Bringing Beauty Home with Panoramas

| January 23, 2012
great sand dunes sunset

Last light at the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Please click here to see the full size panorama

Sometimes you need to bring home a panorama to fully express what you saw in life. Today’s photo is one of those occasions. A vast expanse of pristine valley gives rise to towering 13,000 plus foot peaks while unbefitting sand dunes lay bathed in the day’s last light.

It is hard to imagine anything more perfect. After meandering the pathways of Alamosa’s National Wildlife Refuge, my son and I returned to the Great Sand Dunes just in time to capture the long shadows and vibrant colors that the sun graciously provides in the last few moments of daylight.

We stood there in complete silence as as the sun set, patiently waiting for the day’s best light. It was so quiet, we could have heard a pin drop. Then it happened. The valley floor came alive with color as the falling sun articulated the the peaks and valleys of the dunes and the majestic landscape of the Sangre de Cristo Mountians.

Standing in the presence of such beauty with my son at my side reminded my of how blessed I am. I am very lucky that my son and I share similar interests. He has the same passion for life as I do and we often talk about how hard it is to fit it all in. For this reason, it is good to get away from our daily routines from time to time and pursue what we truly love. On occasion, it is exhilarating to live in the moment and free ourselves of the average day’s unrelenting distractions.

mt herard great sand dunes

Pano detail of Mt. Herard

This panorama, taken with  my Canon 5D Mark II and a 100mm prime lens, was stitched from six six portrait-oriented images using Photoshop’s Photomerge feature. The camera settings were ISO100, f/8.0 at 1/50th of a second. To minimize alignment issues and ensure the images were captured perfectly level, I used a panning base and nodal slide from Really Right Stuff (shown below). The panning base, which mounts to my tripod’s ball head, allows for easy leveling and silky smooth panning of the camera.

really right stuff pano elements

The Really Right Stuff panning base and nodal slide (Photo source: Really Right Stuff)

The nodal slide (long bar on the panning base) allows me to easily mount the camera in either landscape or portrait orientation and slide the camera back so that the optical center of the lens is positioned directly over the axis of rotation. The axis of rotation is therefore at the midpoint of the panning clamp, which is mounted on the center of the tripod’s ball head. See the photo from Really Right Stuff below.

really right stuff pano elements package

Really Right Stuff Pano Elements Package (Photo source: Really Right Stuff)

Why all the fuss? Well, the setup allows for easy leveling and also eliminates image parallax by positioning the optical center of the lens over the point of rotation. In a nutshell, image parallax occurs when near and far objects don’t align in overlapping images. Although it is not as big an issue with distant landscapes like today’s image, if you happen to have prominent subject matter in the foreground of your panorama, it’s essential to eliminate image parallax to make sure everything aligns properly during the stitch operation. If you would like to know more about parallax, just jump on over to the explanation on the Really Right Stuff site here.

panorama photo technique

Panning zone (shown in landscape orientation)

Oh, while shooting the panorama, I just make a mental note of where the center focus point is relative to the landscape in the viewfinder…take the picture…and then pan the left of my next frame to that point. This gives me a 50% overlap for the successive images for flawless stitching in Photoshop. The figure directly above shows the panning zone as if looking through the viewfinder in landscape orientation. I usually shoot panoramas in tall portrait orientation to maximize the pixel height of the image. Just look for that center reference and pan accordingly in either orientation.

To give you an idea of the actual resolution of this image, right-click the image below and open in a new, full resolution window. The final pano shown at the top of this post is a crop of the original set of shots that I captured. All totaled, the full resolution original panorama is just over 200,000,000 pixels!

panorama detail

Full resolution panorama section


Category: Photography, Tutorials

Comments (14)

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  1. Chris Nitz says:

    Wonderful pano and thanks for some insight on the tools and processes behind capturing it.

  2. Jim Denham says:

    Fantastic post Lee and great images! Looks like an awesoem rig for panos!

  3. A.Barlow says:

    wow man. Not only some cool shots but a very well written explanation of the process involved.

  4. Great post and even better shot!

  5. David Baker says:

    Beautiful pano image, and love your explanation about the process of capturing it! Fantastic post Lee. Glad you explained the gear and techniques needed to properly execute these photos. Thanks for sharing!

  6. LeavesOfCrimson says:

    Beautiful photo, Lee!

  7. Cyril says:


    Great pano shot and light !
    I just wonder how you get to a 200 Mpixels image with 6 shots only (minus overlap) ?

  8. Lee says:

    Hi Cyril,

    Thanks for visiting and the comment! I clarified the size of the pano in the post. The pano that I posted is a crop of the original pano set. I think the size of what is show is in the neighborhood of 126+ million pixels. I went crazy and shot more of the scene than is shown in the image. I will check my math again when I get home but remember the full pano being 206+ million pixels.

  9. Cyril says:

    Thanks Lee. All clear now.
    Will be heading there (from Europe) early March and hoping for some interesting light !

  10. What a fabulous post, Lee! Not only do we get the pleasure of viewing such an EPIC shot, but you also give us some great tips on how to do it! You, sir, are the best of the best!