For quite some time I’ve been thinking of writing about how I shoot and create panoramas, but then there’s always been something else I’ve wanted to do, usually creating more panoramas from my years-long backlog of Grand Canyon photography. Now, however, with some fellow hikers expressing interest in shooting and creating their own Grand Canyon panoramas to the project, the time to write has come. This article will be the first in a series of articles working though my entire process of creating panoramas, from the gear to use, shooting in the field, preparation of the raw photographs, stitching the photographs together, and the final steps of creating the images to be displayed on the Internet. This article starts at the beginning: gear.
Here’s what’s in my backpack out in the field, which for me is always the place that I’m hopelessly addicted to, the Grand Canyon:
- Nikon D700 camera
- Nikon Nikkor 20mm prime lens
- Nodal Ninja MKII panoramic mount
- Manfrotto monopod
- 1/4″ to 3/8″ monopod adapters
- A nickel
- Memory cards
- Extra batteries
- Lowepro camera bag
Total field weight is about 7 pounds, which yes is a big weight commitment to haul in your backpack for perhaps a week or more, but I love panoramic photography and am willing to pay the weight price.
Let me say before going any further that this list represents what works for me, and what I have evolved to over time and with experience. Many other cameras, lenses, mounts and other pieces of gear will be perfectly suitable, or even better. I personally would love to trade up to a Nikon D810 camera, but my D700 does an excellent job so I save my money and stick with it. I will discuss why I use each of these items, and cover the issues you should think about as you assemble your own set of gear for the field.
I’ve been shooting panoramas in the Grand Canyon for 17 years, basically since the beginning of the digital camera era. In 1999 when my Grand Canyon obsession began, digital SLRs were first appearing, were very expensive, and had a tiny fraction of the capabilities of cameras available today. Within a year I purchased my first digital SLR, a Fuji S1. As of now there is just a single panorama shot with that camera still in the project. From there I moved on to a Nikon D70, and there a few panoramas from the D70 era within the project, but not many. From there I progressed to a Nikon D300, which did excellent work, and probably about half the panoramas currently within the project were shot with the D300. If it hadn’t rolled off a cliff and been smashed to bits I might still be using it, but the D700 was its replacement. Note though, that I purchased the D700 literally just a couple of weeks before Nikon announced the D800, which I would have purchased, and likely would still be using today, instead.
I bought the D700 since it excelled at the one feature that I absolutely believe is the most important consideration in panorama photography: dynamic range. When you are shooting a panorama, you are not simply framing and shooting a single image – you are shooting and capturing the entire sphere of a scene. Within that scene, you may be shooting directly into the sun, while another portion of the scene you may be shooting into dark shadows, and you want to shoot the entire scene at a single fixed iso/exposure setting. Whatever setting you choose for the entire scene, it has to work for both the very brightest and very darkest parts of the scene, and that difference can be extreme.
If you shoot in raw image format, which I believe is a must for good panoramic photography, the D700 can capture about 12 stops of dynamic range. When you first look at such a raw image in software, such as the RAW imaging software that I use, Adobe Lightroom, much of the scene may appear completely black, but because of the great dynamic range of the camera you can recover the detail within the shadows down to the darkest parts of the scene. Frankly when you first pull up such an image and do the processing it seems like a miracle, but it simply is the product of using a camera with great dynamic range. Plenty of cameras other than the D700 can capture an excellent dynamic range, and I urge you to select one that does.
The other great advantage of the D700 is the quality of its images. Note that quality does not simply mean megapixels. The D700 captures 12 megapixel images, which by current standards is relatively low. But the quality of those images is superb. In fact larger megapixel images can work out to be a disadvantage. In the field, you will have to carry a set of memory cards with much bigger total capacity to handle all those megapixels, and when you get home, your computer setup will have to be that much more powerful to handle all those big images. I currently have a souped up iMac that can easily handle Photoshop images that may have up to 50 layers and be over a gigabyte in size that are part of my workflow. If I did move up to a Nikon D810 and shot 36 megapixel images, I’d be asking my iMac to handle images that might be 3 or 4 gigabytes in size, and it might be a lot less zippy and a lot less fun!
The great disadvantage of the D700 is its size and weight. It is a traditional SLR and that does mean big. There are now many excellent smaller and lighter mirrorless cameras that may work extremely well, but I have not personally tried any of them. At the extreme light end would be the camera in your cell phone, but if you want to shoot high quality panoramas, a cell phone camera is probably not going to cut it, and you have to deal with additional capacity and battery issues.
Unless you are willing to go through the hassle of stitching a huge number of images to create a panorama, you need to use some sort of a wide angle lens. I use a Nikon Nikkor 20mm prime lens.
I generally want to have about a 50% overlap between adjacent images that form the panorama mosaic. I shoot all panorama images in portrait orientation (I’ll explain why in the article to come on shooting in the field), and with my camera and 20mm focal length lens, I have a horizontal field of view in portrait orientation of about 60 degrees. Do the math and that means I need to shoot 12 images, a manageable number, with the camera leveled to capture the entire 360 degrees with about a 50% overlap between images. If, however, say I were to use a normal lens with a focal length of 50mm, the horizontal field of view would be only 27 degrees, and the number of images I would need to shoot just on the level, and keep the 50% overlap, would more than double to about 25. In fact, however, to shoot the entire sphere of a scene with my 20mm lens, I shoot a total of about 35 images – 12 level, 12 up 35 degrees, 9 down 40 degrees, and 2 up 65 degrees (again I’ll explain this in detail in the future field shooting article). If I instead shot with a 50mm lens, I’d need to shoot 25 level, probably about 20 images tilted up 25 degrees, probably about 10 more tilted up 50 degrees, 2 or 3 tilted up 75 degrees, 20 images tilted down 20 degrees, and finally about 10 images tilted down 50 degrees, or about a total of 90 images, which to me is a hugely unmanageable number of images unless you can use a highly automated stitching process. And in order to automate the process, you will need to shoot very precisely aligned images using a tripod, which, as I will explain in the next section, I am unwilling to do.
Now the 20mm lens works out just right for me on my D700 camera since it has a full frame sensor and a crop factor of 1. My old D300 camera, however, had a DX sized sensor and a crop factor of 1.5. A DX sensor is smaller than a full frame (FX) sensor, and the crop factor tells you the size difference. My 20mm lens has a portrait orientation horizontal field of view (HFOV) of 62 degrees, but if I used it on a camera with a DX sensor, the HFOV would be about 41 degrees: 62 degrees divided by the crop factor of 1.5. That would then require me to capture 18 instead of 12 level images and a greater number of images tilted up and down as well.
With the D300, however, I used a Tokina 11-16mm wide angle zoom lens, which I always set to 14mm, which made it act like a 21mm lens on the D300, (14mm * the crop factor of 1.5), resulting in very nearly the same HFOV that I have with the D700/20mm lens combination. I as result I shot the same set of 35 images with the D300 as I do now with the D700. My recommendation is that you use a lens that gets you to an effective focal length of about 20mm, where the effective focal length is lens’s focal length times the crop factor of your camera.
So far I have been talking about rectilinear lenses, meaning lenses that will capture straight lines properly as straight lines. It is possible, however, to shoot panoramas using fisheye lenses, which create highly distorted images. Software can sort out the distortion, but it can’t fix poor image quality, and if you use a fisheye lens it is poor quality, by my standards, that you will get. The lure of fisheye lenses is that you capture the entire sphere of a panorama in as few as 2 images. You can even buy gear with a specially designed mirror that will capture an entire sphere in a single image, but again, by my standards, the quality is just too poor. Stick to a rectilinear lens with an effective focal length for your camera of about 20mm.
One last note about my 20mm lens. I prefer to use a fixed focal length, prime lens instead of a zoom lens. I frequently will shoot a sunset panorama at whatever location I set up camp for the night, and will get up and shoot a sunrise panorama from exactly the same spot the next morning. When I finally publish the panorama, I like to include both the sunrise and sunset view of the location, and allow the viewer to flip back and forth between them, with each of them aligned in the same direction. This is much easier to do if both locations were photographed with the same lens at the exact same focal length. If you have a zoom lens, it is almost inevitable that the focal length will be off just a bit between the panoramas, and that will be enough to make it much more difficult to properly align the panoramas later. With a fixed length lens that is never a problem.
The Panoramic Mount
When you shoot a panorama, you need to use something to keep your camera in the same spot as you rotate around and tilt up and down to shoot the set of images required to capture the entire sphere. That something will be either a tripod or a monopod, as I will discuss in the next section, but you also need something that will attach between the tripod/monopod and your camera, and permit you to do the necessary rotating and tilting. The something in between the camera and the tripod/monopod is a panoramic mount.
Here I have an unambiguous (and uncompensated) recommendation. Unless you have a really huge camera, get a Nodal Ninja Series 3 MKII. It does the job and is extremely lightweight. Folded up between shots, it actually fits right in my modestly sized camera bag in the same compartment as my D700 camera. Nodal Ninja on their website states that the MKII model is too small for the D700 but it is in fact just barely large enough, and should also be for just about any standard DSLR camera, and will be more than large enough for any of the compact mirrorless cameras. You can move up to the next larger model for a bit more money and a bit more weight, but I’d save the money and weight and give the MKII a try. There will be lots more on the panoramic mount in the upcoming article on shooting in the field.
The Tripod or Monopod
When I first began shooting Grand Canyon panoramas, I lugged a big heavy tripod in my backpack. Its weight by itself was about 7 pounds. Yes I got precisely aligned images, but at the cost of a sore back and shoulders. I learned in time, though, that I could shoot images that were aligned well enough with a monopod, and that is what I do today, using a monopod that weighs less than a pound and uses up far less space. And six pounds less weight when climbing out of the canyon after a week on the trail makes all the difference in the world. And you don’t have to get fancy – just about any monopod will do, so long as you can attach it to your panoramic mount. You can even get a hiking pole that can double as a monopod, which takes your effective monopod hiking weight down to zero, but for me the adjustable height of the monopod is enough of an advantage for me to carry the one extra pound.
I can, however, see a couple of circumstances where you might want to use a tripod instead of a monopod to shoot Grand Canyon panoramas. If you are taking a rafting trip, weight becomes much less of a concern than if you are backpacking, especially if you only intend to shoot in or near your river campsites,and won’t ever have to lug it far. The second case is if you intend to use a highly automated image stitching process, which will require, for good results, to have very carefully aligned images, and that will require that you use a tripod instead of a monopod. A tripod will also allow you to shoot bracketed images, which is a way that you can create high dynamic range images even though your camera is unable to capture a sufficiently wide dynamic range with a single shot. You simply can’t effectively shoot bracketed images with a monopod.
The big cost of a monopod, however, is the increase in your workflow time to deal with the not quite perfectly aligned images you get when shooting with a monopod. Stitching for me is a long, manual process that takes about 4 hours per panorama, but for me it is time well spent to remove 6 extra pounds from my backpack when I venture for a week or more deep into the canyon. I will cover the stitching process in great detail in an upcoming article covering my software workflow.
1/4″ to 3/8″ Monopod Adapters
My Nodal Ninja panoramic mount has a standard tripod 3/8″ female screw connector, but my Manfrotto monopod has a 1/4″ male screw connector. For them to mate properly you need a 1/4″ to 3/8″ adapter, which you can purchase online or at any decent photography store. Note, though, that I said adapters (plural) instead of adapter (singular). Yes you use only a single adapter between the monopod and the panoramic mount, but I have learned by very painful experience that they eventually wear out and break. Like when you are at the bottom of the Grand Canyon only a day into your hike, the adapter breaks and suddenly you have no way to properly mount your camera for panoramic photography.
The adapters are very inexpensive and very small. I have never had more than one break during a single backpacking trip, but I always carry 2 or 3 spares for piece of mind. When the time comes to replace a broken adaptor, though, you need the next big piece of gear in my kit,
The 1/4″ to 3/8″ adapter screws into the female connector on the panoramic mount. Over time it can become very tightly seated and difficult if not impossible to remove after it breaks. The adapters, though, have a slot in them which allows you to use a large flat-head screwdriver to remove it. You don’t, however, want to lug around a large flat-head screwdriver in your backpack do you? Just take a nickel instead. A nickel is just the right size to fit in the slot of the adapter, and is just large enough to apply enough torque to remove a tightly seated broken adapter. Don’t forget the nickel. Just stick it in a small plastic baggie along with your spare adapters and cram the baggie in a side pocket of your camera bag. If you have a broken tightly seated adapter you are unable to remove, you are screwed even though you have spare adapters.
Obviously if you are using a digital camera of some kind you need memory cards. Plan out, however, just how many memory cards you need to take. With my D700 camera which takes 12 megapixel images, and with shooting at least 35 images per panorama, I gobble up over a gigabyte of space for each and every panorama I shoot. I use 4 gigabyte memory cards, meaning that I get only 2 or 3 panoramas on each card. I may shoot up to ten panoramas per day and have been out in the field for as long as ten days on a single trip. Do the math and you’ll see that I carry a lot of memory cards.
Why not use larger capacity cards? Of all the backpacking trips I’ve taken in the Grand Canyon, only once have I come home and have a card with panoramas on it fail. I was very fortunate in that I was able to use disk recovery software and get back all but two of the images from the card, and had enough overlap in the panoramas with the missing images that I was able to save them. But frankly I would have been devastated if I had lost all the panoramas on the card, which about 5 or 6. By using smaller capacity cards I am reducing the number of panoramas that can be lost on a single card, which gives me greater peace of mind.
Ideally I would like to use a camera, like the Nikon D810, which has dual memory card slots, meaning that you can write to a second, backup card right as you are shooting in the field. Short of that, I’ll stick to lower capacity cards.
Extra Camera Batteries
Just like you have to calculate the memory card capacity you will need for your backpacking trip, you also have to calculate your power consumption. I always carry 3 extra batteries for my Nikon D700 camera for a backpacking trip of a week or more. In practice I’ve never used more than 2 or the spare batteries, but you really, really don’t want to come up short. 3 extra batteries for the D700 is not a cheap proposition – they are proprietary batteries from Nikon and they make you pay. Figure out what the power consumption for your camera is per image and do the math. To give yourself a buffer figure on 50 images per panorama, and get and take what you need.
Finally you need something to put all your camera gear into and properly protect it. The camera bag for you will be particular to just what camera and other gear you have. The Lowepro bag I have is perfect for me. It has excellent padding and my camera and panoramic mount neatly fit together in the main compartment. I can loop my belt though it and wear it around my waist, which I do whenever I am shooting in a spot where the camera might roll away and take off if I’m not careful. My Nikon D300 and a Tokina lens attached to it rolled off a cliff and fell a couple of hundred feet to their death. They were in an older bag that I had not hooked into. I watched helplessly as the bag started to roll and took flight. We did find the debris and were able to remove the memory card, which miraculously was undamaged and the images in it were saved, including one of my favorite panoramas shot from beneath the Royal Arch. I haven’t made that mistake again.
The next article in this series covers some things to think about before heading out into the field.