HDRI and laserscanning the pyramids of Tikal.
by Michelle Bienias

In the forests of Guatemala’s El Petén region lie the ruined cities of one of the world’s great ancient cultures, the Maya. Tikal was the largest and one of the most important urban centers of Mayan culture during its time, around 500AD. The massive ruins are concentrated at the center of the Tikal National Park (222 square miles), 40 miles from the city of Flores. Tikal is part of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve and is the only region of the world that has been declared both Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO.


Chaka Acropolis mid-sunset
Temple 1 Top South Temple 2 Top Corner

Today, visitors to the largest excavated ancient Mayan city can begin to imagine what it was like at its peak, when it sustained some 200,000 people within its 30 square miles. Around 870AD construction slowed, likely due to overpopulation and the resulting destruction of forests, soil and other resources, and by the 10th century Tikal was completely deserted.

The ruins were officially discovered in 1848 and restoration began in the 1950s. The Ruins area is about 10 square miles, a small percentage of the site. The fraction of Tikal’s estimated 3,000 buildings that have been excavated reveal temples, shrines, ceremonial platforms, small and mid-sized dwellings, ball courts, terraces, religious monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, causeways and plazas, most interconnected with aqueducts. Only about a dozen have been reconstructed or excavated to any degree while the vast majority is high mounds covered with lush vegetation.

Tikal is also a nature lovers paradise boasting 285 species of recorded birds, hundreds of orchid species and more than 30 hardwood species. Wildlife abounds: howling monkeys, toucans, hawks and parrots are home in the subtropical jungle, amidst trees measuring up to 150 feet in height and endless hanging vines known as lianas; Jaguar, puma, Occidental turkeys, ocelot and snakes can also be found.

Greg Downing, an expert in panoramic and HDR photography, had just finished work on the movie Narnia when he was approached to work in Tikal, primarily to shoot HDRIs that will be used in conjunction with a laserscanning project for UNESCO. In our interview Downing discusses the nature of and his involvement with the project, how 3D modeling and laserscanning were used, and the obstacles unique to jungle photography.


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