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A Stitch In Time

Stitching images together shows us the big picture in no time.

October 19, 2018 Landscapes

The old proverb "a stitch in time saves nine" has nothing to do with photography. It reminds us there's wisdom in taking care of a small problem before it grows into a big one. But a modern take on the adage could reveal a solution to a big photographic problem with a wise move right from the start.

If you've ever made an enlargement of a landscape photograph, even one made with the newest cameras that create very large image files, you know about this predicament. You can stretch its pixels only so far before you lose the sharpness you appreciate in the original photo. But by then it's too late to solve the problem.

The "stitch in time" has to begin out in the field. Instead of capturing a vista with one frame, the solution is making many side-by-side images of the scene that you'll join into a panoramic photograph later. The method of incorporating many images into one is done by "stitching" together the overlapping, contiguous photographs of a scene. Today's photo-processing software makes it nearly effortless to merge many individual photographs into a large image file that captures lots of data and details. If you're ready to use this method when the scene calls for it, you'll save yourself from nagging regrets later.

Death Valley Natl Park sand dunes and mountains
This Death Valley mountains-and-dunes scene was slightly cropped from five stitched frames.

The image above is a result of this remarkably-easy method. I could have made the photograph with one horizontally-framed exposure. It would have been an acceptable, pleasing image as long as my intention was to reproduce it in a reasonable size. But I'd have to keep that in mind, if I chose to enlarge it for a big print or a double-page magazine spread. The sharpness I prefer might degrade as I stretch the image across the paper.

Instead of one horizontal frame, the above image is made up of five vertical photos that I overlapped by one half to one third. Later, I combined them into a panorama with Adobe Lightroom's Photo Merge feature. The resulting file is much larger than a single-frame image. After a bit of cropping, the remaining image is still loaded with data that will help hold sharpness and detail as the photograph is enlarged, magnified or cropped.

Even if you're fine with the resolution a single-frame image gives you, wouldn't you rather have even more data if you could? Sure, you can spend time using sharpening techniques, but they only go so far until the results get awkward or otherworldly. Save yourself time and frustration and learn how to make "panos" instead.

Once you get in the habit of composing multiple-image panoramas in the field and you streamline your work flow in the digital darkroom, you'll make "a stitch in no time" whether the scene requires two overlapped images or ten. Maybe you'll help rewrite the old proverb and modern photographers will say "a stitch of nine saves time."


SUBJECT: Mesquite Flat sand dunes, Death Valley National Park, California/Nevada

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, 70 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D810, Nikkor 80-400mm at 155mm, Kirk Enterprises lens collar, Gitzo tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head, Really Right Stuff leveling base, electronic cable release, no polarizing filter; Manual exposure mode, Matrix metering, auto-focus back button, mirror lock up

EXPOSURE: 1/40 sec. at f/20, ISO 400

With most digital-imaging processes, there's more than one route to get to the same destination. It's best to find a path that makes sense to you -- one that you can repeat and rely on to get where you're going. And like any good traveler, you'll find shortcuts and streamline your route as you get familiar with the geography.

The same holds true for making panorama photographs. Here's the path I'm taking today. It works for me consistently. It's become a habit that lets me think more about the light, the subject and the composition and less about the mechanics in the field and at the computer desk. But that doesn't mean I won't refine my route as my experience grows and software evolves. With that said, let's walk through the steps I took to get to the above image.

In the Field:

First, the location begged for a panorama composition. Sometimes a scene just needs one or two additional frames to get it all in, but this one needed more. Not every scene needs pano treatment, but this one was better as a panorama.

Before making the composition, I removed the polarizing filter and set the exposure mode to Manual. The polarizer would likely have made the sky light blue in frames aimed nearer to the sun's position and very dark blue in those farther away from it. I wanted an even blue sky instead, so I didn't use a polarizer here.

Manual exposure kept the exposure even, too. Aperture Priority might have adjusted the exposure of each frame a little or a lot depending on the light and dark elements in them and that would have made it hard to hide the seams between frames later in the processing stage. In Manual, I chose the aperture and shutter speed and they wouldn't change even if the scenes in each frame were lighter or darker.

I hand held the camera in the horizontal format, then as a vertical and panned across the scene. This helped me choose between one frame or many for the most pleasing image.

I adjusted the zoom lens to roughly accommodate the scene, then I reached for my tripod. I adjusted the legs to the same height as the hand-held camera before attaching it to the tripod head.

Then I closed the eyepiece shutter -- the articulated blades that prevent light from entering the viewfinder and skewing the exposure. From then on I used Live View for composing and the camera-back screen for exposure information.

Getting the camera level was the next important step. I used the Really Right Stuff TA-3 Leveling Base to level the tripod head. It's seated in the ring of the tripod's apex platform where the legs join the center plate. I removed the plate and inserted the leveling base in its place. The tripod head attaches to the leveling base which pivots independently of the apex platform. I adjusted the leveling base until its built-in bubble level indicated the base of the ball head was level.

Then in Live View, I scrolled to the Virtual Horizon screen and watched it as I loosened the ball, made the camera body level and tightened the ball. Now the camera would remain level when I loosened the panning knob on the ball head's base and slowly spun it left to right. These two tools made it quick and easy to get everything level with the world, so the horizon wouldn't tilt as I panned the camera across the scene.

(When I didn't have these leveling conveniences on older equipment, I could still get the tripod's center plate and the camera body level, but it took more time and many small adjustments. First, I lengthened and shortened the tripod legs or moved them in or out until the built-in bubble level on the base plate showed it was level. Then I used a special bubble level that slipped into the camera's flash hot shoe, loosened the ball and adjusted the camera until that bubble was level, too.)

After leveling the head and body, I panned left to right and decided where the far-left and far-right frames would end. I adjusted the zoom lens to include all the important elements in the scene. Again, I checked Virtual Horizon for level. And then I zoomed back just a little more. The extra head, toe and shoulder room would accommodate the automatic cropping that happens later when Lightroom merges all the frames.

Next I panned through the scene to check the composition, adjusted the back-button focus, clicked a frame, checked the histogram and adjusted the exposure. I was ready to make the series of photographs for the panorama.

I panned to the left a little farther than the edge of the left-most element I wanted to include, held my left hand in front of the lens, pointed my index finger to the right and click a frame. This would be a marking frame I could find easily in Lightroom's Library mode after I downloaded the images to the computer.

I made the first frame and panned to the right, making sure to overlap the first and second frames by one half to one third. The overlaps made it easy for the software to cleanly stitch the frames together later. I continued the process until I reached the far-right frame of the composition and went just a bit farther for shoulder room. Then I held my right hand in from of the lens, pointed my finger to the left and clicked another marker frame. Later, it was easy to find the frames I would merge into a panorama.

I reviewed the images and made adjustments to the cropping, focus and exposure. Then I repeated the process and made another series of images for another panorama of the scene. As the light changed, I'd made other panos the same way.

In the Digital Darkroom:

After downloading the images to Lightroom on my computer, I scrolled through the Library module until I found the first frame of my out-of-focus finger pointing right. I checked the first image and the four frames that followed in the series for sharpness and exposure. But I didn't make any editing adjustments on them. I saved that for later.

I highlighted all five consecutive verticals with a Left mouse-click on the first frame, then a Shift-Left click on the last one in the series -- the last frame before my right hand pointing left. That highlighted all five frames.

Next, I right clicked on a highlighted frame. A drop-down menu appeared and I scrolled down it to Photo Merge. A side menu popped up. I chose Panorama, clicked it and another window appeared. In it, Lightroom generated a preview of the panorama of the merged frames.

I previewed it in all three Projections offered there. After reviewing each one several times, I chose the Perspective projection because of the pleasing way it treated the foreground dunes and the ridge on the horizon.

I clicked on Merge and Lightroom began combining the frames into a new DNG/RAW file. When I cropped it to the above image, the new file was 495 Megabytes. A single horizontal frame cropped the same way was 195 Megabytes. So the panorama contained two and a half times the data of the single image. The pano would retain more sharpness and detail compared to the single frame when both were enlarged.

The merged overlaps were seamlessly stitched, but the new image was undeveloped. So I opened it in Lightroom's Development module and made the appropriate adjustments as I would with any single-frame image. The original individual images remained untouched. Only the new panorama file was processed. Now it was ready for any project or purpose.

Sometimes the grand landscape is bigger than one frame can contain. That's when this special technique can neatly combine many frames into a big picture that does the scene justice.

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