Falling in love with Panoramas

I find I’m falling in love with the stitched Panorama image.

To some degree this surprises me, but in retrospect, it shouldn’t. So much of photography is about pushing a viewers focus in on a specific thing and excluding everything else, but as I’ve tried to document what I really love about the wildlife refuges and some of natures landscapes I wander through, I keep butting into the idea that this deep focus and exclusion fight the openness and wide vista nature of what makes these locations fascinating to me.

The panorama is an attempt to open these spaces up and show them in all their glory — and then as part of the display focus in on some of the details within that grand landscape. There really isn’t a way to do this without using the stitched panorama format.

For those unfamiliar, a stitched panorama is where you take a series of images that overlap and then combine them into a single mega-image in post processing. Lightroom CC now has a really good Panorama stitching system which is what I use; before that it was Photoshop.

You maintain all of the detail from each image you stitch into it, so the images end up a lot larger than a single image out of the camera. the ones below vary from just a few imaged stitched together (11,000 x 3,600 for 10 megabytes of file) where I had five images I stitched together to pretty large, where I stitched over 25 images into a huge 33K x 4.4K 60 megabyte final image. You can go almost as large as you can imagine using tools like the Gigapan product that automates the positioning for massive stitched panoramas. This device literally allows you to stitch together hundreds of images into potentially gigabyte sized files.

My setup is a lot simpler than that right now — since I’m mostly working on refuges where the auto tour is “stay in the car” by the rules, these panoramas are all hand held with the camera in portrait position — not even a tripod. It takes some practice, and you end up with broken panoramas even when you’re careful, but when it works…

My history with panoramas

I first got interested in these types of panoramas back in 2009 while attending the Morro Photo Expo where George Lepp was the featured speaker. He had a number of his images on display and a few of them really caught my eye because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he’d taken them. At the time, I’d been experimenting with super-wide angle (10-15mm) lenses trying to get the wide vista look in images and simply hated almost all of that work — and here was George with these gorgeous images doing what I was trying to do.

I was able to sit and talk to George a bit after his keynote and he let me know they were all stitched panoramas, mostly shot around the 35mm-70mm range vertical and stitched together. He was also a big fan of the Gigapan using a point and shoot (because the size of the camera sensor is a lot less important in these images) where he’d set up for 200-250 image stitches.

No wonder I couldn’t reproduce that look, it wasn’t something that could be done in camera. That really opened my eyes beyond the “don’t manipulate your images” crowd to realize it wasn’t about manipulation — it was about being untrue to what you see when you take the image.

Panoramas are one way to help others see what you see when it won’t fit in a single frame. For instance, I can show you a goose mass flight like this:

Massed Geese Flocks in Flight

but does it really give you the sense of having these birds swirling around you from as far left as you can see to as far right? I don’t think so. But bring in an image showing horizon to horizon flocks of birds on the refuge grounds like this

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

And I think it helps you get a sense of what it’s like being out on these properties sharing them with 30-40,000 geese and ducks.

I’ve dabbled in panoramas since I met George, but never really shot them systematically. This fall, as I’ve rebooted into my photography and started trying to put a fresh eye on the kind of things I’m trying to show people, I realized the panorama was a good tool to use for explaining parts of the story I think the single frame image simply can’t show well — the wide scope and sheer immensity of these areas and the winter flocks they support.

I’m still frankly experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, and obviously, sometimes the wildlife doesn’t cooperate or is too distant to make the image I want, but now that I’ve recognized this as a technique to explore, I’ll be doing more of this down the road, and having made a effort to explore how to translate what I see into a panorama on this last trip, on future trips I’ll have a better idea of how to bring forward the images I see that I want but haven’t been able to produce yet…

There are clearly some limitations to the stitched panorama, a big one being that if there’s a lot of movement, you’re screwed. I couldn’t reproduce that mass flight as a panorama, for instance. But there are many ways it’ll do wonders for you.

One of the problems trying to do this with super-wide angle lenses is the depth distortion. As you probably know when you shoot with telephotos it tends to visually compress distance, but the wider you go with your lenses the opposite happens. When you get to super-wide, it can almost feel like it pushes everything into the distance leaving the image with no focal point and no real interest for the viewer. That’s why the most popular images shot with these lenses have an object in them to create that focal point, but it means the background rarely is more than moral support for that focal point image — which won’t work on the refuges for various reasons.

By shifting to a 35-70mm range lens and going to multi-image panorama, you can get a more normal depth perception back in the image, and also bring in more distance subjects with some prominence and focal interest. I’ve even shot a few panoramas with my big lenses (200mm+), which is a fascinating and frustrating exercise that sometimes works and sometimes makes me crazy, but it’s worth pursing for some subjects.

So all in all, I’m finding panoramas to be a fun technical task but also an interesting interpretive technique. It gives you a chance to create something that represents what you see in a way that isn’t confined to the aspect ratios and viewfinder frames of a traditional image. It takes more work than the look-point-click of a single image, but in some situations, it’s a more realistic view of what’s there than what the camera might take with a single shot.

So I expect you’ll see more (and better) panoramas on this site down the road as I figure out how this technique works best for me.

By the way, panoramas don’t have to be obviously panoramic, either. Were you aware this image from my last trip to Morro Bay was a stitched panorama?

Morro Bay Harbor Panorama

Here are the panoramas I shot on this latest refuge trip. I think they are starting to tell a part of the story of those refuges I’ve wanted to tell, but I expect to do more and better work down the road…

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

As you look at these panoramas, remember they’ve been shrunk to fit the size needs of this blog. If you click through to the full sized originals, a much better version of the image will show, and if you start zooming in and looking at the details, and magical thing happens: if you do that with a normal image it gets fuzzy and blurry, but with a panorama, you simply zoom in and see the details. It can be a lot of fun to zoom way into a big panorama and scroll around looking for interesting stuff hidden away.

This little magic detail lets me get past another thing that’s bothered me about online imagery: it may look good, but images you see online have been stripped of a lot of subtle detail, leaving us to react mostly to bright color and big, bold subject items. I think this is in part the reason we’ve seen a shift to heavily (IMHO over-) saturated imagery, a fad I hope dies out one of these days.

Subtlety is lost online in imagery as it is in so many things, and panoramic images are one way we can start bringing it back into our images.


Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
See the full sized image here [26525 × 4508 pixels, 40Mb).

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
See the full sized image here [11911 × 2167 pixels, 19Mb).

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
See the full sized image here [11299 × 3600 pixels, 10Mb).

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
See the full sized image here [15647 × 3434 pixels, 12.5 Mb).

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
See the full sized image here [32973 × 4378 pixels, 63Mb).