Walking Inside Your Photographs


by Matthew Gibson, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia

EV editor Matthew Gibson adjusts a camera used to take Google Street View images at Scotchtown, the Patrick Henry estate.
EV editor Matthew Gibson adjusts a camera used to take Google Street View images at Scotchtown, the Patrick Henry estate.

Since 2013, VFH’s Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) has been working with Google Earth Outreach to document Virginia historic sites using Google’s Street View technology. The results of EV‘s work to date are more than a dozen immersive, 360-degree virtual tours that allow people—whether they are across the street or on a different continent—to “walk” through places such as Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest or the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum.

While our work to capture Virginia’s historic sites has required specialized equipment and training, some recent efforts on Google’s part make creating and sharing virtual experiences much easier.

Here are a couple tools you can use to capture and share your favorite places (whether historic or just cool) with nothing more than a smartphone.

Google Street View App

With the Google Street View app you can tour the ruins at Pompeii, look for chimpanzees while strolling through Gombe National Forest, or (thanks to EV) explore James Madison’s Montpelier—all with your phone. But even better and more important, with the app you can create and publish your own Street Views.

Google Street View App
Google Street View App

If you are in a place that you want to capture so that everyone can walk through it, just take out your phone. Open up the Street View app and choose the “Camera” option. From there just follow the prompts on the screen to take the photographs that will eventually get stitched together to become your “photosphere,” a fancy word for a 360-degree picture.

A few words of advice: first, take your time, second, try and hold your arms very still. Lock your arms in place and imagine that the phone has a plumb line dangling from it to one spot on the ground as this will minimize image distortion. Last but not least, don’t forget to photograph the space above and below you—those are what really create the entire spherical image.

You might feel a little silly doing this the first time. But when you see your photosphere published in Google maps and realize you’ve made it possible for the whole world to virtually stand in that same place, you’ll know it was worthwhile.


While the virtual tours we create for EV continue to elicit “oooohhhhs” and “aaahhhs” from teachers and other users the larger goal for us—and I think for anyone interested in telling stories—is to make these virtual tours into curated experiences, not just passive consumables. We want people to learn about what they’re seeing while they’re inside the virtual space. Combining textual, audio, and/or video information with immersive panoramic photography makes virtual reality a more educational experience.


Storysphere—another Google application—is a big step in that direction. With Storyshpere you can upload a 360-degree photo and place audio clips into the virtual space. It’s easy to imagine how this could be used to change the way we experience oral histories, or interact with museum collections.

Mapping the Humanities

In August, VFH and Google Earth Outreach got together again to share what we’d learned through our partnership. Together, we hosted a two-day workshop called Mapping the Humanities. With representatives from organizations such as the Maryland and Washington, D.C., humanities councils, Preservation Virginia, the Library of Virginia, and the Virginia Natural History Museum, the workshop gave participants a crash course in how to customize and add data to Google Maps, create Google Earth visualizations, and publish photospheres. As part of the workshop we even published our own Storysphere.

Creating immersive experiences that connect history and place is getting easier every day. Most of the tools are free and simple to use. If you can upload photos to Facebook, chances are you can create a photoshpere. We encourage you to explore the history around you, capture it, and share it with the world through the tools Google has made available to all of us.

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