Pano-Vision, Part 2

“All objects lose by too familiar a view.”
   -John Dryden

Making panoramic images is great fun. It's addicting. Do only that for a while, and making normal, single-frame images seems limiting, or somehow unchallenging. Of course this isn't true. Addictions alter one's perspective; in this case it becomes necessary to “come down”, and remember the goal; to tell a story, to make a visual statement, to create art. Eventually the realization dawns that it's enjoyable to create both types of work. Large, wide photos aren't appropriate for every subject. It's also true that for some subjects and some shooting conditions, it's not practical to set up for multi-frame panoramas. But when the vision demands it, when conditions are right for it, the wide view can result in dramatic and finely detailed photographs, as much fun to create as they are to view.

Part one of this article describes the equipment I use to capture multi-frame images. In this conclusion I'll show several of my panoramas and tell the stories behind them. The small pictures shown here can't adequately show the fine detail, but when printed large it is often stunning. These pictures were assembled using the Photomerge® application included with Adobe® Photoshop®. With Photoshop CS5, Photomerge is greatly improved over earlier versions. CS5 is able to successfully stitch captures that couldn't be assembled before. Photomerge generally works well enough, and is reasonably fast on my Mac Pro with 16 gigabytes of memory and a fast (SSD) scratch disk. I've not used other stitching software, but there are several products available. As I do more panorama work I'll be investigating, looking for software that doesn't have the issues I've experienced with Photomerge.

The Agony of the Feet

Often in spring I go to Freezeout Lake to photograph the hundreds of thousands of snow geese that pass through the area on their way to their arctic breeding grounds. It's a beautiful area; there are opportunities to photograph the landscape as well. I have photos of “bird clouds”, the sky so full of birds the landscape is completely hidden. I have scenic/landscape photos of the Rocky Mountain Front and the hills around the lakes. I wanted a photo showing the landscape, the lakes, and the birds' relation to both. In March of 2009 I got the photo I had in mind.

Thousands of snow geese on Freezeout Lake, Choteau, MT, U.S.

“(5)0,000 Snow Geese”, Freezeout Lake, March, 2009. Click (or tap) for a larger view.

In part one of this article I mention it's possible to capture frames for panoramas without special-purpose gear. This is one of those pictures. It was made from six vertical frames shot with my 100-400mm zoom at 130mm, F:14, 1/500 second, ISO 320, + 1/3 stop. The lens has a tripod collar which puts the nodal point over the tripod head so there's little parallax error to correct when the frames are stitched together. Making such a scenic is usually simple: determine the composition, set up and level the camera and lens, and then pan across the scene making exposures with significant overlap. In this case, however, I wanted something more dynamic—some action or movement in the final image.

The lakes were frozen when I arrived. Open water appeared far from shore during the several days I spent there. Great numbers of snow geese, along with tundra swans and other waterfowl, gathered in the open areas. I stood on the ice near shore practicing the technique that resulted in this photo. Waiting until a small group of birds flew in to view some distance away on my left, I panned from right to left, making exposures as I panned, each just a few seconds after the last. When the camera was positioned where I wanted the birds I waited several additional seconds, perhaps as long as a minute, for the birds to arrive in the frame. I made that exposure, and then a couple more as I continued panning the scene to the left. Reviewing my results in the hotel that evening I found I had lots of frames of bird heads, bird tails, and bird blurs. A few of the bird frames were almost what I wanted, but lack of sharpness or other issues meant I needed more practice and perhaps a bit of luck.

Section of the full image at actual pixels (100%)

Full size (actual pixels) section from the large picture.

The panorama above is the result of two days on the ice. I wasn't sure my feet would ever be warm again. The five foreground snow geese are all (just barely) in a single frame. The white “ice” you can see on the horizon is tens of thousands of snow geese on open water. I've made several prints of this in the 42—48 inch (107—123 cm) wide range. In a large print the individual birds are small, but clearly defined, as you can see in the detail photo at left. Much larger prints from the final image file are possible.


Thanks to lack of maintenance, the only public fishing pier in Polson, Montana has for years been decaying and falling into Flathead Lake. When we moved here in 2003 a rip-rap filled log causeway led to the middle of the wooden pier, resulting in a T-shaped structure. A few years ago one upper arm of the T collapsed. The city's repair consisted of installing a makeshift fence across the broken end of the pier. Soon after, part of the remaining decking broke loose from its log supports. Another chunk of fencing “fixed” that. I have made photos of the pier at each stage of its increasing decrepitude.

The city and the tribes (this is on the Flathead Indian Reservation) finally came to a funding agreement, resulting in a plan and the eventual start of work to make a nice park of the area and to replace the pier. Clearly, the old pier didn't didn't have much time left. I knew either gravity or bulldozers would soon bring it down, so I determined to get a final photo, one that could be printed very large while maintaining great detail.

Pier on Flathead Lake, Polson, MT, March, 2011.

“Final Days”, Pier on Flathead Lake, March, 2011. Click for a larger view.

During January and February of 2011 I drove down to the pier dozens of times to check weather and lighting conditions. Even when neither was great I'd shoot a few frames, some as single exposures, others as frames for panoramas. I was hoping for nice morning light on the pier and fog on the lake to obscure the islands out beyond the bay. The photo here isn't exactly what I had in mind; the fog and falling snow do hide the islands, but I didn't get the warm light I'd wanted. Still, I'm happy with the result. This was made from 26 vertical frames, 100mm, F:16, 1/20 second, ISO 100. I have many variations of this image, in sun, clouds, fog, and snow. On the morning this panorama was made I noticed a stack of steel I-beams had been delivered to the parking area near the boat ramp. Three weeks later the bulldozers arrived and demolished the pier. I expect the I-beams will be used to build a safe and character-free fishing pier. We'll see.

Section of the full image at actual pixels (100%)

Full size (actual pixels) section from the center of the large picture.

A section of the full image is shown here. This is from about the center of the picture, and is shown at “actual pixels”, or zoomed in to 100%. You can see the detail in the wood and ice, and the ducks swimming just the other side of the pier. Because the final cropped photo is a file about 70 megapixels large, the level of detail is quite high, as is true for all of these stitched images. Very large prints can be made from these files.

Deep and Wide

My wife and I visit Glacier National Park regularly, although less frequently during the summer crowd season. In winter, when most of Going-To-The-Sun Road is closed and access to the park's interior is somewhat limited, there are no crowds. It can feel like having a million acres to ourselves, even when we don't stray far from Lake McDonald and other easily accessed areas near the park's west entrance. As in summer, the weather can be quite variable. There are spectacularly beautiful sunny days, but more often the sky is gray and gloomy. There are frequent storms and lots of snow. For photography, the very best conditions are often something in between sunny and stormy. There's plenty of that, too.

Sunrise reflections in Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

“Sunrise Reflections, Lake McDonald”, Stanton Mountain, Mt. Vaught, the Highline, Mount Cannon, and Mount Brown reflected in Glacier's Lake McDonald, photographed on the 2011 vernal equinox.

March is still deep winter in Glacier; there's endless snow and ice. Lake McDonald typically will have ice at the edges, but is rarely frozen across at this time of year. This photo was made at sunrise on the vernal equinox (March) from a spot along the lake's edge near the Lake McDonald lodge (which is closed in winter). The 45 megapixel image is two rows of six horizontal frames, 48mm, F:16 at 1/160 second, ISO 250. Heavy fog drifted across the lake, obscuring the mountains, and then dissipated, leaving us in bright sunshine. This repeated every few minutes. The sky was intensely blue during the clear periods, making the lake a similar hue, as you'd expect. It was a bit over the top, so a conversion to black and white, with a red filter to darken the blues, resulted in the best picture.

Endless Possibilities

The efforts presented here are modest. Full, 360° panoramas can be made. Images can be assembled from dozens, even hundreds of exposures. The technique can be used for vertical images, too. I've made a few with good results. I've also made images from only two or three stitched exposures, resulting in photos that are nearly square. This is an interesting format and one I intend to explore. The creative possibilities are endless.

April, 2011

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