Ultra Wide Panos
I bought my first Nikon 15mm in 1980 and I never left home without it. A noted photographer commented that I only saw the world through an ultra wide. It wasnít until I was shooting at Glacier Point in Yosemite Natíl Park and I traded the 15mm with another photographer shooting with a 13mm that I really got a feeling for wide. But no matter what I shot with, there was always one thing missing when shooting with ultra wides or pano cameras for me. The height!
We have a peripheral vision of 180į and a binocular vision (important
for depth perception) narrowing that down to 140į. These measurements are
again on the horizontal plane. While this information is easy to obtain,
our vertical vision is not widely known or documented. We have a total
of 135į of vertical vision. This consists of 60į up and 75į down and when
taking binocular vision into account itís reduced to only 95į of vertical
peripheral vision. Shooting with Nikonís 10.5mm with its 180į horizontal
coverage, we come close (but no cigar) to capturing the one element that
brings visual depth to a wide vista. Vertical height.
The Ultra Wide Tools
Creating ultra wide panos (UWP) can be a really time intensive, high skill adventure. You can minimize both time and skill by having the right tools (which is different from owning all of the possible tools). There are lots of tools you can buy to do panos, some being really cool and some being really hokey. Iím a bare minimum, but first class tool kind of guy. With that in mind, you can accept these as just suggestions, knowing that Iím making just these few tools work for me. Youíre certainly welcome to buy others and more while knowing you can be just as successful with this bare minimum.
The most important tool is the lens, thatís true for any photographic enterprise. But itís especially true with ultra wide panos. Weíre going to end up in the digital darkroom, bringing together six individual images. We want to make that process as fast, seamless and painless as possible. This is accomplished by using the unique characteristics of PC lenses. Yeah, you can do it with non-PC lenses, but youíd best have one heck of a PhotoShop knowledge library to draw on because youíll need it!
We need the very essence of the PC lens, its perspective control. There
will be vertical lines in our image, somewhere. If we have
any tilt to the camera, these lines will converge no matter how good of
a lens we shoot with. This wreaks havoc on us in the digital darkroom when
we bring our six images together. We must set up our camera so the film
plane is parallel with our subject. By doing so, our vertical lines wonít
converge and our work in the digital darkroom is a snap! With our camera
set up parallel, we can shift the PC lens to frame the subject as desired.
We also depend on the rotating nature of the PC lens for taking the top
and bottom panels of our UWP (more on that in a second). Nikon made two
wide PC lens focal lengths, 28mm and 35mm. I have and use both. Nikon still
makes the 85mm PC lens and I havenít tried it yet for UWPs, but Iím sure
it would work perfectly.
Once youíve acquired your used PC lens, send it into Nikon to have a CLA, clean, lube and adjust performed. The tracks on the PC lens often take abuse, causing them to be out of alignment. Having them cleaned and aligned makes all the difference in the world in taking sharp images. If your PC lens is so loose that the front element moves on its own from the pull of gravity, send it in! I sent both my 35mm & 28mmPC lenses in and it made a world of difference.
The camera body you use can make your shooting easier. Shooting digital makes the whole process just so much easier and more fun that I canít imagine shooting UWPs with any other medium. My personal preference is the D2H. The main factor is its 100% viewing. That makes it possible to work within really tight tolerances to maximize the finished image size. This is one time the 8fps just isnít needed, in fact I shoot on S firing mode when doing panos. If you shoot with a 96% viewfinder camera like the D1X or D70 (the other two bodies Iíd create UWPs with), Iíll discuss in a moment how to make them work in your favor with their less than 100% viewfinders.
Next you need a nodal plate. Not a noodle plate, a nodal plate.
What the heck is that you ask? Itís an incredibly important
tool that in all honesty is no more than a metal bar that holds
your camera away from the tripod head. Iíll explain how you use it in the
next section, but the nodal plate is what we use to pivot on the lensí
nodal point. We need that so when we pan on the tripod head to take our
panels, weíre panning on the lensí nodal point.
Why do we need this nodal plate? We must work literally around the lensí nodal point. A lensí nodal point is where the light paths cross inside the lens barrel. The nodal plate permits us to set up the camera/lens so the lensí nodal point is directly over the center pivot point of the tripod head. You could say we want to work on the optical pivot point of the lens. We want to rotate on that point as we pan to make our pano panels because it prevents lines from converging (making image assembly a snap). Does finding that nodal point let alone execution scare the bejiggers out of you? No worries, this very complicated sounding process is very simple to accomplish, with the right tools. It is imperative you do work on that point, so you canít skip on this integral piece of equipment.
As a quick review, we use the PC lens and nodal plate to keep our lines all nice and neat. The PC lenses keep lines from getting thicker or thinner and the nodal plate keeps those same lines from bowing in or out. If we have a tree in the frame, without these two essential tools, the tree will be much wider at the bottom of the frame than the top. And depending on which panel itís found, it will bow left or right. Neither of these attributes are ones we want, which is why we have these two tools.
The next piece of equipment is real simple, levels. You should have a built-in level on the top of your tripod and/or tripod leg. In addition, I highly recommend a level in the hot shoe of the camera. I use the Hama Camera Spirit Level. Itís a two way level for pitch and yaw. I also have a carpenterís level resting on top of the nodal plate. I also refer to the level built into the ballhead, the last and most important tool of all.
The tripod head you use will either make your life a breeze or a nightmare (or some shade in between) when it comes to making UWPs. Iím speaking from experience. I tried a number of heads and while they worked, I lost some of my image coverage in the assembly because of the imprecision in the head (not to mention some challenges lining up certain elements in the photo). I have found a head though that is so precise there are no wasted images.
The Really Right Stuff new BH-55 head is the head for creating UWPs (and every other use as well). The key ingredient is the fact that the quick release clamp platform and the base of the BH-55 are parallel when leveled. This is essential because as you rotate the camera to take your series of panels, if there is any slop in this alignment, even the teeny-tiniest, your final images will not perfectly line up and youíll lose image content. There is no way I can emphasize this enough and not until you start to assemble your first UWP will you know exactly what Iím talking about.
With all the correct tools, you can create your own UWPs with real ease. Our goal weíre working towards is matching the final composite image with a view that is similar to all one would see if standing at the place where we took the image. This means replicating our peripheral view. If shooting with a 28mmPC, the final 6 image UWP has the approximate view of 200į x 85į and with the 35mmPC, 165į x 75į. This more than matches our field of vision and brings a power to your images that goes beyond words. Thatís our goal, isnít it?
With these few and simple, yet the best pieces of equipment, the fun can begin!
The Ultra Wide Technique
Ultra wide panos are one of the grandest ways Iíve found to communicate in one image the grandeur Iím seeing. But just because you have a wide vista before you doesnít qualify the view for the making of an UWP. All the rules of ultra wide photography are still in force when framing up an UWP, the main one being, to exclude all the junk and include all the elements that tell the story. How do you know if the vista in front of you will make a great ultra wide pano?
My general rule of thumb is that 3 of the 6 images are strong photographs without being part of the ultra wide pano. If I were to be just shooting normally, 3 of the 6 views in the UWP would be good individual images (why I like the RRS MPR-CL plate as I shoot normally a lot while creating UWP). The placement of these 3 good images in the overall UWP is not important, just that the strength of these 3 images be such that they carry the viewerís eye through the whole image.
While itís part of what makes every great image, LIGHT is incredibly
important in the UWP. Youíve got a lot of area to cover, which raises the
potential for lighting nightmares. Youíll notice that all of my UWP are
shot in a maximum of three stops of light. This makes metering and assembly
in the digital darkroom a whole lot easier. More importantly though it
means we have details in highlights and shadows. If the highlights or shadows
are not an important part of what you are communicating, like say deep
shadowy forms in a sunset, then you can go beyond the three stop range
and still be successful. I just canít stress enough the importance of great
light in making the UWP work.
Once you have your tripod height selected, you want to make darn sure itís on incredibly solid ground. There is nothing worse than to have gone through all the steps to make your UWP only to have your tripod slide on some rock that it was precariously perched on and everything going out of whack. Once I have the tripod at the height I want, I literally lean on the top of the tripod head and push down and wiggle the tripod. Once Iím convinced it is in place I go about leveling the top of the tripod. Shooting with the Gitzo 1348 and 1127G, there is a bubble level built into the top of the tripod platform. I use this for my first, but not last leveling. I often will place the carpenterís level on the tripod as well to double check that it is as level as humanly possible. Itís now time to set up the camera.
I should step back for a moment because before weíre in the field actually shooting, we should determine the nodal point for the lens weíre going to use. This is really simple, no high degree of math or rulers required. We start by attaching the nodal plate to the camera. Shooting with the D2H, 28mmPC and using RRS MPR-CL plate, I sight through the slot on the MPR-CL plate to first line up the nodal plate on the body. With the D2H turned upside down, I slide the MPR-CL onto the body plate (RRS BD2) and slide it so I can see evenly spaced in the slot the number 8 at the back of the lens barrel and f/22 on the front of the lens barrel. With this accomplished, weíre going to place the camera setup in the tripod head.
To find the nodal point, weíre going to need a stick, branch or some straight line about 3-5 feet in front of the camera. Then we need something in the background, anything about 30-50 feet away from the camera. What weíre going to do is look at the relationship of the stick in the foreground with the object in the background. Then weíre going to slide the nodal plate back and forth in the clamp of the tripod head so that when you pan the camera with the ballhead, the stick and object stay lined up no matter where the camera is directly pointed.
Letís say you have a car antenna five feet in front of the
camera. In the background off in the distance you see a patio umbrella
in your neighborís backyard. The car antenna is directly centered in
front of the umbrella when you look through the lens. It needs to stay
in this exact same position as you rotate/pan the camera back and forth.
So if the antenna/umbrella are in the dead center of the viewfinder and
lined up with each other, when you pan so they are either on the extreme
left or right side of the viewfinder, they are still perfectly lined
up with each other. If they are not, then you simply move the nodal plate
either forward or backwards until they remained lined up when you pan.
Itís really easy and takes only a few moments. If youíre using the RRS
MPR-CL, D2H and 28mmPC on the BH-55 head, all you have to do is line
up the grove on the end MPR-CL with the leading edge on the BH-55 clamp
and youíre there. Whether by accident or design, it works every time.
With your nodal point determined, youíre ready to go.
Additionally, the PC lens because it shifts has no automatic diaphragm so there is no automatic aperture. This means it has a manual aperture that you must operate manually with a preset aperture set up. There are two rings, one actually opens and closes the aperture. The other permits you to create a preset stop so you can work with the lens wide open (so you can see through the viewfinder) and then close down to your predetermined aperture by simple rotating the aperture ring until it stops at the preset. Once you have the lens in hand, itís all very clear.
Personally, I generally shoot at f/16-22. Itís very important that when youíre actually shooting you donít accidentally change your f/stop. This will change your focus point and totally ruin your efforts. With the f/stop selected, I meter and manually set the shutter speed. Iíll take a test exposure and look for any blinkies on the monitor. If there are none, Iím good to go. But what if there are, say in the sky, some clouds that are blown out?
The normal cure for this would be to pull out the Split Graduated Neutral Density filter. If, across your three top images of your UWP, you have the general same exposure range and problem, then this is a good option. But if 1 or 2 of the 3 upper panels donít share the same exposure problem, I wonít use the SGND filter. Why? Because of the variance in exposure and its affect on color. It makes it really a pain in the %$#@ to match up the panels later in the digital darkroom! Iím speaking from experience. What I do instead is take two images for the one panel with blown out highlights. I take one image normally and then I take a second one to just record the highlight detail. I then bring those two images together in the digital darkroom to preserve both highlight and shadow detail and then insert the final 1 image into the UWP. (If you donít know how to do this, you need to attend a DLWS J.) With metering accomplished, weíre getting to the fun part, making the images!
Quick review, weíve set up the tripod height based on the final image composition that we want. Weíve found and set up the camera based on the lensí nodal point. Everything is leveled and weíve got our meter setting. Itís time to make magic!
When we get into the digital darkroom to assemble our UWP, we want to have some overlap between the six images so we can merge them cleanly. This amount of overlap varies with each pano shooter. Personally, Iím looking at no more than a 5% overlap between frames. Thatís real tight for most folks but easily doable with the fore described setup. Just how much you shift the PC lens determines your overlap between the top three and bottom three images. Your panning with the ballhead determines your overlap on the vertical image seams. The max shift that I go with the PC lens is eight degrees. More than that and you run the risk of having no overlap at all. I will sometimes shoot at 7.5 degrees if Iím not really confident my leveling is perfect. Nikon PC lenses have a scale on them so you know youíre at these settings.
Once youíve shifted, youíre ready to start shooting. (Be sure youíve
closed your lens down before you actually take your first image.) I set
up my UWP by previsualizing it in the viewfinder before I ever take my
first shot. I look through the viewfinder and line up the left and right
side of my UWP. I look at what elements will be present in each of the
six images, especially the seams and sometimes make adjustments so critical
visual elements are not at those seams. This is something you learn as
you go; there is no clear cut advice to pass along for this part of the
process. Itís where being a photographer comes into play.
With the lens shifted, I take my first image. This will be the top, left image. The lens is shifted to 8į and is positioned so the front element when shifted is above the lens axis and the shift knob is at the bottom of the lens barrel. It is so important, that you understand where the shifted lens is positioned. Because wherever that is, top or bottom, we want the next photo to be taken so the lens is rotated 180į from the first image. We use the shift of the lens to make the upper and lower panel of our UWP. By merely rotating the PC lens in this fashion, weíre able to take the upper and lower images of our UWP. This very simple technique is how we accomplish capturing the vertical aspect of our UWP, the vertical peripheral vision that is missing in every other pano technique!
So let me repeat that. Weíre going to take our pano in three sections,
left, middle and right (you can take more if you like, if your scene can
support the coverage). For each section of the UWP, weíre going to take
two photos, the top and bottom one. To take the top and bottom photo, you
simply rotate the shifted PC lens 180į. You can see, though dimly, in the
viewfinder exactly what youíre doing so there is no mystery. Itís so bloody
simple I wonder why no one has shared it with us all before!
Finishing† your UWP just requires some digital darkroom time. There are some tricks that can speed up this process that Iíll have to share with you at some future time. Assembly can be done anytime but youíve got to have the images to assemble to get to that point. Once you have taken and assembled your first ultra wide pano, a regular pano simply never looks wide enough ever again. While some of this seems scary and very unfamiliar, youíll have to trust me that it is really simple once you go at it. I can take the six images now in less than a minute and assemble them in less than 30 minutes. Itís time so well spent once you see that beautiful print coming out of the printer. Youíll get hooked, I know. Iím sure that once you start someone will come up to you and say, ďYou only see the world through an ultra wide pano!Ē
Part II - Downloadable PDF document.
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