Photo essay: Panoramas

I don’t always consider myself to be a good photographer. I am self-taught, which is respectable, but as shutterbugs go, I am not the most patient. Additionally, I so often pack my tripod for a trip and then opt not to haul it around. As such, night photography is often in “P” (Program) mode rather than “M” (Manual) mode. I still pull off some good shots, but I don’t deny that they could have been better.

One category in which I excel – I think – is panoramic photography. It isn’t so much that I’m a natural; some places simply lend themselves to “wider-angle” photography. Natural wonders are obvious choices – the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Alps, I could go on and on. On rare occasions, cityscapes make for terrific panoramic images as well. The trick, of course, is a) to seek these vista points out, b) to step back and recognize a place’s potential, and c) to have a camera on your person.

Below are several of my favorite panoramic photos from my travels. My process is to snap snap snap an epic view from left to right, then “stitch” the individual images together in post. I use Windows Live Photo Gallery for this feature. It is a free program; don’t be surprised if a version of it is already installed on your computer.

Unless otherwise indicated, pics were taken using a Canon Powershot or a Nikon DSLR. You may have to click on them to see the full detail.

Finally, all images are the property of Gringopotpourri.

Mt. Baldy hike panorama stitch - August 2011

Above pic: Summit of Mount San Antonio, aka “Old Baldy.” This 10,064-foot peak is less than an hour by car from LA-proper, and IMHO is a must-hike for any serious peak-bagger. The city’s notorious smog is nowhere to be seen from the “bald,” or treeless, summit.

If you bring a camera with you on a hike such as this one, be sure to stash it in a carrying case – or at least inside a zippered pocket – when not in use. I was lucky this time, but fierce thunderstorms sweep through high mountains during many summer afternoons. They come out of nowhere and can wreak havoc on any camera. (I have previously destroyed two cameras this way.) Also: too much metal gear + thunderstorm = risk of electrocution. You have been warned.

North Kaibab Trail panorama stitch

Above pic: The Grand Canyon, as seen from two-thirds of the way down the North Kaibab Trail. It is 14 tough miles from the windy North Rim to the Colorado River; you can just pick up the dusty trail on the far right of the frame in this image.

This picture illustrates the challenges posed by the mid-day sun. It was shining brightly on my right (west), so the sky in that side of the image is brighter than that of the left, “bleached out” you could say. This can be managed in part by adjusting the light metering and in part by changing the time that you are outside.

Corcovado panorama stitch

Above pic: The impossible peaks of Rio de Janeiro. This picture was taken from the Sugarloaf and captures the antennae array near Corcovado (where “Christ the Redeemer” stands.) I opted not to include the statue in this shot as it would naturally draw viewers away from the thin cloud cover on the bottom, and from the more interesting rock formations in the left-third of the image.

I had been atop the Sugarloaf once before, and knew that sunset was the best time to photograph Rio’s dizzying topography. I came with a better camera this time around, but I still give some credit to the weather as well – those thin clouds are a nice touch.

Mount Lee hike panorama stitch - April 2012

Above pic: This is literally as close to the Hollywood sign as you can get, unless you wish to get arrested. Getting here entails a six-mile round-trip hike through Griffith Park. You can see the Hollywood Reservoir on the right and downtown LA on the upper left.

Camera lenses are spherical, and so is the earth. As such, don’t be surprised if something that is panoramic in dimension but still “up close” warps the way these letters did. It is a cool effect.

Sagres panorama stitch 1

Above pic: Sagres, Portugal – the westernmost point of Continental Europe. Behind me (out of the frame) is a magnificent cliff-top fort and to my left is the afternoon sun and some swim-at-your-own-risk waves.

This image is composed of three separate pictures, but I cropped it in such a way to invoke the “rule of thirds.” It isn’t a “rule” at all, but simply a guideline about photo composition that often has merit. In this panoramic stitch, the water comprises the left third of the frame and the larger boulders comprise the right third. When shooting at the beach, be mindful of sand, tiny grains of which can destroy a camera.

Sandstone - Tri-Peaks - Boney Mtn panorama

Above pic: The Tri-Peaks rock formations in the western flank of the Santa Monica Mountains. Sandstone Peak – the highest point in the range – can be seen in the background, left of center. What you’re seeing is arguably my favorite vantage point in one particular mountain range that I have explored via almost every mapped hiking trail.

Five pictures are stitched together for the finished product. Another piece of advice when shooting in the mountains is to carry a dust cloth. Your boots kick up more dust than you realize, and it doesn’t take much for a fine layer of the stuff to line your camera lens.

Bellas Artes panorama stitch

Above pic: Palacio de Bellas Artes, Alameda Central, and National Post Office, Mexico City. A sixth-story café atop the Sears department store across the street served as the vantage point. With the pedestrians, traffic, green space, and Art Deco architecture, this picture in many ways encapsulates Mexico City.

Note the overhead clouds. It was dry as I left the café, but pouring rain when I exited the building five minutes later. Also note the sun’s brightness on the upper right of the frame – it lightens the clouds while its shadow simultaneously darkens the park landscape. A single shot of just the park could fix this affect – using pinpoint metering or shortening the exposure time, for starters. But I was trying to compose a panorama, and for a more consistent tone I simply panned across in five separate shots, each with the same ISO, metering, and F-stop. As such, I was more limited in my technical options. Though not a perfect image, I nonetheless proud of the stitched result.

Agra Fort panorama stitch

Above pic: Agra Fort, India. Shah Jahan – more famous for having ordered the building of the nearby Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his late wife – ruled over much of Northern India, including what today is the culture-rich state of Uttar Pradesh. The fort is enormous, but can be explored in just a couple of hours as half of it is a functioning military base, off-limits to tourists.

Panoramic photography can be an effective way to suggest the sheer scale of something, as is the case here. I kept the rule of thirds in mind when cropping the images to what you see today – the tops of the three or four tallest trees represent the upper-third line of sight. I couldn’t do much to make the extraordinarily polluted sky “pop” without looking over-saturated. Visiting during or immediately after the rainy season could remedy that, as the frequent rains wash away most of the air pollution.

Monument Valley panorama stitch 1

Above pic: Monument Valley “mitten” and mesas, as seen from my hotel room balcony. Monument Valley is one of those can’t-miss wonders of the desert southwest. It is a long way from anywhere but worth the trip; countless movies, commercials, and TV westerns have been filmed here.

I am not always locked into conventions. There was no particular framing I was going for as I stitched these together. Rather, I felt that the sunspots on the left, the imposing butte on the right, and the pink-and-blue sky were objects of beauty.

Old Glory Park panorama stitch 2

Above pic: Mid-town Manhattan and the Hudson River, as seen from New Jersey. The New York skyline is so massive that it’s difficult to capture unless from atop one of its Mid-town observation decks. The Staten Island and Liberty Island ferries take you past Lower Manhattan, but they don’t convey the north-south sprawl of the borough.

I would love to come back here mid-afternoon on a sunny summer day, with the sun on my back and the buildings brightened naturally. As it was, the overcast mid-September sky kept the shadows at bay when I was here in 2011. Notice the Empire State Building in the background – an excellent example of “depth-of-field,” which must often be forced in close-up but appears with little effort when far away.

Rendezvous Mountain hike - panorama stitch

Above pic: Rendezvous Mountain near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A gondola (similar to the one providing access to the Sugarloaf in the earlier Brazil pic) ferries hikers and shutterbugs to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain in astonishing Grand Teton National Park. I spent an entire cloudless day photographing the surrounding peaks, then hiked down 4,000+ vertical feet to the base station of the gondola, passing moose and marmots along the way.

To me, this is a flawless shot…but in this instance I chalk it up to perfect skies more than anything else. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook - panorama

Above pic: Los Angeles, as seen from Baldwin Hills near Culver City.  In a single (stitched) mega-panorama, you’ve got the Hollywood sign,Griffith Observatory, San Gabriel Mountains, mid-Wilshire buildings, and downtown LA skyline circa 2010. I went to this spot immediately following several days of rain, hoping for smog-free skies. To my surprise, still-lingering clouds behind the downtown skyline obscured the taller, snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains.

This is my favorite panorama, and is comprised of at least 12 separate, overlapping images. It is my dream to one day enlarge this to six feet in width and mount it on my living room wall. Does anyone have $2,000 I can borrow? 😉

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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