STICHING TOGETHER A PANORAMA

July 16, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

WILLAMETTE PANORAMA: FINAL VERSION 1:3

This week I'd like to explore the possibilities afforded by computer post-processing to create a different kind of wide angle image than photographers could make even in the recent past. All of the images in this essay are the result of this computer daring-do, and would be impossible for me to create in camera. While they might have different final aspect ratios, they are all the result of creating a panorama image.

Everyone has a different "way of seeing", and most artists as they begin to differentiate their work and gravitate towards their style realize that their best images seem to embody their natural viewpoint. I realized that I have long been disposed towards the telephoto end of the scale, focusing on what I call "snippets", parts of the whole, rather than the grand viewpoint that  seeks to capture the entire vista. It's just what I seem to like and find visually satisfying. I also tend to gravitate towards vertical images, which began with my interest in architectural subjects which tend to be vertical, and expanded from there. It is often said that a photographer who tends toward the vertical dreams of the magazine cover instead of the two-page spread, and that might be true as well. It finally occurred to me how vertically-oriented I had become when I realized that even most of my square-cropped images, destined to become photo-coasters, were actually taken as verticals.  It was then that the cheapskate in me finally let myself purchase a vertical grip for my camera. This accessory allows you to capture vertical shots without doing a yoga move to push a shutter button which is now in the "wrong place." They usually allow for an extra battery, and provide duplicate controls which allow for shutter release, focusing, and exposure modification with your right hand on the top right corner of the camera when it is vertically oriented. Of course this adds more bulk and weight to an already large rig, which as usual makes me wonder why the average horizontally-oriented photographer would ever opt for this accessory.

PITTOCK  MANSION PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 1:3

Another reason for my telephoto bias is simply because I never really allowed myself to purchase a real wide angle lens, even though I actually needed one. I started out honing my photographic skills because I needed to take photos of my architectural work for my portfolio. I couldn't begin to afford the fees of a professional architectural photographer, so I had to do it myself. Thus I inflicted myself on my clients, who generally played along and even staged my shots to some degree, even while they couldn't understand why I needed to spend hours taking four or five rolls of film of their new addition. Of course most of them didn't realize that a "real photographer" would have arrived with a staff and taken most of a day to take two photographs. The real problem I found in substituting for a pro was that I didn't own a wide angle lens, the kind of lens that allows a Manhattan kitchen to look like someone could actually cook dinner there instead of just opening the fridge for left-over takeout. Even when I bought a reasonably priced wide angle lens, a 28 mm, I soon realized that I really needed 24mm or even 20 mm for interior architectural shots. I finally bit the bullet and rented a real wide angle zoom for my camera to capture a project, and probably doomed my chances forever of purchasing additional lenses. My wife Fran noticed the new lens, and not so peacefully inquired if I had made such a flagrantly willy-nilly luxury purchase. When I assured her that I had rented the lens for the weekend for $30 instead of buying it for $1800, she made a "lady Justice balancing the scales" motion that became a standard in our house.

WEST HILLS PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 1:3

 

So when I encountered the grand vista in the landscape, I usually couldn't take the standard wide-angle shot. And when I did take out the 28mm, I was invariably disappointed with the results. You see a wide angle lens takes in more of the view because it reduces the size of the actual main subject - the stereotypical mountain appears smaller in the landscape than in your memories. I won't bore your with the inevitable debate that the focal length of the lens doesn't really change the perspective - rest assured that the actual appearance of your image changes. The relationship between distant objects and the foreground changes drastically. Thus landscape photographers realize the importance of foreground interest since the boulder two feet away appears as the same size as the mountain in the distance. And urban photographers soon revel in their shots of NYC streets that appear to contain ten times as many pedestrians as they already do in reality. Telephoto views flatten perspective, so that I realized that my vertical, telephoto images frequently resembled Japanese screens more than anything else. My standard "walk-around lens" became a 100-300 mm zoom, and my perspective was set.

STONEHENGE PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 1:3

It was only when I shifted to digital that I realized something had to change. My new camera's smaller sensor had converted my lens into a 160-460 mm zoom, and even I realized that 160 mm was a little too narrow view of the world at the wide end. I purchase a new zoom which was 28-135 mm, which converted to about 45-200 mm on my new camera. 45 mm is about the natural eye viewpoint, which of course seemed incredibly wide-angle to me. But while I appreciated the new wide angle views of the city, those grand vistas still seemed as disappointing as ever. You see I had gotten used to the level of detail I achieved in my telephoto images, which was not available in a wide-angle shot until you somehow enlarge it beyond the size of my walls, the pixels of my camera, or my budget for purchasing prints of enormous size.

BURNSIDE PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 1:1.7

Enter the possibilities of digital post-processing. I have been a devoted Lightroom user ever since Lightroom 2, and even though I make do with Lightroom 5, from about a dozen years ago, I still rely on the program for most of my editing needs. I've read most of the hundreds of Lightroom books on the market (reading books is the way I learn best) and even follow a lot of guys on You Tube who assure me that their way is "the way" to achieve post-processing greatness. My age and cheapness has not allowed me to subscribe to the newer versions of Lightroom, in the probably mistaken belief that above all, always avoid recurring payments. At $10 a month, I've probably saved the thousands of dollars over the years to actually afford the ink I have bought to print my images. And since Lightroom 5 seems to still work for me, and Adobe still hasn't pulled the plug, I have not seen the need to "improve" my software.

FREMONT BRIDGE PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 1:3

My contrarian tendencies were helped when I did purchase another software suite on a very big sale a few years ago from what turned out to be a local Portland software company, On One. This was designed as an "add-on" to Lightroom, and some of the features appealed to me, since they were exactly what was missing from my ancient versions of Lightroom. The most important included a feature that allowed for completely unreasonable enlargement of images with very, very little loss of detail, perfect for  the enlargements of my images that high rollers wanted for their vast Pearl District walls. Another feature allowed for the quick erasure of offending sensor dust, visual distractions, or even people from images which sometimes seemed almost miraculous. So even though I have stopped getting new versions of the On One Suite since my old laptop can't handle them (if it isn't one thing, it's another), I still recommend it for photographers who want some newer miracles without a subscription.

WILLAMETTE PANORAMA #2 : FINAL VERSION 1 :3.5

One of these miracles which I began to investigate was the opportunity to create wide-angle images from a combination of normal or telephoto shots taken by seemingly applying the principles of creative multiple views that fascinated Modern painters. While Picasso might confuse the issue by showing a face in profile and frontally at the same time, the Cubists showed that multiple views could elucidate as well as complicate our views of a subject. Photographers had long taken advantage of the possibilities of the formerly mistaken multiple exposure. There was also the virtues of the photo essay, where multiple story-telling images combined to show more of the "truth" than one single image could.

                                                                                     GORGE WATERFALL PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 3.5:1

Around the turn of this century the painter David Hockney began to experiment with what he called "multiples" which showed much more of a scene than was seemingly possible by combining multiple images into a grid of Polaroids, with no attempt to hide the grid. Thus a Scrabble game could be shown as one image that showed all of the players, the room, and multiple views of the board all at the same time. Hockney soon tried the same thing with grids of 4x6 drugstore prints - now he could get more cubist by overlapping images. These assemblages relied on glue, and were one-offs, although I only saw them because they were then photographed themselves.

                                                                                   EMPIRE STATE PANORAMA  FINAL VERSION 3.5:1

Enter the computer. While I had experimented with some Hockney assemblies, they were very expensive and hard to produce, and I lacked the confidence in my cubist eye. But my new computer program promised the ability to assemble multiple views into a seamless image that would defy anyone to tell that these were multiple images. I wasn't out to fool anyone except the salesman that wanted me to buy a wide angle lens. As I experimented with these stitched panoramas, I got better at what are actually pretty easy techniques that will allow your computer to assemble multiple images into one larger, wider image than your lens can achieve. All of the images that have appeared in this essay are the results of these efforts.

BRIDGE AT MULTNOMAH FALLS PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION B&W 1:2

What is very interesting is that this process is a lot simpler than it looks - in fact, it is very easy to overthink it. All your are doing is holding your camera steady and level, while you pivot around your central subject, taking multiple shots that the computer will assemble into one image. The problems to watch for are even more basic than you think. The need to keep the camera level will make it easier for the program to stitch, and you will be amazed at first at how much you will naturally pivot downward from left to right. While a leveled tripod will of course eliminate this problem, so will practice. You also must  make a decision on the overall exposure, since you don't want your stupid camera to adjust the exposure as you circle around the scene. Figure out the exposure for the brightest part of the scenes so you don't blow that out, set it, and go to manual so it doesn't change. The same thing applies to focus point, since you don't want the camera auto focusing as you pivot either. Pick a focus, switch to manual focus, and start shooting. But first, and I kid you not , take a photo of your hand so you will know later when the sequence started and stopped. You are overlapping the photos somewhere between 1/2 and 1/3, so the computer can match things up. Not enough overlap and gaps will be apparent, while too much overlap seems to confuse the program and create artifacts that you can only eliminate later with way too much effort. You must give the computer enough information to work with, so clear skies are a no-no, and even a seascape with a clear horizon is not enough.

DARTMOOR PANORAMA #1 : FINAL VERSION 1:3

You hit the panorama command on the computer, and prepare to wait. I'm not talking about the proverbial cup of coffee, unless you are walking ten minutes sit at Starbucks for half an hour. The panorama files are huge, and I've taken to reading a novel while they are being assembled. And once the preview is created, and it actually looks good, then it takes far longer to actually render the file into something that you import into Lightroom. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is to hit the command and go to bed.

                                                               RADIO CITY PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 2:1

The result is a file that is so large and detailed that you could print out the image at billboard size, and still pixel peep up close. At even extra large "normal" sizes, the prints will be far more detailed than any regular wide angle image. The perceived resolution is enormous, which allows you to even crop into you panorama again to achieve better resolution than a normal photograph, even though you now have a "standard" aspect ratio. It's actually very easy to go overboard. Photographers who used to use expensive panoramic film cameras soon realized that the panorama aspect ratio required a subject with many, if not a continuous point of interest, to hold the viewer's attention - the view was just too wide to accomodate too much emptiness. Thus enter the mountain range or its urban equivalent, the skyline, with enough going on throughout the wide span to keep the viewer's interest all the way though the expanse. The best aspect ratios seem to me to be either 2:1 or 3:1; anything beyond that is very hard to compose, no matter how grand the view. While there are purists, or crazies, who still use the legacy ratios of 16:9 or 6:17 that were produced by their panoramic film cameras, 2:1 or 3:1 achieve the same basic results.

                                            BURNSIDE & BIG PINK PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION 3:2

The problem with these ratios, despite all of the detail, is that when we scan the grand view, our two eyes are moving  around, while the single camera eye does not. Thus the problem becomes that the view becomes too narrow - we are not seeing enough of the scene above or below the narrow band the camera and computer is creating. The first solution is the last bit of advice I left out of your panorama instructions - you will hold your camera vertically as you pivot and overlap horizontally, to get the biggest possible amount of the "short" dimension of your panorama. Conversely, if you take a panorama of a waterfall or a skyscraper, you will take a series of horizontal  shots as you pivot in a vertical arc.

HAYSTACK ROCK PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION B&W 1:2

We are one short step from the madness of a panorama with multiple grids to "solve" this short-dimension problem. Include more of the sky and the foreground by taking a double pivot, but realize that you now need overlap in two dimensions, and possibly a new computer. Essentially, panoramas are a lot of fun, and even revelatory, but they should be considered as extra, bonus shots, because they just might not come off, and are very hard to correct if something goes wrong. So two tries might be in order, and always take a few regular images before you leave the mountain top, because the panorama might fail. When I first let the computer loose on the Dartmoor image with the tree, it somehow produced two trees so realistically that I could just shake my head. When I eliminated the extra tree, it took hours to reduce the artifacts that both surrounded and were within the branches of the remaining tree. Depending on the print size of these images, you are actually forced to process them differently. At 4x12 inches, what appears as unsightly sensor dust that must be removed is revealed to be an extremely in focus bird if it is viewed at a potential 12 x 36 inches. At 4x8 inches, especially in black and white, the amount of detail is so intense that it starts to hurt your eyes, so that it almost demands larger prints that you or anyone else might want to look at.

DARTMOOR PANORAMA #2 : FINAL VERSION 1:2

So some of this begins to defy logic even though its a lot of fun. I once produced a 4 feet x 4 feet enlargement on fabric, a tapestry if you will, that unfortunately looked fantastic from 40 feet, or four booths away, from my booth at the market. Even though the level of detail allowed it to be viewed up close, nobody but yours truly could even understand the image when viewed within my booth. I never sold it, and now it is usually draped over my drafting chair in my studio. There are practical limits to magic.

 

 

 


Comments