Fall in the Tetons

Tetons sunrise

I’m back from what is always one of the highlights of the year – a trip with my brother hiking, photographing and viewing wildlife in the wild areas of North America. After several years seeking out bears in Alaska, this time we stayed closer to home and visited the Tetons in time for the Fall color. I’ll be posting more about the trip as time permits over the next few weeks, but for now a teaser… a storm at sunrise over the Teton range.

Mount Ida

In one of the early issues of the magazine National Geographic Adventure (that I must have read maybe 15 years ago, before I moved to Colorado) there was a story of a hiker who’d gotten hopelessly lost in an ill-advised attempt to hike to the Gorge Lakes via the summit of Mount Ida, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The story – which ended happily with the guy getting rescued – is a reminder that, however touristy Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge may appear on a summer’s day, my local park also has its share of difficult and remote country. Hiking to Mount Ida gives a glimpse of these less trafficked wilds from a lofty perch close to 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide. Needless to say, unless you want to feature in a future magazine article, descending into Forest Canyon and the Gorge Lakes is an altogether more serious endeavor for the experienced only!.

The hike starts at Millner Pass, on the west side of Trail Ridge Road. After about a mile you break through the tree line, and the rest of the hike is a glorious ramble across the tundra, with great views out toward the west. Almost from the start Mount Ida is visible, initially as an indistinct high point along the Continental Divide.

Stitched Panorama

In total it’s 4.75 miles, with a net elevation gain of 2,000 feet, from the trailhead to the summit of Mount Ida. From the top, you look straight down on to the highest of the Gorge Lakes in Forest Canyon. It’s easy to see why people want to visit them. Unfortunately getting to them via the summit of Ida is difficult (even if you don’t get lost), while getting there via the seemingly easier but trail-less route through Forest Canyon is harder still!

Stitched Panorama

This hike is almost entirely above the trees, and you’d want to avoid it on a day when storms threatened. On a good weather day though, which ours was, it’s a hike I highly recommend… just under ten miles of moderate hiking with great scenery and relatively few people.

A long hot summer

I spent my summer in Europe, with stays variously for work and pleasure in Liverpool, Kent and Cornwall in the UK, Chamonix, Sicily and Copenhagen. It will take some time to process the images, but in the meantime here’s a summer sampler…

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Tourists at the Valley of the Temples, Sicily

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Sunset in the fields, Cornwall

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The Mer de Glace, French Alps

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Poppies in the Darenth Valley, Kent

Shooting star trail panoramas with multiple cameras

Over the Christmas holidays the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to try shooting some wide star trail panoramas – wide enough perhaps that the stars could be seen rising on one horizon and setting over the other. A minute with google was enough to demonstrate that this was not a new idea – Vincent Brady has been shooting what he calls “planetary panoramas” with four cameras bolted to a custom rig. Nonetheless I haven’t seen that many star trail panoramas, no doubt because it requires multiple cameras and lenses, and it seemed that there might be some interesting images to be made with this technique in Colorado.

Star trails from Trail Ridge Road

Having now tried a few it’s time to collect some tips and lessons learned. There are two parts to creating a stitched star trail image, the image capture and the post processing, and although both are pretty straightforward as always there are things to keep in mind.

Shooting

  • You don’t need identical cameras and lenses. I’m sure it would be better if you had duplicate equipment, but I’ve gotten by fine with a combo of a Canon 5D3 / Zeiss 18mm and Canon 7D / Canon 10-22mm (shot at the wide end, i.e. at 16mm equivalent focal length). Modern stitching software can handle it.
  • The cameras need to be mounted as close together as possible, especially if you have any foreground. I’m using a Novoflex QPL 350 rail to mount both cameras to an Arca-Swiss mount on my ballhead. It’s a reasonably solid arrangement, though in high winds I’m seeing a little bit of flex visible as slightly wiggly trails viewed at 100%.
  • Having two cameras bolted to a single rail is optimal if the image you’re after (like the one above) has the horizon midway through the frame. Often you’ll instead be canting the cameras skyward to capture more sky and less foreground. In this case I think the rail is not optimal – it would be better to have each camera independently leveled against the horizon. This would need a rail and two heads, which I haven’t tried yet.
  • The simplest approach is to start shooting continuously as soon as it gets dark enough to see stars, but while there’s still enough light to capture the foreground. At Colorado’s latitude, with exposures of 30s, f/3.5 at ISO 1600, that works out to be about an hour after sunset. It’s pretty gloomy by then, so you’ll want to set up well in advance.
  • Check how good the edge resolution of your lenses is when shooting stars. My Zeiss 18mm is very nicely sharp at the edges wide open, the Canon 10-22mm (also a good lens) less so. It may be advantageous to stop down one stop or so for optimum quality of trails.
  • The basic concept is that the stacking software chooses the brightest pixel across the stack of images, so if you start as the light is fading the first frame will provide all of the image apart from the stars and any moving elements such as bright clouds. It’s fine then to change exposure parameters between the first frame and subsequent ones. For example, if you need plenty of depth of field, you could start with a single f/16 frame, then wait till it gets dark enough that a wide open image is darker and continue from there.
  • Long exposure noise reduction (dark frame subtraction) needs to be off.
  • I use lockable wired shutter releases and my fastest cards to keep the cameras shooting with as little gap as possible between frames. Over an hour or two, you’ll find that one camera is a little slower and a noticeable lag develops. This is fine, but to make the stitching as accurate as possible try to end the total exposure at the same moment (I put a lens cap on the “slow” camera just as the quicker one finishes its last frame).
  • Post-processing

    The basic workflow here is (1) process individual frames for white balance and noise reduction, (2) stack left and right images independently, (3) stitch together, (4) adjust final image. This is going to involve quite a bit of destructive editing and reprojection of the image, and since you’re starting with long exposures that haven’t had the benefit of dark frame subtraction a bit of care is needed. The good news is that you’ll be ending up with a lot of pixels in the final panorama, so even if it’s not perfect at 100% a large print (never mind a version to stand tall on Facebook) can still look good.

  • I start by applying a consistent white balance to all the images, along with a first pass at global adjustments (shadows, highlights, saturation etc). It may be helpful to brighten the foreground an extra stop, this makes stitching later easier and you can take that stop back in a final process of the image. Don’t overdo sharpening at this stage (I export from Lightroom with sharpening set to “low”) – there will be time for that later. Correct for vignetting but leave the distortion as is… the stitching software can handle it and there’s no point interpolating the pixels more times than necessary. Be wary of using gradient filters at this stage as they may not line up perfectly between left and right images.
  • Camera lenses are marked in f-stops rather than T-stops (transmission). This means that even if both cameras shot at the identical exposure, one image may be brighter than the other if you’re using two different lenses. You need to measure this difference and correct it at some point, and it may as well be done now.
  • Different cameras / sensors will need different levels of noise reduction. My 7D is quite a bit noisier than the 5D3 at ISO 1600, so in Lightroom I’m using something like 25 luminance noise reduction for the 5D3 but 40 for the 7D.
  • Hot pixels can be a problem. In the sky these need to be dealt with manually, but in the foreground you can take advantage of the fact that only the first frame is going to count toward the stack. I mask out the foreground in all but the first frame and push it 8 stops toward black to suppress hot pixels.
  • I use StarStax for stacking. It’s free, fast and works well. This step is straightforward.
  • Once you have the “left” and “right” stacks, it’s time to stitch them. I use Autopano Pro, which is not free but which works unbelievably well for almost all panoramas. Except these. I don’t find I’m able to stitch these super-wide star trail panoramas automatically. Instead I use a two-step approach. First I add back the EXIF data on focal length (which won’t be output in StarStax .tif files) and have a go at an automatic stitch. If you’re lucky the mid-ground (e.g. the mountains in the image above) may stitch fine, but the sky won’t. You’ll need to add maybe 20 manual control points to the sky, distributed horizontally and vertically across the region of image overlap, to get a good stitch. Finding them is pretty easy – planes with flashing lights (which make trails of dots across the image) are probably best, but the start and end of the trails work too as long as you remembered to end the exposures at the same time. Once the sky and mid-ground are set, the foreground normally falls into place automatically.
  • With the image successfully stitched, you can import back into Lightroom for final adjustments and sharpening!
  • All of the above is pretty obvious, but there are enough steps that I’ve screwed up a fair few times. Hopefully I now have the mechanical part sorted out, so the next step is to find locations where the technique makes for a good image…

    Trail Ridge Road

    Trail Ridge Road, which reaches more than 12,000 feet en route between the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain National Park, has just opened for the season (it usually opens on Memorial Day). There’s still too much snow high up for easy hiking, but I thought it would be interesting to take some photos from the road while the mountains still have their wintery appearance. With various roadworks (US36 from Lyons to Estes Park is being rebuilt this summer after last Fall’s devastating floods) I just made it to the Forest Canyon overlook (elevation 11,700 feet) in time for the sunset.

    Trail Ridge Road sunset

    And then stayed on for an hour of shooting the stars. As usual, this is a two frame panorama of stacked 30s frames, here shot at f/8 and ISO 1600. Stopping down – which was here necessary for depth of field – has the additional benefit of substantially sharpening up the edges of the 10-22mm lens I have mounted on the Canon 7D (the Zeiss 18mm I have on the 5D3, on the other hand, is sharp even wide open). The light on the far left, behind Longs Peak, comes from Denver.

    Star trails from Trail Ridge Road

    Night in Taipei

    A few images of Taipei at night…

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    Taipei 101. Taipei is not, for the most part, a city of skyscrapers, and as a result Taipei 101 – the world’s second highest building – looms particularly impressively over the streets from many angles. I shot this from an elevated location at the end of a metro platform… not sure if that was strictly allowed but Taipei seems a fairly photographer-friendly city and no-one gave me any trouble.

    taipei_night_intersection1600

    Shot with the Canon 8-15mm f/4.0 fisheye zoom.

    Stitched Panorama

    A panorama on a very wet night from the rooftop garden of the university building where I was working. Two frames, each a stack of three 30s exposures.

    A fisheye in Taiwan

    Back when the internet was young, and photo.net was the place to learn about photography, I saw a great fisheye image by Daniel Bayer of climbers traversing Capitol Peak’s famous knife-edge ridge. I haven’t seen many since. Fisheyes – especially the circular variety that project a full hemisphere onto a circular image – are mostly deployed for novelty effect (think comically distorted kid with nose close to the front element), or in pretty well-defined shooting situations (I’m sure we’ll see some for the opening ceremony of the World Cup). That said, I’ve always wanted to try one. As explained in this excellent article a fisheye is not merely a really wide lens but rather a completely different way of projecting the three dimensional world onto a two dimensional plane. The occasion of a work trip to Taipei prompted me to rent one (from LensRentals.com, whose service I highly recommend) and give it a try…

    But not any old fisheye! Canon’s offering in this field is the rather unusual 8-15mm f/4.0L fisheye zoom, though it’s not so much of a true zoom as a lens with two usefully different focal lengths. On a full-frame camera the 8mm setting gives you the full monty fisheye look, 180 degrees vertically and horizontally. The most appropriate use I found for this in Taipei was inside the Taipei 101 skyscraper, where a 700+ ton steel ball hangs suspended at the 90th floor to damp swaying caused by typhoons and earthquakes. It’s pretty cool.

    taipei_mass_damper600

    Zooming in to 15mm gives you a “full frame” fisheye effect. The weird circular aesthetic is gone and you still get a 180 degree field of view, but now only diagonally.

    taipei_mass_damper_full600

    Fun as it was I couldn’t really find that many other subjects in Taipei where I found myself saying “damn I wish I had a fisheye lens!”. Perhaps I’m just not creative enough. Here are a few more examples of the effect at Taipei 101.

    taipei_101circle600

    Looking straight up from the subway plaza. Notice how there’s not much distortion with this angle

    taipei_101full600

    Whereas here the distortion is crazy!

    It doesn’t have to be this way. To start with you can “defish” the image in software and extract a really wide rectilinear frame, at the expense of some sharpness toward the edges. Keith Cooper has some nice architectural examples shot using this technique (scroll down to the bottom of his review), but in most cases you could probably do as well or better by stitching regular wide-angle frames. Even leaving the image as-is, the full frame fisheye effect is not nearly as obvious if you pick a subject with the horizon near center and avoid prominent verticals. Here’s an image of the Da’an park MRT station, shot at 15mm.

    taipei_daan_station600

    Bottom line: if you need a fisheye for Canon mount this one works really well. Apart from being fun to use, it’s also constructed to normal L-glass standards and, surprisingly, is neither too large or heavy. If buying rather than renting though, think carefully how much you really need the fisheye look!

    Roxborough State Park

    Roxborough State Park

    Even after a decade in Colorado there are plenty of local parks and wildlife reserves that I haven’t been to. Roxborough State Park, west of Denver, turns out to be a very pleasant spot for some easy early-season hiking, with scenery reminiscent of the Garden of the Gods. There are probably some good images to be made here at sunrise.

    Sunset storm

    Sunset storm, Boulder Flatirons

    Spent a fun day exploring Roxborough State Park, west of Denver. Photographic highlight though was a magnificent storm over the Boulder Flatirons, just as the sun was setting.

    Tokyo wide open

    Canon’s 50mm f/1.0L is a one of a kind optic – the fastest autofocus lens ever manufactured. You can’t buy one new – it’s been replaced with a slightly slower and considerably cheaper f/1.2 lens – but there are still plenty around second hand and via rental houses. Visiting Tokyo for a brief work trip I thought it would be fun, and maybe instructive, to limit myself to just this one lens and see what sort of dreamy, “Lost in Translation” look I could manage amidst the Tokyo neon.

    The advantage of the f/1.0 is, self-evidently, its speed. The chief disadvantage is cost, cost and size. The two disadvantages are cost and size and focus speed. The three disadvantages are cost, size, focus speed and corner sharpness. Among the many disadvantages are… well you get the idea. It’s not a general purpose tool. This is a lens that you buy or rent because, wide open or slightly stopped down, it yields a unique look that isn’t going to be mistaken for an iPhone image. Only a fool would stop it down, and with that in mind my original plan was to shoot everything at f/1.0. That turned out to need more skill and experience than I managed to acquire in my brief time with the lens, and I shot a number of frames where the background – which was intended to give a hint of a recognizable image – was blurred beyond recognition (it doesn’t help that this is a lens that, at f/1.0, opens up when you press the shutter). Of the f/1.0 frames, my favorite is this image of pilgrims praying at the Senso-ji shrine:

    Senso-ji shrine

    Pilgrims at the Senso-ji shrine, Asakusa, Tokyo (f/1.0)

    Sake barrels Meiji shrine

    Sake barrels at the Meiji shrine (f/1.0)

    Kashiwa at night

    In the suburbs… Kashiwa at night (f/1.0)

    In daylight, you won’t be shooting the bare lens at f/1.0 as a shutter speed of 1/8000 is too slow even at ISO50! You’ll need a neutral density filter. Lacking one of those, most of my daylight shots were “stopped down” to f/2.0. The lens has quite a distinctive, and to my taste attractive, character even then.

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    Traffic police, Tokyo (f/2.0)

    The lens is also usable for available light photography and for portraits, though for these purposes Canon and others make cheaper and / or sharper optics (e.g. the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4, or the Canon 85mm f/1.2) that would probably win out in a head-to-head comparison.

    Hilton Tokyo view

    Panorama from the Shinjuku Hilton, twilight (f/2.0)

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    Chris, at the New York Grill (f/1.2)

    Overall, my impressions from just a couple of days shooting with the f/1.0 were pretty much a mirror of the numerous reviews you can find on the web. The lens is sharp wide open at the center – albeit with a very shallow depth of field – while away from the center it’s soft with a crazy hotchpotch of optical peculiarities and mishapen bokeh. Although that sounds bad on paper, it’s a look that’s very easy to love. One area where I’d quibble with most reviews is the autofocus speed. No, it’s not fast, but it’s not go away and brew a cup of tea slow either. For most situations you’d use a lens like this for, I found it more than adequate. I’d be hard pressed to recommend buying one – let’s face it this is a $4000+ lens that would quite possibly be impossible to repair if it broke – but I was sorry to part with it and am already thinking of other trips where renting it again would make sense.