Terra Galleria Photography

North Cascades Alpine larch at night

The dark coniferous forests and imposing mountains of the Cascade Range do not look like an obvious place to look for fall color, but within North Cascades National Park, there are places with impressive displays if you know where to look. In 2010, I had traveled to the North Cascades in late September looking for fall foliage. However, I knew I could find better. Not only the rainy weather had prevented me from photographing at higher elevations, but also I was too early for the subalpine larch, which, curiously for a high-elevation tree, turns later than other trees down in the valleys.

The most unique tree to the area, the subalpine larch (often called alpine larch) is a rare Pacific Northwest deciduous conifer whole needles turn bright gold before falling in mid-October. Besides the northern rockies, the range of the subalpine larch is limited to a narrow band on the eastern ridge of the Cascades – coinciding with the park’s eastern boundary. The subalpine larch requires a dry climate and high elevation. To the west, the climate is too wet, whereas to the east, the elevation is too low. Places to see them in the North Cascades are all reached through trailheads along Highway 20 on its portion east of the main range. The easiest is maybe Blue Lake (4.5 mi RT, 1050 feet elevation gain), while the most popular is Maple Pass (part of the great 7.2 mile, 2000 feet gain Heather – Maple Pass Loop with beautiful views of Lake Ann). I chose instead to hike to Easy Pass (a misnomer: 7 miles RT, 2,800 feet gain) because I knew that from the pass I would be able to photograph views deep into North Cascades National Park with the subalpine larch in the background. On the loop, most of the great views are outside of the park itself.

Another reason for this choice is that I had planned create new night images at the pass. They would be possibly the first night photographs of the alpine larch photographed in the park – a Google Image search for “larch night north cascades” did not turn any night images. I would normally camp. However the park service doesn’t allow camping at the pass itself, and the nearest authorized campsite is more than 1,000 feet down on the other side at Fisher’s Creek. With no close proximity camping possible, I devised an odd plan. I would start in late morning and arrive with a few hours of daylight, then stay after dark to photograph, and return at night, aided by the full moon. Since I would be hiking down in the dark, I preferred a in-and-out hike to a loop, not only because I wouldn’t be encountering unknown terrain at night, but also because I wouldn’t miss photo opportunities on the hike.

I crossed path with hikers going down. There were some good views on the trail, but by mid-day, the valley that it was following was mostly in the shade. Once I reached the pass, they became spectacular in all directions. True to what the ranger told me, the larch trees, which were mostly absent from the trail, were densely clustered on the crest. I regretted not starting earlier so that I would have had more time to explore around. Arriving at the pass in the afternoon, I photographed cross-lit trees along a slope that was just getting in the shade, and also backlit, two situations that helped emphasize the tree’s colors. After photographing wide views in all directions, I looked for close-ups of the trees and their needles. The heavy 100-400mm telephoto that I had lugged up the pass helped me isolate them against the background of a mountain face in the shade, which created contrast with its darker tone and blue tint. However, I also liked the complementary texture of a rock wall when both the trees and the wall were kissed by the last light of the day.

I normally try to avoid planning trips around the full moon, because although it is delightful for hiking and for photographing in the city, it is the least favorable time of the month for night photography of natural scenes. However I happened to be here by the full moon as I had initially hoped to photograph the lunar eclipse. It turned out that after I announced on social media that I had booked a flight for the next morning and planned to be at Shi-Shi beach next night, a few photographers pointed out to me that the eclipse was to take place on the same night, not the next night. Oops! I had a second reason for taking the trip at that time. The next few days would be my last chance of the season to visit Stehekin (more on that in the next post) and bad weather was moving in.

The problem with full-moon photography is that if you fully expose an image, it will look just like a daylight image, with only a few stars added to a very bright sky. To get around that challenge, the solution I have found is to underexpose and add some of the artificial light – that make moonlit city scenes work. I used a 2-stop hard edge GND (although you don’t necessary think about them then, they are also useful by night !) to reduce the sky’s brightness and illuminated the subalpine larch with a bright flashlight. Without the GND, the sky would not have a night-time appearance, especially since the numerous clouds catching moonlight were very bright. As seen on the background, without the additional illumination, the trees would be very dark and their colors lost.

I normally prefer the sharper and wider Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 for night photography, but since it doesn’t take normal filters, I carried instead a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8. I made my first night exposures about one hour after sunset, just as the moon was rising. They required an exposure of 30s f/2.8 ISO 3200. Just one hour later, the moon was illuminating enough of the landscape that I could change to different compositions in which the mountains were more present. By that time, the exposure was reduced to 20s f/2.8 ISO 1600. After standing around at the pass for several hours at night, I was beginning to feel a bit of a chill despite wearing all my layers. Confident that I had nailed the shots (all night images are single exposure minimally processed only in Lightroom), I headed down. It turned out to be the last clear night I would see on my trip.

More photos of North Cascades National Park

Yosemite’s Meadow Fire Photos and Video

Sierra Nevada forest fires are part of the cycle of nature. Lightning started one such fire weeks ago within the designated wilderness of the Yosemite National Park, in Little Yosemite Valley between Half Dome and Mount Starr King. On Sunday afternoon (Sept 7, 2014), fanned by high winds, it exploded all of a sudden, belching plumes of smoke that could be seen from as far as Reno. All trails starting from Happy Isles, including Mist and Half-Dome closed down. More than 100 hikers had to be evacuated, many of them by an helicopter airlift from the top of Half-Dome.

I heard of the fire on Twitter and saw a few dramatic photos on Monday morning. Some very extensive forest fires had been burning at the periphery of the park over the past couple years, but this time it happened in scenic the heart of the park, next to Yosemite’s icon, Half-Dome. After picking up my kids from school on Monday, I drove to Yosemite.

Until the 1960s, complete fire suppression was the only fire policy in national parks and national forests. However, environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold had recognized long before that wildfires were beneficial to ecosystems – being needed for the propagation of some trees. In the 1960s, it was indeed discovered that no new Giant Sequoia had grown in the Sierra Nevada. Since fires are somehow inevitable, if none are allowed to burn then the undergrowth fuels will keep accumulating, leading to risks of huge fires – such as last year’s Rim Fire which started on national forest lands that do not have controlled burns like Yosemite. As the Wilderness Act in 1964 encouraged respect for natural processes, the Park Service changed its policy, to normally let fires run their course with just a fire watch, as they could be contained within fire management units and objectives.

However, this year, 80% of California is subject to “extreme drought” conditions. Yosemite has been so dry that the Park Service were concerned the Meadow fire would attain gigantic proportions if left unchecked after its Sunday expansion. Therefore, they proceeded to combat it vigorously, to good effect. The entire Bridalveil Creek campground was used to house some of 400 firefighters. They worked so hard that the fire’s activity had already diminished a lot by Monday night, and then even more by Tuesday night. As this morning, I read that the Half-Dome trail is expected to re-open this Saturday.

Watching the destruction of some of the forests where I had backpacked brought some sadness, although I knew that nature would eventually recover. Although I missed the most spectacular night, I was still fortunate to witness this awesome sight on two nights and the day in between, and I am glad that the fire is under control. I tried to make iconic landscape photographs including the fire, rather than concentrating on it. For that, my favorite viewpoint was from the hairpin turn just before Glacier Point. I also hiked to Sentinel Dome by day and night, where I found unusual images of the smoke filling up the surrounding valleys – Yosemite Valley was very smoky. I’ve mixed images from both nights below, but you can tell them apart, as the moon was rising earlier the first day, and the plume was more clearly defined. Any favorite ? What do those images make you feel ?

Wilderness and National Parks

The US was the first country in the world to establish a National Park. Fifty years ago today, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, the US also became the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas. The landmark law provided for the first time the legal definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”, in the lyrical words of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Act. Establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System, the law put in place federal protections meant to be permanent for Wildernesses. Like National Parks – and unlike National Monuments, which can be established by presidential authority – designation of a Wilderness requires approval by congress. Initially, Wildernesses started at 54 Forest Service-administered areas that totaled 9.1 million acres. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System has grown to 758 areas that total just under 110 million acres, administered by four agencies. Here is a listing of Wildernesses by state and an interactive map.

The National Parks are defined by the icons as they were set aside for their exceptional scenic values. By contrast, Wildernesses are lands that have retained their primeval character and have outstanding opportunities for solitude. Instead of the icons and easy access which draw tourist visitation, I see them as offering a beauty to be discovered by personal explorations, away from the crowds.

With that in mind, I was a surprised to see amongst the award winners of the “Wilderness Forever” Photography contest, images made from locations such as Horsetail Falls in Yosemite Valley and the road bridge over the Virgin River in Zion, where you park nearby and stand elbow-to-elbow with fellow photographers at sunset. Denali Wilderness occupies 16,444 square miles, yet the grand prize winner was photographed at the most iconic spot in the park, Wonder Lake, which is not included in Denali Wilderness – being roadside. Since rules emphasized that photographs had to be taken in Wildernesses, aren’t you wondering why the jury – certainly a very knowledgeable and well-qualified group – made such choices ?

While both National Parks and Wildernesses provide for protection and enjoyment, Wildernesses go a step further in protection, excluding mechanical or motorized travel (and therefore roads) and buildings.

I like the fact that the National Park Service has strived to make the National Parks easily accessible to anybody, through construction of roads engineered to take in the best scenery in the country, and development of excellent facilities. An easy visit can lead many to realize that they can enhance their lives by connecting more with nature. I was grateful for road access while lugging my large format photography equipment, however, I find the slower pace of the trail or paddle, and the total immersion in nature that it provides, a more authentic and satisfying experience than stepping out of a car to photograph a wild-looking scene. Experience is the foundation of my photography, one of my the primary goals being to inspire people to go and seek the experiences that I had.

Although they represent two different approaches to conservation, National Parks and Wildernesses often coincide. The National Parks, where I have focused much of my work, are home to many Wildernesses. 53% of National Park Service lands are Wilderness, as comported to only 19% of Forest Service lands, 14% of Fish and Wildlife Service lands, and 4% of Bureau of Lands Management lands. In addition to the well-known icons of the parks, I have strived to explore those wilderness areas, on long trails or backpacking trips. I count myself as fortunate to make a living while sharing my experiences in the natural world through photography, but more importantly today, I am grateful that those who came before me, such as photographers Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Philip Hyde, contributed so much to the preservation of these special places, where future generations will be able to have the same experiences that I had. Here are ten photographs made in the designated Wilderness areas of National Parks. Do you recognize any of the locations ?

150 Years of Photography in Yosemite

June 30th, 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, the 1864 bill signed by Abraham Lincoln – in the midst of the Civil War, which set aside in perpetuity the world’s first parkland for public use.

Seed of the Future by Dayton Duncan, elaborates on how the national park idea was born and evolved in Yosemite. Yellowstone became famously the world’s first national park only because at that time Wyoming was a territory (thus unable to administer Yellowstone, requiring government administration), whereas California was already a state. The book is a great read about Yosemite’s early history. Although some of the material appeared in the first two episodes of the National Parks PBS series, I enjoyed this more detailed refresher.

Photography acted as a driving force in the establishment of the park, because at that time, unlike words, drawings, or paintings, nobody questioned the reality of photographs. White men discovered Yosemite after the invention of photography, so American landscape photography has been there from the beginning and its development became intimately tied to the park.

Charles Weed (left) made the first photographs of Yosemite in 1859. However Carleton Watkins (“Yosemite Valley from the Best General View” (1866), right), who began to photograph in Yosemite two years later, quickly eclipsed his work. Although this was a vast and unexplored park, Watkins often worked from the same exact locations as Weed. However, he consistently made better compositions by changes in camera position and light. For instance, the tree is better placed in this photograph, avoiding a merger with the valley rim. The most obvious improvement was print size. At that time, no enlargement was possible, so to obtain a larger print, you needed to produce a larger negative with a bigger camera. Watkins brought an 18×22 inch camera to Yosemite – together with 2,000 pounds of equipment, as glass plates had to be coated and processed in the field, a mind-boggling technical achievement. Photographers and esthetes may point out to the superior artistry in Watkins work, but I think it is the size that captured the public’s imagination.

Watkins photographs of Yosemite quickly set the standard. They were circulated in Congress in 1964 to gather support for the Yosemite Grant. Seeing them in person, I was astonished by the beauty of the prints, which have exquisite detail and tonality. The comparison with the immense majority of modern prints is humbling and goes some ways to explain why you don’t often see contemporary nature landscape photographs in art museums. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can view them for yourself at the exhibit Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums. The exhibit closes in less than two weeks, but if you miss it, the surprisingly affordable catalog is well worth checking.

Man and Yosemite: a Photographers View of the Early Years by Ted Orland discusses in detail the work of the 19th Yosemite photographers. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams set a new standard for Yosemite photography with his sophisticated style and technique, as can be seen by comparing his “Clearing Winter Storm” (1944) to Watkins “Yosemite Valley from the Best General View”. Ted Orland concluded “Man and Yosemite” with those words: “So pervasively has his vision become ours that many of the million people each year who photograph Yosemite Valley do so with the hope that, if everything turns out just right, the result will not simply look like Yosemite, it will look like an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite“.

Last June, I was honored to be interviewed as a representative of 21th-century photography in a short TV report featuring Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams by Al Jazeera America – two weeks after being quoted by Fox News. To play the 3-minute video, enter the password “yosemite” below or in this link if the embed below doesn’t show up.

The half-hour interview discussed the history of photography in Yosemite and the possibilities to create new work there, but the footage was edited to thirty seconds. I thought you might enjoy my comments about my 2002 winter sunset photograph shown in the TV report.

I don’t consider the existence of so many great Yosemite photographs a hindrance. Rather, they provide a useful yardstick against you can measure yourself and try to go beyond – if only occasionally. Adams photographed many times from Tunnel View. His books (see survey) “American Wilderness” and “Ansel Adams at 100″ include series of photographs from that viewpoint. I felt that Adams “owned” the view so much that I consider my work there to be an hommage. For a long time, I had wanted to make a photograph that Adams hasn’t made before, while using his most often repeated composition. So I sought a photograph in which color would be an integral part, one which would not work in black and white. This meant looking for color contrast. The Yosemite granite walls being grey, the most color contrast would be found at sunset between the warm illuminated cliff tops and the valley bottom, which would turn blue in open shade. Most evenings, the valley bottom would be too dark, but fog in the bottom would lighten it up, and enhance the blue tint. One evening, as I was in the Valley, I noticed the fog forming and a hole in the western horizon. I rushed to Tunnel View, and here was my gift. The color added a new mood and emotional impact to the (kind of) 150-year old view.

Are you still photographing at Tunnel View ? Does the long history of photography in Yosemite inspire you ?

Crater Lake’s Wizard Island

Most of the photographs of Crater Lake are made from the rim. They often include Wizard Island, whose shape varies with viewpoint. Even when standing directly above Wizard Island, such from the Watchman, the island looks quite small. After looking at it from a distance many times, the main goal of my last trip to Crater Lake was to visit Wizard Island.

Tours are given from July to mid-September with hourly departures. No other watercrafts are allowed on the lake. As I often improvise, on my previous visit, I was disappointed that the tour was sold out. This time, I made a reservation in advance (reservation site). It is even more imperative to do so if you plan to hike on Wizard Island since each day only a couple of tour boats drop and pick-up passengers there.

Since it is illegal and dangerous to scramble down the steep and fragile crater walls, Cleetwood Cove is the only place where you can access the lake, via a 2.2 miles RT trail. You are hiking in a dense forest, with few views until you come close to the water. The trail is one of the most used in the park because it is the access route for the boat tour.

The water temperature at the surface is usually around 55F (12.8C) – and 38F (3.3C) at the bottom. I was content with just dipping my toes in the lake, but more hardy visitors jumped right in.

The boat tour provides you with a different perspective on the cliffs surrounding the lake. They appear much taller seen from the water.

The Phantom ship, dwarfed by rim cliffs from a distance, reveals its true size. To include its reflection in the water, I needed a 14mm lens.

You pass near a couple of waterfalls which are not visible from the rim. Above all, I felt that riding in the boat got me more intimately acquainted with the lake than just observing it from overlooks. Since you are not allowed to stand in the boat except during a few stops, try to secure an external seat for better views.

Wizard Island looks deceptively low from the rim, but is is 700 feet high. As the boat approached, although it is an easy, family-grade outing, I felt the excitement of setting foot on an island that relatively few visit.

The steep 1-mile (RT) hike to the crater summit rewards you with views in all directions over the lake and caldera, punctuated with striking bleached whitebark pine trees.

The other trail (2 miles RT) leads to Fumarole Bay, where I found delightful emerald and turquoise waters that contrasted with the deep blue of the rest of the lake. Although the trail is mostly flat, I had to be careful not to twist my ankle as it is very rocky and difficult to follow past the first bay. Unlike on the summit trail, I had the place mostly to myself.

When you reserve your Wizard Island tour, you have the option of spending 3 hours or 6 hours on the island. Although it may sound a lot of time to spend there, with 6 hours, I had to rush my second hike, running down the trail to make sure I didn’t miss the boat. As overnight stays are not allowed, a boat would come and pick you up, but you’d be charged hundreds of dollars for that.

Back at Cleetwood Cove, at the beach, rocks in the water make for foregrounds to water-level wide views of the lake which are good early and late in the day. Even if not taking the boat tour, it would be worth hiking down there to touch the water and experience the lake up close.

I concluded a great day by staying around until the last light, before hiking up 674 feet of elevation gain in the cool temperatures of the evening.

View photos of Crater Lake National Park

How to make 360 degrees spherical panoramas

I’ve been asked how I created my 360 spherical panoramas (360s). By the way, if you haven’t, be sure to check the latest ones from the Grand Canyon. A detailed tutorial would take several posts, so instead I’m going to try and explain just the finer points I’ve learned – information which doesn’t seem to have been shared by prominent practitioners of this genre.

In this post, I am concerned only about making high-quality 360 degrees (horizontal) by 180 degrees (vertical) panoramas, which means besides high resolution and dynamic range, absolutely seamless stitches over the entire sphere. For making less demanding 360s, there are much easier solutions, from mobile phone apps to a devices such as the Ricoh Theta which creates a 360 in a single shot.

Tripod

Even thought it is much smaller than a flat Gigapixel panorama, a 360 is actually more difficult to pull out successfully. Technique needs to be perfect. 360 means that you are looping back on a sphere, so any alignment flaw will be visible.

While it is quite practical to create normal multi-image panoramas by hand-holding, especially with distant subjects, this just does not work for 360s. Unless you create the 360 from a flying platform (maybe more on that in a future post), you are going to have something at a camera distance less than your height. Close subjects easily cause misalignments if you are not rotating exactly along the optical center. They also require you to stop down a lot for depth of field, resulting in low shutter speeds even in daylight.

Panoramic head

To work on a tripod, you need a two-axis panoramic head, also called spherical head. Its main purpose is to make sure your lens rotates about its optical center (often referred to as nodal point, although this term is not technically correct) in two directions. This is necessary because except for circular fish-eye lenses (8mm), you cannot capture 180 degrees vertical with a single row of shots, even with your camera mounted in vertical orientation – the normal way to work. Separate degrees of rotation make it easy to shoot multiple rows.

Spherical heads are readily available from Nodal Ninja (several choices designed from the ground-up for 360s), Really Right Stuff (RRS – more versatile, but generally heavier and not as convenient for 360s) and several others.

Factors in choosing a spherical head are: capability to support, provide enough adjustment and clearance for your camera and lens, ease of use, versatility (can components be used as a one-axis head ?), compatibility with Arca systems, possibility to reverse the vertical component, size and weight.

I prefer to mount the spherical head on top of my existing ball head, as it makes it faster to level and align the spherical head.

I made my own by mixing components from four different companies:

  • Horizontal rotator: RD 5 from Nodal Ninja. Unlike RRS gear, this has very useful click-stops to take pictures at a fixed angular rotations – several increments are available. I mount it on a custom-machined Arca-compatible plate for quick attachment to existing ball head.
  • Clamp: 42mm screw knob clamp from Sunwayfoto. Not strictly necessary, since base rail could be attached directly to rotator, however this makes it possible to easily use rotator as 1-axis head for 54g (lightest Arca clamp).
  • Base rail: MPR-192 rail from RRS. Sturdy, large integrated bubble-level. I installed a MPR-C flange for marking the pre-determined position of the vertical rail.
  • Vertical Rail with 90 degrees clamp: DMC-200 from Sunwayfoto. Longer than the corresponding RRS product, provides more clearance for shooting up.
  • Vertical rotator: DDH-03 panning clamp from Sunwayfoto. Despite smaller size and lighter weight, locks much better than the corresponding RRS product (RRS subsequently designed a much stronger vertical rotator, but it is quite heavy and bulky)
  • Camera slider: rail with integrated Arca clamp from Hejnar Photo. This was custom designed and manufactured for the same cost as their stock sliders – talk about really right stuff ! – to be the longest possible slider which doesn’t get into the field of view of the 15mm fish-eye lens. If I plan to use the Nikon 14-24 instead, I carry the longer MPR-CL II from RRS.

Aligning the panoramic head

Once you’ve chosen your spherical head, the next task is to align it for your camera(s) and lens(es) at home. For a zoom lens, you need to sample different focal lengths, as each of them will require a different setting. You will then note the correct settings so that you can reproduce them easily in the field. That’s what the markings on the rails are for. I determined settings for all the lenses I am likely to use for a pano, and printed those numbers on a label taped to the rail.

Align the vertical rail by sliding it (or the whole horizontal rail) so that the center of the lens is aligned with the base axis of rotation. This alignment depends only on camera dimensions. It is independent from lens choices.

For the camera alignment, find two horizontal objects, one very close, one far. Position equipment so that they line up in the center of the image. Stopping down and using magnified live-view helps. Rotate the camera as far as it will go while keeping both objects in the image. If the near and far points are still vertically aligned, rotation doesn’t cause mis-aligments and you are done. Otherwise slide the camera back or forward until they are aligned, and verify that rotation doesn’t cause mis-alignments. This camera alignment is specific to the lens and camera used.

Lens

Whereas in normal photography, only the sensor resolution determines the image pixel count, for a 360, it also depends on the choice of the focal length. Longer focal lengths yield proportionally higher-resolution panos. On the other hand, longer focal lengths require proportionally more shots, which is problematic when the light is quickly changing. In the table below, I have indicated panorama sizes obtained with a Canon 5DmkIII (5760 × 3840 pixels, 22MP), as well as number of shots required with an overlap of 30% between images.

The resolution you need is proportional to the screen size, and inversely proportional to the field of view of the virtual lens. For instance, to display with the perspective of a 35mm lens on a 2000 pixels screen, this would be (360 / 54) x 2000 = 13,333 pixels .

You should use the shortest lens that provides the resolution you want. Many experienced shooters prefer the 15mm Fish-eye, as it offers a good compromise: large enough for display on big screens, yet only one row to shoot, plus up and down, with large overlap that makes assembling the 360 easy. I often use the 14mm since I carry a 14-24 as part of my standard kit. More information is available on this panoramic lens database.

Lens FOV (h,v) # rows shots by rows # shots pano size
8mm fish 180,180 1 2(3) 2(3) 7680×3840
15mm fish 150,100 3 1+6+1 8 15400×7700
14mm 104,81 3(4) 1+6+6 (+1) 13(14) 19880×9940
17mm 93,70 4 1+8+8+1 18 22224×11112
24mm 74, 53 4 1+10+10+1 22 28134×14067
35mm 54, 38 6 1+12+12+12+12+1 50 38116×19058

Pano sizes are theoretical numbers. In practice, some pixels are wasted by distortion correction. Spherical panoramas always have a 2:1 aspect ratio.

Formulas:
nb_pixels_pano_h = (360/FOV_lens_h) * nb_pixels_camera_h
nb_shots = FOV_pano / (non_overlap_percent x FOV_lens)
nb_pixels_camera_h=5760
non_overlap_percent=0.7
FOV_pano=360,180

Shooting

Level the head. This is faster if you are using a ballhead or leveling base, but then lock the head really tight because you are going to put a lot of stress on it later. Use the panning base of the ballhead to align the base rail with a tripod leg.

Switch to manual focus. You need to make sure not to change the lens focus between shots, as this causes stitching problems. With ultra wide lenses, it to obtain enough depth of field it is enough to focus near hyperfocal distance and stop down the lens. Exposure should also be manual. If shooting RAW, white balance can be synchronized in post processing. Since the field of view is so large, the dynamic range will often be too large for a single exposure, in which case you should use exposure brackets.

Once all your camera settings are correct, shoot as many rows as necessary to cover the whole sphere, while making sure that you have enough overlap between views, ideally around 30%.

The less efficient way to proceed is to look in the viewfinder. It is better to pre-calculate number of shots needed, and use the angular scale to execute them. The most efficient is to use a head with click-stops. With it, you can rotate the camera mindlessly. You do not to have to look at a scale in dim light. If standing at the edge of a cliff you can focus on your footing.

Here are the 14 images which were used to assemble the Colorado River panorama:

Removing the tripod

Photographing the entire sphere is difficult because of the tripod. Photoshop it out ? This would be very time-consuming, and often problematic because the tripod and head covers quite a large portion of the image. In fact, most of the time I remove the tripod without a trip to Photoshop, in the stitching software (Autopano Giga).

The key is to take a picture of the ground lying under the tripod, while making sure that the camera stays in the same position. The simplest would be to hold the camera in place with one hand at arm’s length, then take the tripod out with the other hand and shoot, but this assumes you can keep the camera in the same position with precision and shoot handheld. I’ve seen a number of complicated tripod techniques on the Internet. Although I came up with the idea myself, I’m sure there are others using the technique I am going to describe.

First take a shot looking straight down. Mark the point on the ground which intersects the optical axis. For that, I use a plumb line, but it is also possible to look at the image. Then reverse the vertical rail and place it near the end of the horizontal slider so that the camera overhangs. The camera now looks directly at the ground. Such a cantilevered position is a good test of your ball-head holding power ! Then move the tripod to a position where the optical axis of the camera intersects again with the mark on the ground. Take a second shot. The tripod is still present in the second shot, but it is in a different position than on the first shot. After the two images are aligned, if you’ve proceeded carefully, the two positions of the tripod won’t overlap, so it is easy to select the portions of each image without the tripod.

You’ll notice that most of my 360s are photographed with the camera in the shade. This way I do not have to worry about removing the tripod’s shadow – not to mention having the sun in the picture.

Assembling

If exposure brackets were used, I first merge them – in batch mode – using Lightroom/Enfuse, which uses exposure blending rather than HDR to create natural looking images with better dynamic range.

Photoshop CC’s Photomerge can assemble multi-row 360s, but not a full 360×180 panorama. You need specialized panoramic software for that. Autopano and PTGui, the two leaders, are both very powerful. Hugin is free and quite close to PTGui. PTGui has more options. As promised by its name, Autopano is more automated. For our purpose, the main difference between Autopano Pro and Autopano Giga (my choice) is that the later let you mark which areas you want to keep or eliminate in two overlapping images. That’s how I remove the tripod, but it is also possible to align images in Photoshop prior to assembling and erase layers to achieve the same effect. Once the 360 is assembled, I color-correct it in Photoshop as I would for a normal image. In the case of the Colorado River, here is the resulting file:

Displaying

The 360×180 is assembled as a spherical image. You need software to display it as a virtual really view. I use Krpano because of its performance, automatic switching between Flash & HTML5, and inclusion of tools to convert the spherical image to cube images which are easier to edit if necessary. You may prefer software with a graphical interface, but I like to edit code. Pano2VR is the less expensive choice with all necessary functionality. Panotour is a nice graphical interface to krpano but lacks the conversion tools. Panotour Pro (which includes them) is much more expensive. All those generate on the fly normal-looking perspectives from the 360 file such as those:

If all those steps have not discouraged you, I wish you a lot of fun creating 360 spherical panoramas, and would enjoy seeing your creations.

Half Grand Canyon rafting

Yesterday was the day I was to fly out of the Grand Canyon, but my trip down the River was cut short one week ago. After making the following image upon entering Horn Creek Rapids, I have no recollections of what happened in the following minute, only of feeling pain and hearing concerned voices around me.

It turned out I had broken my collarbone after losing my grip. The worse of the physical pain was to come one week after the injury: I had to call 911 from home and spend 6 hours in the emergency room after a bone shifted, leaving me in debilitating pain, and maybe the prospect of a surgery. This was the biggest disappointment I had suffered, on so many levels, but in particular to have let down a fine group of photographers and persons. Sorry I had to leave and thanks for your help Sonia, Mark, Tom, Victor, Elaine, Dick, Margit & Juergen, Meggi, Linda, Sun, and John. Fortunately they were able to continue the trip with co-leader Oliver and great river guides from Hatch River Expeditions: Kelly, Lena, Riley (sp ?), Sean, Dom, and Matt.

In 2003, I had reached the Colorado River in the course of a tough four-day backpacking trip with an elevation change of 5,000 feet, where I had to carry 8 quarts of water in addition to the usual camping gear and 5×7 camera. As I hiked on the trail between Tapeats Creek and Deer Creek. I noticed rafts whizzing by, seemingly without effort. Since that day, I’ve wanted to explore the River by raft.

Back then, there were no photography-oriented trips on the river. I saw some in the past few years, but although they were led by prominent photographers, the timing decisions made on some trips looked questionable. They also all used motorized rafts. I understand that they travel faster, nevertheless, they looked a bit like busses. The quiet and intimacy of the smaller oar-powered rafts, traveling at the pace of the river, looked appealing. Experiences are the foundations of my photography, and an oar-powered seemed to provide a better experience on the river, as well as more opportunities for action photographs.

The expedition I had planned was exactly the trip I wanted to be on. For the first five days, except for one adjustment (necessary because of slower travel on the river than expected), it went perfectly on track. Each day, we went for a hike of about one hour (RT) to explore side canyons accessible only from the river.

Our first hike was the North Canyon (river mile 20). It was only 1.5 miles RT, but hiking times can be deceptive in the Grand Canyon, as we had to scramble over boulders. The highlight of North Canyon was a reflection pool at the base of a sculpted spillway, which fortunately was still in the shade at 8:30am.

Nankoweap Granaries (river mile 53) were used by the ancient Anasazi people (earliest Grand Canyon habitation) to store their seed stock and protect it from vermin and rot. One of the last regions that the Anasazi moved into was Nankoweap Canyon, which ends in the largest tributory delta in the Canyon. The abrupt departure, beginning at AD 1100, but also what prompted those people to move into Nankoweap Canyon remain a mystery. 500 feet above the river, the views were spectacular in late afternoon. We stayed until dark for a rare night photography session there.

Little Colorado River (mile 61) is one of only two side streams of the Colorado River with turquoise color, others are clear. Color is caused by high alkalinity, and dissolved calcium carbonate in the water. After the summer rains, it turns brown.

From the Cardenas campsite, a 30 minute hike up the hill provided for sunset a great view of the Palissades of the Desert, and for sunrise an impressive river bend which includes the Unkar Rapids (River mile 72) observed from the top of a sheer cliff.

In mid-afternoon, we scrambled directly in a refreshing stream aptly named Clear Creek to see box canyons culminating into double spouted Clear Creek Falls (mile 84).

Most our time was spent floating the river. This was particularly rewarding in the shade of the stricking Redwall limestone cliffs that dominate Marble Canyon. The tall, vertical, brightly colored, north-south oriented walls were more photogenic than Granite Gorge which began after the Little Colorado confluence. Unlike other famous whitewater rivers, the Colorado doesn’t sport continuous rapids, but instead alternates between rapids u and long calm sections. Some of the Grand Canyon rapids reach class V, on the International Scale of River Difficulty I-VI, with VI meaning “unrunnable” – if a rapid is repeatdely run that was once thought to be class VI, it is typically reclassified as Class V.

On the calm sections, it was easy to photograph with a DSLR camera. Although many – including myself – used waterproof Lowepro DryZone 200 bags, the most handy place to store a camera and lens was the small dry bag provided by the outfitter as day bag.

On the rapids, using a flexible waterproof enclosure (the Outex), I was able to photograph water splashes. However, this is what ultimately may have caused my accident. On the strong rapids, we were told to hang on with both hands to the raft. If only I had listened … why didn’t I heed the advice ? The rear line on our raft, to which I should have held, was behind the tube, so I didn’t see it. It had been recharged and unused, however the battery of my hands-free (head-mounted) Gopro was flat. The ride had been quite smooth in some of the previous big rapids (including feared Hance), where it was enough to hang on with one hand – which some other photographers in the group also did. However each rapid is different. Nobody saw exactly what had happened to me, but our river guide thinks I was tossed forward when the bow plunged, hit her back with my head (losing consciousness for 30 seconds), and then something else with my clavicle. The lesson: hold on with one hand in the front and one hand in the back.

Although the NPS performs between 2 and 8 evacuations per day, most of them are for hiking falls or dehydration. River accidents are rare. About 1,500 people ride with his company each year, but the last river accident Steve Hatch remembers requiring an evacuation was about a dozen years ago, also on Horn Creek Rapids.

Since it was too late on that day, I got to spend one last night in the Canyon with only mild pain, watching the river flow as I talked with Oliver about the trip. A NPS helicopter evacuated me to the rim at first light. From there, I boarded a NPS ambulance to Valle, then a private ambulance to the Flagstaff hospital, which discharged me remarkably fast. I was able to find a flight home that day. It was less expensive to buy a new one-way fare on US Airways than to change the existing reservation. I am specially grateful to Steve Hatch and his wife Sarah for their kindness in personally taking care of me upon discharge, and also for mailing me my gear.

View landscape images of Grand Canyon
(in particular Marble Canyon 1/2, North Canyon, Nankoweap, Little Colorado, Unkar, Granite Gorge)

View images of Rafting the Grand Canyon

New series: “The Ground”

In the post Year 2013 in Review and Parks Nights Favorites, I mentioned that although I release images in large blocks based on geography, I’ve been working on a number of photographic series. That post introduced the series “The Night”, where recent advances in digital photography help to capture the stars in the prominent sky.

In this post, I am presenting some images of the series “The Ground”, where we look under our feet for an often overlooked view. To make the perspective look even less familiar, I have actually removed all perspective by pointing the camera straight down.

Eliot Porter wrote “Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject”. Those images, covering just a few square feet, have been framed to be representative of entire ecosystems. They often include features unique to each place. In my National Parks project, I am interested in the individual character of each place; how each one represents a set of unique ecosystems, yet collectively, all are interrelated and interconnected like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The next series in the National Parks project will look at a much smaller subject that will surprise you.

View more images from this series

Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

Part 6 (last) of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Although Kyaiktiyo, also known as Golden Rock, is one of most incredible sights anywhere, we offered the visit as an extension to the Myanmar photo tour because it is a more arduous journey. It started with a ride (by private mini-bus) to Kyaikhto, about 160km from Yangon, which took about five hours.

From the base station, the only access to the hilltop is by foot (only done by the most hardy pilgrims), or by custom busses, which are just large pick-up trucks with seats. As the sign says, the fare of 3,000 kyat (US $3) includes life-insurance.

Each bus carries 35 passengers seated on hard benches in the back. We were part of the few lucky on the front, although even there it is quite cramped and bumpy. The trip takes one hour, not including a stop mid-way, necessary because on the upper segment, the road is one-lane. I’ve read that because it is too hazardous, foreigners are not allowed to ride that segment, but we were able to do so, which saved 45 minutes of uphill walking.

The amenities at the hilltop hotels are quite basic. During mealtime, as one of the legs of my chair plunged through a hole in the floor which was covered with linoleum, I almost fell. However, we were just a few minutes from the Kyaiktiyo pagoda. Near the entrance, young men were playing Chin Lone, a no-hands version of volleyball, using as a net post one of the ladders provided for climbing into the busses.

The focus of Kyaiktiyo is the Golden Rock, a large granite boulder covered with gold leaves pasted on by devotees. The gravity-defying boulder lies on an inclined rock slab with a small area of contact, overhanging for half its length.

On top of the rock, a small pagoda has been built. It is said that it is a strand of Buddha’s hair enshrined in it which miraculously prevents the rock from tumbling down the hill.

While the Golden Rock is a wondrous sight at any time of the day – there is nothing like it anywhere else – it is most beautiful at dawn and dusk, when it glows magically.

Due to its remote location, the atmosphere surrounding the Golden Rock is much more charged with mysticism and devotion than other sites we have visited. Pilgrims light up candles, pray and chant through the night.

The Golden Rock is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay. Food and souvenirs are available at the nearby Potemkin village, where the ambiance is more festive.

When time comes to go to sleep, many pilgrims camp right on the plaza, wrapped in thick blankets against the chill of the hilltop location (1,100 meters elevation).

With the exception of a few, guesthouses cater to Burmese people. Probably due to the more arduous journey, the number of tourists is still relatively small, which contributes to the quality of the atmosphere.

On the way back to Yangon, we made a lunch stop in Bago. There, this cyclo driver was reading a newspaper featuring a picture of some folks who looked awfully familiar.

Our photo tour group made it into the news !

See more photos of Kyaiktiyo

Part 6 (last) of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Lake Inle, Myanmar

Part 5 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Day 8 (cont)

Nyaung Shwe is the main gateway to Lake Inle. We photographed children in two different settings there, first at a school as they were playing at recess, always a fun interaction for everyone.

Inside the Shweyanpyay Monastery, the ambiance was more studious.

Outside, we noticed beautiful window openings and waited for a few monks to look out.

One of Myanmar’s most spectacular and breathtaking sights is tranquil Inle Lake. The lake’s shore and islands are home to 17 villages built on stilts and inhabited by the native Intha people.

One of the main focus of our stay in Lake Inle was to photograph the famous Intha Fishermen. We created a fresh perspective on this iconic subject by photographing them from above, right from the deck of our resort.

Photographing from a stable position instead of a boat also let us create rare dusk images with lanterns. Intha Fishermen are known for their technique of rowing wrapping one of the legs around the oar to relieve and free arms for fishing.

Day 9

At dawn and for half-an-hour after sunrise, Inle Lake is often graced with a thin layer of mist floating just above the water. A backlit angle emphasizes the mist rising around the Intha Fishermen.

Photographed in the warm light of sunrise, this group demonstrate fishing using the typical conical net.

Kayan women of the Padaung tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. We visited a weaving workshop where besides seeing them working, we were able to make portraits in a relaxed atmosphere.

In the afternoon, we took a boat ride down to the Indein village on the western shores. With hundreds of small stupas in a various stages of ruin, the Indein Pagoda complex is an amazing and haunting site. I hiked to a nearby hill so that I could use a telephoto to compress the perspective, which conveys the density of the stupas.

For our sunset session, we photographed this canoe. Believe it or not, it was sunken by the resort personnel upon our request (upon checkout, I received a billed listing “canoe service”). To focus on such a simple subject let us learn a lot about composition.

Day 10

We started the day with a third session with the friendly Intha Fishermen. One of the goals was to try to create more natural-looking images than the day before. It was particularly instructive to critique images of the previous day while brainstorming and planning for the next similar photo shoot.

We then crossed the lake to Ywama Village. The boat excursion gave us you an intimate view of life in this unique community where villages and farms perch over water on stilts.

The markets on Lake Inle rotate locations on a 5-day schedule. At this morning market we saw the native Shan people wearing their colorful tribal costumes.

Like Lake villages, the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery is perched on stilts.

In late afternoon, the visited the Maing Thauk Village, outside of the tourist trail.

A family invited us to share a tea in their stilt house.

At sunset, we photographed floating gardens of fruit and vegetables which are anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles.

Day 11

After spending a third night there, it was time to leave the delightful Myanmar Treasure Resort, where each of us enjoyed a private cottage with Lake views.

We enjoyed a beautiful dawn ride to Nyaung Shwe, before driving to Heho, from where we caught a flight back to Yangon.

See more photos of Lake Inle

Part 5 of Myanmar photo tour diary: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6