This is the second in a series of articles on shooting panoramas while backpacking and the entire process of how to create them. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to go back and read the first article, on the gear I use to shoot panoramas, first.
You the Panographer and Your Hiking Companions
Before anything else, I want to talk a bit about how shooting panoramas on a backpacking trip completely changes the hiking experience for both you and your hiking companions. For me, whenever I decide to stop and shoot a panorama, it’s about a 20 minute experience. Stop, unload and set up your gear, shoot the scene, then tear down, pack up, and then finally again head on your way. If you are hiking solo, as I do often and love to do, this is not a problem at all. You are hiking and shooting at your own pace, and you simply need to make sure that you leave enough hiking time to get to your planned spot at the end of the day. If you shoot a lot of panoramas each day, though, do the math at 20 minutes per panorama and you will see that the time you take to shoot can greatly reduce your daily hiking range.
If you have companions on your backpacking trip, though, things change dramatically. Many backpackers are what I call ‘marchers’. Marchers love to hike as fast and as far as they can each day, and you will make a marcher frustrated and unhappy each time to announce that you want to stop and shoot a panorama, bringing the hike to a halt for yet another 20 minute stop. Of course if you and your companions don’t mind separating during the day things can work out just fine, so long as your companions are willing to reduce the total distance to be covered each day to reflect your repeated shooting time-outs.
Many hikers, though, simply don’t want to hike alone, for safety and/or simply for companionship through the day. But if you do have hiking companions willing to poke along at what I call ‘panorama pace’ and stop and wait for you at each shooting location, you have another issue to deal with – what to do with your companions while you shoot. Remember that you will be shooting the entire 360 degree scene! Unless you companions hide around a corner, or behind a rock or bush, or keep moving around to stay out of your frames, they will be in your panorama, and maybe multiple times! Companions showing up in your panorama is neither good nor bad, it is completely up to you and how you want to shoot, but do be aware of it as a issue. I’ve had hiking companions become very annoyed with me after asking them to move about multiple times as I shoot a scene. On the other hand, I’ve shot lots of panoramas in which my regular hiking companion, Tom, appears within the panorama and I like having him within the scene. But you do need to be aware of the issue and the impact it may have on your companions.
Best to talk about your role as a panographer with potential hiking companions well in advance.
Where and What to Shoot
Before getting out in the field, if you are a new panographer, you need to understand, and prepare for, just how different shooting panoramas is from regular photography. Instead of composing a single photograph, framed by your camera’s viewfinder, you are capturing everything within the entire 360 degree sphere of a location. For me, an interesting panorama is one that is interesting and intriguing in as many directions as possible. One of my favorite places to shoot panoramas within the Grand Canyon is on the rim of the Tonto Platform, about 2/3 of the way down in the canyon from the top. There, at the top of the Tapeats Sandstone cliffs, you can find many places that have wonderful views all the way down to the Colorado River, plus you can look up in all directions at the buttes, towers, and temples rising up above you, and in places all the way up to both the North and South Rims. And, since there is very little vegetation on the Tonto that comes up any higher than your knees, you have a wide-open, beautiful sky above you in every direction. So, in short, it is beautiful in every direction and worthy of a panorama. The true art of panography is developing an eye for the entire sphere of a scene, just as a good photographer develops an eye to frame individual shots.
But do be careful. Back on the rim of the Tonto, I am usually, in order to get that shot down into the inner canyon all the way down to the Colorado, very near the edge of a cliff. To make things worse, I am performing a little dance as I twist and turn around my monopod in all directions as I shoot away. Picture the images you have seen of native Americans turning around within a small circle as they perform a traditional dance. But that still is not all of it. As I’m doing my little dance, I’m trying to concentrate and successfully do several things at the same time: get the camera turned and tilted properly for each shot, while keeping the camera and monopod properly leveled and centered for each shot, and, if I’m out in the sun, keeping track of the sun and keeping it masked as much as possible when shooting towards it, and keeping track of and dealing with my own shadow when the sun is at my back. And making sure that with all that going on I don’t fall off the cliff!
When I’m near a cliff or other precarious spot, which, in order to get the best shot is quite often, I observe a 3 foot rule. I expect there to be at least 3 feet of solid ground between the spot where I plant my monopod and any dangerous spot, like the edge of a cliff. I also am careful to clear away any loose rocks or anything else that might cause me to slip while doing my little dance, but the 3 foot distance is to ensure that if I do slip I have enough room to catch myself before I fly off into the abyss. I’m sure that this will be far more exposure than many, if not most, people would be willing to accept, but it is what I am comfortable with. You will have to learn yourself what your own limits and where you have to be to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort.
If you have never shot any panoramas, shoot some practice panoramas in your back yard or wherever before you set off. You will have more confidence if you do, and you will have a better feel for how much of a margin of safety is right for you when you are at a tricky spot.
If you read the first article in this series on gear, you may have wondered just why do you need a tripod or monopod to do panoramic photography? Why not just turn around and about, with your camera hand held, and fire away until you have shot in every direction? The one word answer is parallax, and parallax is your great enemy. If you are standing and shooting a series of images hand held, you inevitably will move the absolute position of your camera at least a little bit from frame to frame. And the impact of just that little bit of movement will become all too apparent when it is time to stitch together your images. For the parts of your scene that are far away, say like the distant buttes and towers you look up at from the Tonto Platform, those little movements will not matter, but for things close by it will. If your camera is not carefully positioned in the same spot from frame to frame, you will have parallax, meaning that objects will appear to move from frame to frame, and they will not stitch together properly, and your final panorama, when all your images are stitched together, will have strange kinks or ghosts within nearby objects. You use a tripod or monopod, along with a panorama mount, to minimize parallax and make stitching together you images as clean and easy as possible.
To minimize parallax, you in fact need to go through a process of adjustment with your camera and panoramic mount before you go out into the field. The process is finding your nodal (no parallax) point for your camera, lens, and panoramic mount combination. You need to go through this process just once, before you go out in the field. Here’s a YouTube video that explains how to do it:How to adjust your camera and panoramic mount to find the nodal point
A Tripod vs a Monopod – Why Just a Little Parallax is OK
Back in the gear article, I stated that if you want to get images that are aligned as perfectly as possible, i.e. have a minimum of parallax, you need to use a tripod. But I also said that I don’t use a tripod but use a monopod instead, to save bulk and weight. Here’s why. If you shoot panoramas while using a monopod, and have properly adjusted your camera within your panoramic mount to find the nodal point as shown above, you can keep parallax down to a manageable minimum. One of the advantages of shooting panoramas in the Grand Canyon, or anywhere out in the wild for that manner, is that you can fix minor parallax issues within your panoramas and no one will ever know. For distant parts of the scene a little bit of parallax is not an issue: there will be no apparent movement for distant objects from frame to frame. For objects very near to you, say like a rock on the ground only a short distance from your feet, that little bit of parallax can be very apparent and annoying. Well you’ve probably heard of Photoshop the software program used as a verb, usually pejoratively, as in ‘yeah, I just photoshopped that out’. As for that nearby rock in your panorama suffering from parallax, back home, within the stitching or post-stitching parts of your workflow, you can just ‘photoshop’ that rock and its parallax problem away. No one will ever know. It will look perfectly natural. I have had to fix small parallax issues for nearby objects within nearly every panorama that I have published within the project, and I doubt that you or virtually anyone else has ever noticed. Trust me. You really don’t want to lug around a tripod in your backpack. I’ll cover all the tricks of the trade in a later article.
In the next article in this series, I teach you the little tricks I use when shooting panoramas in the field.