perspective of the Illuminated River artwork. The immersive images of the project can also be seen on Google Street View, allowing for millions of internet users to inadvertently discover the Illuminated River artwork via Google Maps and appreciate the Thames bridges as the remarkable architectural and historical landmarks they are.

Click play to view Illuminated River in 360

Google Arts & Culture is premiering seven new digital exhibitions curated by Illuminated River. These include a detailed overview of the project; an exhibition for each of the first four bridges; another devoted to the 360 photography commission; and finally ‘Creating a better lighting environment for the Thames’ highlighting the environmental considerations behind the illumination. The four bridge exhibitions will reveal the ways in which Leo Villareal’s artistic vision successfully exploits their unique architectural features. The exhibitions feature behind-the-scenes interviews with Leo Villareal and panoramic footage of the kinetic artwork, filmed by Paul Crawley, as well as audio-descriptions for each of the bridges created for partially-sighted and blind people, produced by Vocaleyes.

Capturing Illuminated River in 360

360 photos allow viewers to better understand the scale of the subject. It also allows the photo to be taken a lot closer to the subject than traditional images.

Ben Smart, 360 Photographer

The Illuminated River artwork is best experienced from the river itself, which made it essential for the majority of the 360 images of the bridges to be photographed from the centre of the Thames. On a harsh winter’s day, the Illuminated River team joined photographer Ben Smart aboard a City Cruises Thamesjet for a journey under the rivets of London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges, and learnt about the technical processes behind the 360 photography and how exactly he captured these mesmerising panoramic photographs. In his eight years as a 360 photographer (past projects including the documentation of Buckingham Palace), Ben confessed that the movement of the boat, buffeted by gusts of rain and changing tides made the Illuminated River 360 shoot, one of his most challenging yet.

Making a 360 image always requires shooting several images around 360 degrees, but shooting from a moving boat massively complicates this process. The most important piece of equipment is a good quality panoramic tripod head, which helps to pivot the camera around a central point; it has to be very precise to ensure that the lens is in spot. In order to capture multiple photographs of the bridges at night in quick succession, Ben said he had to use a very high ISO (light sensitivity setting) to avoid ending up with a “blurry mess”. The shifts in view altered with every rise and fall of the boat, thus resulting in the most painstaking of “stitching” processes to achieve the one smooth, coherent 360 image. Complex editing of this kind relies on specialist software; and Ben uses Ptgui and Autopano Giga.

Illuminated River’s exhibitions on Google Arts & Culture will encourage millions of virtual visitors to stroll the banks, cross the bridges, and sail along the river Thames and marvel at how artist Leo Villareal has painted with light.

Click here to experience Illuminated River in 360 and learn more about how the project is bringing the fascinating history, heritage and architecture of the first four bridges to life.