Panorama Photo of the Open Ocean

California, Panoramas

Open Ocean Panoramic Photograph

I’ve spent a lot of time on the open ocean, in small boats, looking for big creatures. Some of the best days of my life have been spent on a glassy ocean surface, traveling one hundred miles or more under blue skies and summer breezes, waiting to see if we would meet something interesting to photograph. These days are not like what most scuba divers experience! Some days bring perfect summer conditions and then just zipping across the ocean is a pleasure, even if we see no animals. Other days — more typical days — involve an incredible amount of waiting, periodic episodes of frustration and, when the weather turns, discomfort. Most of my days on the open ocean resulted in no photos and no encounters. However, once in a while something special happens and a photograph results. A few years ago, we were stopped on the water miles offshore of North County, enjoying the still, hot, southern California weather, watching a swarm of zooplankton hovering mid-column beneath the boat and listening for the blows of great whales, when I realized I should try to photograph the idyllic scene. How to photograph what is essentially an empty expanse, a half-plane extending from the gunwale of the boat to the horizon? I was not sure but a panorama seemed to be the only way to approach it. I made a series of 10 frames and blended them together later on the computer. The blending was tough to accomplish since the water was constantly moving making it difficult to merge the details in a perfectly natural way. The photo below is my best effort. It will print up to 10′ long by 3.5′ high with no uprezzing, and has been used in commercial projects a couple times. I need to get back out on the water and make a few more of these. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Ocean surface panorama, glassy calm ocean water offshore of California, clouds and sky

Ocean surface panorama, glassy calm ocean water offshore of California, clouds and sky.
Image ID: 26804

Choosing a Projection for Panoramic Photos

Panoramas, Wisdom

Some of my most profitable images are landscape panoramic photos, selected for large reproduction in office lobbies, museums or sometimes private homes. With the current generation of extremely sharp lenses and very high resolution sensors, and advances in photo processing software and hardware, it is straightforward to make enormous, high quality, and visually flawless panoramas from individual images. One decision which can profoundly affect the outcome of the panorama is the chosen projection mode.

After trips to Zion, Crater Lake, Death Valley, and Yosemite National Parks, during which one of my goals was to create very large, highly detailed panoramas with the Nikon D800 and D800e cameras, I have been assembling a number of panoramas and deciding which ones to keep and present for sale and licensing. I use a variety of software to create the final panoramas from individual images, including Photoshop, Panorama Factory, PTGui and most recently, AutoPano Pro 3.0. In some cases, the choice of a projection seems to make little difference. But in compositions that involve very wide angles, or include a lot of sky (such as Milky Way panoramic photos), the projection mode can make a huge difference, especially with elements of the composition that are at or near the edges of the final image. To illustrate this, here are 7 different projections of the same panorama, formed from six individual frames shot at Crater Lake using a Canon 5D Mark III and 15mm full frame fisheye lens. I have a few further remarks about my choice(s) of stitching software at the end of the post.

All of these panoramas are made in fully automatic mode in AutoPano Pro, with no adjustments other than simple contrast, saturation and curve in Lightroom before passing the component images to AutoPano Pro. The results are uncropped to emphasize the distortion (or lack thereof) inherent in the different projections.







Mirror Ball

Note there is no ghosting in these images — I am really impressed with AutoPano Pro for this reason and it is quickly becoming my preferred panorama software. Also, AutoPano Pro seems to make better use of the computer’s resources when stitching enormous (250 MB to 1.5 GB) panoramas. Photoshop seems to often bring the computer to its knees and it painfully slow in many cases. Panorama Factory simply “runs out of memory” in many situations, and does not seem to take advantage of the 32GB of memory I have installed on my iMac. PTGUI is great for allowing me to precisely choose the center of the image which a given projection will be based, but I find that often PTGui’s automated selection of stitching points includes errors that lead to ghosting or other artifacts. AutoPano Pro, however, processes panoramas quickly and without bogging down my computer overly much (I am still able to multitask while AutoPano Pro is rendering the final images). Furthermore, AutoPano Pro has excellent automatic determination of stitch points (the pairs of points needed to help the stitching algorithm decide how to align two overlapping images); I rarely have to resort to placing manual stitch points with AutoPano Pro. Lastly, I shoot many of my daylight panoramas handheld, which means there is some ghosting and parallax error in foreground objects. Photoshop does a good job resolving these problems, but so does AutoPano Pro and so much more quickly and with less compute time. There you go, I think you can guess what my favorite stitching software is at the moment.

Milky Way Over Mesa Arch, Panorama, Canyonlands National Park

Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Canyonlands, Panoramas, Utah

Panoramic Photo of the Milky Way Arcing Over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Earlier this year I spent an evening photographing Mesa Arch, the famous and oft-pictured natural stone arch at the precipice of Canyonlands National Park. I photographed Mesa Arch at sunrise twice previously — quite fortunately alone both times — but that was years ago before the explosion of photography interest on the internet. Based on the many reports I have read during the intervening years of elbow-to-elbow photographers and workshops going postal at sunrise when the sun lights the underside of the arch, I had essentially given up on ever photographing Mesa Arch again. In 2011 I decided to try for an image I have wanted to make there for some time and which might allow me to enjoy the arch in solitude again — the Milky Way arcing over Mesa Arch. Photographer buddy Garry McCarthy and I have executed versions of this idea with other arches. It is surprisingly tough to do well, since lighting must be consistent across the many frames that are blended to make the final image. The result must be flawless with no blending artifacts if one wishes to print the image for display. Using hard-earned uber-secret lighting and processing techniques from past night photography efforts, combined with several different compositions and attempts at lighting the arch in various ways, I ultimately decided upon this highly detailed 50″ x 80″ panoramic photo of Mesa Arch as the final result of my efforts. If you like this image, please see my website devoted to my full collection of Landscape Astrophotography images.

Sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook, Utah

Canyonlands, Panoramas, Utah

Dead Horse Point Overlook, a stunning promontory on the edge of the mesa that is Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park, offers a jaw-dropping view down 2000′ to the Colorado River. Canyonlands National Park is visible in the distance. The entire scene is a jumble of convoluted bends in the Colorado River with canyons, walls of sandstone, endless sky and few people. I made this panorama from a series of 7 images about a half hour after sunset. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook, with the Colorado River flowing 2,000 feet below. 300 million years of erosion has carved the expansive canyons, cliffs and walls below and surrounding Deadhorse Point, Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook, with the Colorado River flowing 2,000 feet below. 300 million years of erosion has carved the expansive canyons, cliffs and walls below and surrounding Deadhorse Point
Image ID: 27823
Location: Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah, USA

Torrey Pines State Reserve Running Photos

iPhone, La Jolla, Panoramas, Seascapes

It is for views like this that I run. I’ve been running for 35 years and will keep running until my body can’t do it anymore. I estimate that I have run at least 32,000 miles (1.25 times around the Earth!) and it is views like this that keep me fired up for more. I have probably run the trails in Torrey Pines State Reserve (north of La Jolla, California) 1500 times or more during my life. The other night during my run I enjoyed one of the finest sunsets I have ever seen there. Clearing storm, golden light, clouds, wet sand. I had my iPhone strapped to my arm but I had no “real camera”. There was no one else on the beach and it appeared I had two miles of spectacular low tide beach all to myself which in San Diego is a virtual impossibility. I spent the last 30 minutes of the day composing panoramas of the golden waning light shining on the cliffs and breaking storm clouds with my iPhone. That night I fed a stack of 45 individual iPhone images to Photoshop. Photoshop cranked away all night making a panorama and the following morning the first image below is the result. I’ve checked it at full resolution and the quality is really impressive. Thanks for looking and keep on running!

Click any of the images to see them larger. In their full resolution form, all of these panoramas are quite large, made from 20-45 individual iPhone photos that are stitched together in Photoshop. Sizes range up to 10,000 pixels in length and 3800 pixels in height. In the images that include waves, there are stitching errors in the waves which are largely unavoidable. However, in the images that face away from the ocean there are few if any stitching errors and in my estimation the images are clean enough to print up to 30″ or more in length .

A Tale of Two Panoramas and One iPhone

Panoramas, Wisdom

Recently I encountered two panoramic photo situations in which the software that I am accustomed to using for stitching panoramas failed. It gave me the impetus to try Photoshop for panoramas, with mixed results explained below. And the biggest surprise of my recent panorama efforts has been with, well, you’ll have to read to the end to find out unless my clever post title gave it away. Fair warning: if the entire notion of stitching and blending multiple images into a long, high resolution panorama makes your shutter glaze over, click away now!

Part 1 of 3: Failure then Success

This above panoramic photo of San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina, including the Marriott Hotel, Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel, Roy’s Restaurant and the San Diego Convention Center, is a composite of three original frames. I used Panorama Factory to stitch an initial version, and was disappointed to see some severe distortion artifacts on many of the buildings. I have encountered these occasionally in the past, and usually solved the problem by lessening or increasing the number of control points, or changing the perspective (spherical/cylindrical), or resorting to “full automatic stitching”. I think each of these alternatives changes the way in which Panorama Factory is constrained to correct for distortion, tilt and roll. By trying a few different alternatives, sometimes Panorama Factory is freed of enough mathematical constraints that the distortion artifacts go away. However, in this image the artifacts appeared, strongly, in all versions I made with Panorama Factory. For example, the following detail is from the top right corner of the Marriott Hotel, and shows ghosting (which is easily fixed in post by modifying the layer masks that Panorama Factory provides). The ghosting actually serves to illustrate the point that distortion is observed in both layers that overlap at this point. In other words, simply resorting to one layer or the other does not solve the distortion problem (although it would solve the ghosting).

I decided to give the stitching a try in Photoshop PS5’s “image merge”. In the past I did not have much faith in Photoshop’s “image merge”, given that it is nearly a “full auto” process and there is no allowance for the user to input, say, control points to ensure alignment. I’m a control freak, and giving complete control of the stitching to Photoshop did not appeal to me. For example, it does not even permit the user to offer such a basic starting point as defining what order (left to right) the images are to be considered — Photoshop figures this out on its own. So imagine my surprise when Photoshop produced as flawless a panoramic stitch as I have ever seen. On hindsight I should not have been surprised that Adobe, with its vast resources and programming talent, could produce an excellent panoramic stitching engine. Nevertheless, I was floored. I’ve scoured the detail in Photoshop’s version of this panoramic photo and have not found a stitching flaw or noticeable bit of distortion yet. For comparison, the same detail from the Photoshop version of the panoramic photo:

Part 2 of 3: Failure (Boo, Hiss!)

I encountered a second example of panoramic stitching challenges last week when my daughter and I enjoyed the sunset and made photos of Scripps Pier in La Jolla. In this case, both Panorama Factory and Photoshop failed, but in different ways. First, the full panorama looks pretty good at first glance:

There is plenty of wave movement in this composition, and I knew in advance that blending the waves would be near impossible. (I really should have used a 3-stop ND filter and f/22 to blur the water movement as much as possible, lessening the detail and making a pleasing blend more attainable. And next time I’ll do just that!) However, Panorama Factory shows significant distortion on several sections of the pier:

Panorama Factory does produce a layered PSD file complete with blending masks, and I tried to compensate for these distortions in post but was unable to remove them satisfactorily. When the distortions exist they exist in both layers being blended at that point, which makes it impossible to use the layer masks to solve the problem.

On the other hand, Photoshop shows a much better blend of the pier but a more jarring discontinuity in the waves to the left and right of the rightmost set of pier pilings:

Photoshop’s panorama product does NOT provide a layered PSD with masks, so I am unable to make further improvements to this image. That’s too bad. One of the strongest features of Panorama Factory is its ability to provide a layered PSD with blending masks, since this can be fine-tuned afterward in Photoshop to remove most ghosting artifacts and sometimes address distortion artifacts as well (although not in this case).

Part 3: Success, Unexpected!

Lastly, Sarah was fooling around with my iPhone while I used the “real camera”. She produced the above panorama in about 60 seconds using Autostitch for the iPhone. This just blows me away. For crying out loud, this is a 10-year-old using a phone and a $2.99 app to produce panoramas that would have been difficult for some computers to produce just a decade ago or less! It will be interesting to see what the iPhone and apps like Autostitch can do in coming years. Panorama Factory and Photoshop had better watch their heels.

Here are a few more I shot while running. I stop for about 60 seconds to shoot 3-6 photos, then Autostitch takes 10-20 seconds to blend them into a panorama, trim the overage off and upload a reduced-size version to Facebook where my family can see them long before I am back home and near a computer. I don’t have my glasses on, can’t see for the sweat in my eyes, and my hands are shaking. And still they often turn out pretty darn good. The full res version can always be accessed via iPhoto the next time the phone is synced to iTunes. These thumbnails link through to the unretouched full res versions if you are interested in seeing how much ghosting or exposure flaws there are in the final versions. Amazing!

Kenai Mountains and Kachemak Bay, Alaska

Alaska, Landscape, Panoramas

I was up north in Homer, Alaska to photograph bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), but I grabbed a couple landscape shots of the beautiful Kenai Mountains, which lie across Kachemak Bay from the Homer Spit. This was my view one morning, after the clouds and snow had cleared out leaving blue skies and bitterly cold temperatures. It is a panorama, click it to see it larger.

Kenai Mountains at sunrise, viewed across Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska

Kenai Mountains at sunrise, viewed across Kachemak Bay.
Image ID: 22739
Location: Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska, USA

Also see our bald eagle photos.

Madison River and Snow, Yellowstone National Park

National Parks, Panoramas, Photography, Wyoming, Yellowstone

In 1997 we made a visit to Yellowstone National Park in late fall to see the elk rut and were blessed with a few days of light snow. Not the bone chilling cold of Yellowstone in winter, but “winter lite” just perfect for we underdressed southern Californians. We spent most of our time watching elk along the Madison River, seen here with a dusting of snow and overcast skies:

Madison River, snow-covered banks and cold winter air, panorama, composite of 7 individual photographs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Madison River, snow-covered banks and cold winter air, panorama, composite of 7 individual photographs.
Image ID: 22448
Location: Madison River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

The above panorama was made with the good gear (digital slr, good glass). You can see another panoramic photo of the Madison river shot handheld with our nifty Panasonic Lumix micro-mini-handy-cam, which stitched surprisingly well with contains super detail.

See more panoramic photos and Yellowstone National Park photos

Midway Geyser Basin Panorama, Yellowstone

National Parks, Panoramas, Photography, Wyoming, Yellowstone

Midway Geyser Basin is one of my favorite parts of Yellowstone National Park. Early mornings and cold days are great here. The Firehole River steams as it flows through the basin, and numerous hot springs on either side of the river create shifting fogs and mists. In this panorama, formed from eight separate photographs, the Firehole River flows from left to right. Obscured by the steam in the far right of the image are Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser.

Firehole River, natural hot spring water steaming in cold winter air, panorama, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Firehole River, natural hot spring water steaming in cold winter air, panorama, Midway Geyser Basin.
Image ID: 22454
Location: Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

See more panoramic photos

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

Canada, Panoramas

Vancouver Island is covered with trees (at least those parts that have not been logged out yet). One particularly notable grove is Cathedral Grove, part of MacMillan Provincial Park. In Cathedral Grove enormous Douglas fir and Western hemlock trees are found, not yet taken by the logging industry and recently (in historical terms) set aside for appreciation now. They are located close to a highway that crosses Vancouver Island so the grove typically sees many visitors each day. I went very early one day and did not see another single person for the hour that I was there. I made this panorama, composed of seven individual images, with a tripod, ballhead with panning clamp and cable release. It’s a self portrait!

Ancient Douglas fir trees in Cathedral Grove.  Cathedral Grove is home to huge, ancient, old-growth Douglas fir trees.  About 300 years ago a fire killed most of the trees in this grove, but a small number of trees survived and were the originators of what is now Cathedral Grove.  Western redcedar trees grow in adundance in the understory below the taller Douglas fir trees, Pseudotsuga menziesii, MacMillan Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Ancient Douglas fir trees in Cathedral Grove. Cathedral Grove is home to huge, ancient, old-growth Douglas fir trees. About 300 years ago a fire killed most of the trees in this grove, but a small number of trees survived and were the originators of what is now Cathedral Grove. Western redcedar trees grow in adundance in the understory below the taller Douglas fir trees.
Image ID: 22456
Species: Douglas fir tree, Pseudotsuga menziesii
Location: Cathedral Grove, MacMillan Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

If you like this you can see more panoramic photos