The Interpreter’s Guide to Depth Imaging

Scott MacKay

Scott MacKay
MacKay Consulting, Inc.

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013 – 11:30 AM MST
Telus Convention Centre – 8th Ave SE, Calgary


Compared to time migration, depth imaging should yield simpler structure, higher spatial and vertical resolution, and a more stable phase response. It is also the appropriate input for inversion and other attributes that estimate reservoir properties and mitigate risk. However, the interpreter must actively guide the depth-imaging process to ensure a reasonable, geologic result. This presentation reviews the planning and QC of depth imaging projects in a manner that establishes an appropriate dialogue between the interpreter and the processor.

Planning a depth-imaging project begins with the bidding. The company (or companies) selected must provide the level of technology suitable for the interpretive goals. As such, the dialogue should include:

  • Defining deliverables in terms of interpretive goals
  • Establishing a minimalist approach to initial time processing
  • Choosing appropriate migration and tomography algorithm(s)
  • Establishing the target (final) velocity resolution
  • Defining a schedule for the tomographic updates
  • Ensuring deliverables are compatible with 3rd-party software

When beginning the imaging process, a critical step is the formation of the initial velocity model. Figure 1 is an example of an acceptable, smoothly-varying model. It is becoming popular to introduce shallow, refraction-based velocity solutions. In general, the addition of detail early in velocity-model formation must be approached cautiously.

Fig. 01
Figure 1: Initial depth-imaging velocity model.

Depth imaging is an iterative procedure that seeks to add detail to the velocity model by means of tomographic refinement. Therefore, early in the planning of a project, it is important to establish realistic goals for the resolution we may expect from tomographic updates. Figure 2 illustrates an intuitive approach to establishing the target velocity resolution for an anomaly assumed to be halfway between the surface and the reflector. Basically, hyperbolic scanning of (offset = depth muted) gathers can only resolve an anomaly having a width equal to the depth of the reflector. A simple 3rd-order fit can resolve a narrower anomaly within the “ray” coverage of the gather. By establishing the target velocity resolution we may next establish a well-defined start and end of the tomographic-update process that avoids introduction of excessive velocity detail and potential instability in the solutions.

Fig. 02
Figure 2: Establishing target-velocity resolution.

During depth imaging it is important for the interpreter to utilize geologically-intuitive data QCs to ensure reasonable results. The QCs are always reviewed sequentially from the initial model to the current iteration. The data are reviewed as in-lines, cross-lines, and depth sections that include:

  • Depth Images: Better focusing and structurally simpler?
  • Velocity and Delta-Velocity: A minimum of velocity bubbles?
  • Tomographic Ray Density: Eliminate updates from areas of low coverage?
  • Common-Image Point (CIP) Gathers: Progressively flatter (but not completely)?

The criteria for a successful iteration are better focusing and simpler structure. Note in Figure 3 the sequence of depth images showing both the qualities described. Another important data review involves the CIP gathers. Figure 4 demonstrates that the goal of tomography is to achieve relatively flat gathers within the target velocity resolution. Perfectly flat gathers would likely yield non-geologic velocities and potential instability in the tomographic solutions.

Fig. 03
Figure 3: Sequential improvement (left to right) in focusing with iterations of tomography.
Fig. 04
Figure 4: Sequential flattening of gathers with iterations (left to right).

After isotropic depth imaging, depth calibration with formation tops consists of vertical corrections to the depth volume to tie the well control. For anisotropic depth imaging, calibration is more intricate as the formation tops are used as constraints in the vertical velocity field and the anisotropic parameter estimates during the iterative updates. Therefore, another important interpreter goal is:

  • Database Validation: Establish consistency between formation tops and seismic horizons

Figure 5 shows depth-difference maps (seismic horizon depth minus formation tops) before and after editing. The map on the left contains local “bubbles” indicating problematic seismic ties to the formation tops. Corrections were made to the KBs, deviation surveys, and interpreted tops resulting in the smoother map on the right. Since errors in the database result in errors in the anisotropic parameters, early detection prevents the formation of a compromised depth image.

Fig. 05
Figure 5: Unedited depth-difference map (left) and edited (right).

Stable depth-imaging results allow for the optimal extraction of information from the seismic. After depth calibration, they are also ideally suited for input to inversion and reservoir modeling. Figure 6 shows prestack azimuthal inversion to Fast and Slow Shear Impedance. High-resolution inversions yield the details needed to better define the combined effects of lithologic variations (density, incompressibility, and rigidity) and directional fracturing and/or stress fields.

Fig. 06
Figure 6: Fast Shear Impedance (left), Slow Shear Impedance (right) from azimuthal inversion (AVOAz).

In summary, the translation of the seismic response to measurements of significance to drilling and development engineers remains a challenge in the drilling-dominated “resource plays”. Depth imaging is established as the only viable approach to creating attributes that truly mitigate risk. It is the interpreter’s responsibility to guide this process.


Scott MacKay is a petroleum geoscientist with over 30 years of experience. He graduated from Colorado School of Mines in 1979 with a Master’s Degree in Geophysics and started working with Tenneco Oil in Denver as an exploration geophysicist developing structural and stratigraphic plays. He joined Tenneco’s Special Projects Group in Houston in 1986 integrating the efforts of multidisciplinary teams in areas including the Bahamas Carbonate Platform, North Slope, Offshore Gabon, North Sea, Colombia, and the Gulf of Mexico. He joined (now) WesternGeco in 1988 as a research geophysicist developing new methods for imaging complex structures using prestack depth migration. In 1992 he obtained his Ph.D. from the University Houston and was appointed Manager of R&D for WesternGeco in Denver where he also served as World-wide Coordinator for Depth Imaging, Time-lapse Reservoir Characterization, and Multicomponent Imaging. Scott has been granted five U.S. patents and has numerous publications on applying innovative and practical solutions to exploration and exploitation challenges. Scott became an independent consultant in 2003 working international projects and advising on the application of new technologies and their impact on risk reduction.