Ever since my month-long western trip two years ago, at the insistence of Walter Santos (waltersantosphotography.com) whom I met in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, I’ve always been on the lookout to shoot panoramas. And with the wide open views in the four national parks and monuments I visited on this trip, there were certainly plenty of opportunities to do so. Whenever confronted with the challenge of how to incorporate a huge view into a single image, the instinct is to get the wide-angle lens out, look for an interesting foreground element that hopefully leads to the real star of the scene, and click the shutter. But the wider the lens, the further away the main attraction may appear, especially a range of mountains, and thus diminishing their enormity and power. Sometimes they are fairly close and it is not an issue, but other times they are not, and using a wide-angle is a trade-off. At some point, it may be beneficial to the final image to use a “normal” lens for your particular camera format, or even a short telephoto, to maintain the power of those majestic mountains, and take several panels of the scene to stitch together later. One additional benefit to using these more normal lenses is there is less distortion around the edges of the frame making it easier to stitch several frames into a single panorama and making it less necessary to have an expensive camera mount that can set the nodal point.
In the image above, looking west from a road in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, is a simple two panel shot using a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor which maintained the power of the Tetons while a wide-angle would have pushed them further away, diminishing their ominous stature above the valley. Although not a very dramatic image because it was taken in the middle of the day, it illustrates the point. However, in the image below from Yellowstone, although there were no mountains, I wanted to maintain the resolution and drama of the distant clouds and steam vents of the hot springs by using a 70-200 zoom to eliminate the wasted pixels that would have resulted using a wide-angle to get the entire scene into a single frame.
The same holds true for this image above of the Tetons and Willow Flats as well, even when including the mountains. Without the sharp, crisp resolution held within the leaves of all the backlit bushes in brilliant fall colors that a multi-frame panorama provides, both its detail and brilliance would be greatly diminished with a single frame, especially if the final image were printed in the substantial size these views really need to adequately convey the majesty of the landscape. In fact, when magnified to 100%, an elk was discovered in the very upper left of the flats.
This final shot taken from Rocky Mountain National Park’s famous Trail Ridge Road at about 12,00 feet, represents about a 120-degree angle of view…wider than a 14mm lens on a full frame sensor (10mm on a 1.5 crop sensor). Using a 14mm would have pushed the mountains way off in the distance, making them, and the clouds, insignificant when their power is so important to the scene. By using a normal lens with the camera mounted vertically and shooting 7 panels across the scene, both the mountains and clouds were recorded in proper perspective with the added bonus of extraordinary detail. Unlike the midday image of the Tetons before, the drama of the clearing storm clouds in the light of late afternoon, makes a world of difference. One note of caution: when making a panorama which includes fast-moving clouds, try to take all the panels as quickly as you can without compromising accuracy in overlapping each while keeping the camera moving parallel and perpendicular to the horizon. This will eliminate “ghosting” of any moving elements within the frames, which includes tree branches or grasses. These may blur a bit when the panels are stitched together.
Just before this last image was taken, the squall hit my location creating a whiteout with snow blowing sideways and winds shaking the car violently!! It was a bit scary, but I calmed myself by having a good snack of M&M’s and some trail mix while I waited it out, hoping it would not last very long. When it finally did start to break and the sunlight began to peek through the clouds revealing the range across the valley, I said a quiet thank you to be witness to it all. Little did I know what lay ahead overnight not far from this same spot. To read about that little “adventure” scroll back a bit to Day 15 – Decisions. I get a bit shaky just thinking about it!!
PS – Don’t forget to vote!!!