Category Archive: Tips and Tricks

  1. Creating a Polar Panorama

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    Grand Rapids Festival Polar PanoramaThis past weekend I was showing my work in the art sales tent on Grand Rapids’ Calder Plaza as part of the annual Festival of the Arts. It struck me that the urban plaza surrounded by tall buildings and filled with the trappings of the celebration would make a great location for a polar panorama. I asked permission to set up a tall ladder on the plaza at midday (to minimize shadows) and was told that would not be permitted–but they’d be happy to provide a boom lift for my use!

    So at noon on the appointed day I road a boom lift up about 15 feet above the plaza at a point I had earlier selected for the composition I intended. I set up and carefully leveled my tripod and camera and took a series of overlapping photos as I rotated my camera in a full circle.

    For the first shot I lined up my camera in the direction of the overhead sun and found an exposure of 1/200 second at f/11 retained detail in the bright sky. I set the camera on manual at these setting so that all of the images would have the same exposure. I was using a Canon EOS 17-35mm f/2.8 L lens set at 17 mm with the camera titled for vertical captures so that I could get the tallest nearby building completely in the frame.

    Back in the studio, I opened the RAW files in Adobe Camera Raw. I selected all of the files in the filmstrip area on the left so that any adjustments I made would be applied equally to all the images. The exposure I chose kept detail in the highlights but was overall somewhat under exposed. So I increased the exposure and shadows sliders to lighten the overall image. (Click on the image to see full sized).

    Camera Raw Adjustments

    With the adjustment complete I selected the images in Adobe Bridge, went to the menu bar and selected Tools>Photoshop>Photomerge to create a standard 360 degree panorama. I found that the spherical layout option worked best and I selected all of the options below the source files list.

    Photomerge dialogueThe resulting panorama was a bit more than 360 degrees so I carefully cropped it so that the edges would line up perfectly in the final image. The down side of using the boom lift was that the safety rail and base were included in the images, so I did some quick work with Photoshop’s clone, healing brush, and patch tools to edit them out. I knew I didn’t have to do a perfect job because the bottom of the panorama would be extremely distorted in the final image.

    360 PanoramaThe rest of the process is fairly straight forward. First you resize the panorama to a square. In the image size dialogue you’ll have to check the “resample” box, click on the little chain icon that constrains the proportions,  and then change the width to be the same as the height. The result is a very squished panorama.

    Image Size dialogueSquare Panorama

    Finally, you rotate the image 180 degree so it is upside down and then go the Photoshop menu bar and select Filter>Distort>Polar Coordinates. The resulting image had a faint vertical seam where the edges of the panorama met but a bit of quick work with the healing brush tool fixed that.

    Polar Coordinates

  2. Star Trails over Lake Michigamme


    Star Trail over Lake Michigamme

    I’ve wanted to experiment with star trail photography for some time, but the necessary conditions are not as common in Michigan as in dryer climates. For success you need a cloudless night with no moon in a location with a very dark sky. The stars finally aligned for me recently when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigamme at VanRiper State Park.

    Lake Michigamme is midway between Marquette and Houghton/Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The land north of Lake Michigamme is the most remote and unsettled in all of Michigan. I knew the night sky would be as dark as any I’d ever see.

    To capture this image, I set my camera and wide angle lens on a tripod and framed the photograph so that the North Star was centered in the sky. Because the North Star is a pole star, it remains motionless in the night sky while all the other stars appear to revolve around it over time.

    To get a proper exposure, I set the aperture to f/2.8, the ISO to 1600, and took a sequence of 30-second exposures over the course of about three hours. Rather than manually tripping the shutter every 30 seconds, I set my camera’s drive mode on continuous shooting and used a remote cord that can be locked in the on position. It was a cold night, so I climbed in my van and took a nap under a sleeping bag.

    I ended up with 355 individual exposures. In my studio, I opened the raw files in Adobe Camera Raw and made a few adjustments to the images. Only one plane flew overhead during this time, so I removed the streaks it created in a few frames with Photoshop’s spot healing brush.

    I saved the edited versions as jpegs and then opened them in software appropriately called StarTrails. The software builds the image one exposure at a time, and it is interesting to watch the process. I have a pretty powerful computer, but it still took about 20 minutes to create the final rendering using the finer of the two blending modes.

    I made a few final adjustments in Photoshop to create the image you see here. U.S. Highway 41 skirts the north shore of Lake Michigamme, so headlights from the few passing cars did a nice job of highlighting just a bit of the fall colors in the trees. The faint green glow on the horizon is a distant display of the Northern Lights.
  3. Fishtown

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    Fishtown, in Leland Michigan, is a remnant and reminder of the commercial fishing industry that once thrived in northern Michigan. Early in the last century, is was a bustling port filled with fish boats, shanties and smokehouses. Though a few commercial fishers remain, these days it bustles with tourists drawn to the picturesque setting and the galleries, shops, and boutiques that have moved into the historic district. It is also the launching site for day-trippers and backpackers headed to the Manitou Islands just off shore.

    Because its a popular tourist destination, I had to wait until the season was over to take this crowd-free photo. It was late October and the afternoon sun cast strong light on the north shore while creating deep shadows on the other side of the Leland River. I knew it would take some work to tame the strong contrast in the scene.

    Here is a view of what the untouched raw image looked like:

    Fishtown Raw File

    As you can see the shadows are really too dark to make a pleasing print. So I opened the image in Adobe Camera Raw and made some rather strong adjustments. You can see what I did in the image below. You can also click on it to see a larger version.

    Fishtown Hightlight and Shadows adjustment

    First, to tame the bright highlights in the image I dragged the Highlight slider all the way to the left to -100. This darkened the sky a bit and brought out more details in the brighter portions of the image. I then brought detail out of the shadows by moving the Shadow slider all the way to the right to +100. Finally I brought up the exposure just a bit to restore the sky to it’s original tone.

    As I expected, making such profound adjustments to the Shadows and Highlights sliders reduced the contrast a great deal, to the point that the image appeared a little dull. To reintroduce some contrast without loosing the detail I was trying to reveal, I made more modest adjustments to the Whites and Blacks sliders. If you hold to the Alt key while you move these sliders you’ll see the image in the highlight and shadow warning modes. When adjusting the Whites slider with the Alt key depressed, I moved the slider just to the point that the white highlight warnings began to show. I then adjusted the Blacks slider with the Alt key depressed just to the point that the shadow warnings began to show. This procedure made sure the image contained a full range of tones from black to white and improved the overall contrast.

    Finally, to punch up the mid-tone contrast I adjusted the Clarify slider. I don’t use this slider often, and rarely use more than +25. But because I’d made such profound adjustment to the Highlights and Shadows slider, I found I could crank Clarify up to 100 as well. Here is the final version as seen in Adobe Camera Raw.


  4. More Panorama Tips and Tricks

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    Porcupine Mountains

    I took this photo of the Porcupine Mountains last fall and thought I’d use it to illustrate some of the tricks I use when developing panoramic images in Photoshop.

    I began by taking a series of three overlapping shots. I find that an overlap of between 25% and 50% works well. Since I was shooting from a canoe, I couldn’t use a tripod or carefully level my tripod and camera as I would on land. So I just did the best I could to keep the horizon level and in about the same place as I quickly snapped the three shots. Of course, as is always important when taking shots to be later blended, I shot in manual so the three shots would have the same exposure.

    Back in my studio I selected the three shots in Adobe Bridge and then double clicked to open them in Adobe Camera Raw. Since I wanted any adjustments made in Camera Raw to be shared by all three images, I selected all three and then clicked on the “synchronize” button. When I was finished with my adjustments I clicked the “Done” button, which brought me back to Bridge with the three adjusted images still selected.

    Camera raw

    Adobe Camera RAW


    Adober Bridge

    Adobe Bridge


    I went to the tools menu and then selected Photoshop>Photomerge. This opens Photoshop and the Photomerge dialogue box (below). I find the “cylindrical” option works best in most cases.

    Photomerge Dialogue box

    Here is the resulting image:

    Photomerged image

    Photoshop generally does an amazing job at blending photos for panoramas. But I noticed that the coastline seemed to curve down towards the point. Luckily, there is an easy fix for this! I navigated to Photoshop’s Filter menu and selected the Adaptive Wide Angle filter. This filter is tailor made for straightening curved lines in distorted wide angle and panoramic images. I simply clicked on one end of the shore and then dragged my cursor to the other end and clicked again. Magically, the shoreline straightened!


    Adaptive Wide Angle Filter

    Now that the shoreline was straight, I could see it was not level. Once again there is an easy fix. I selected the ruler tool (it’s in the eyedropper tool group in Photoshop’s tools bar) and clicked and dragged another line along the coast. I then navigated to the Image menu and selected Image Rotation>Arbitrary. The ruler tool has automatically populated the amount field so that when you click OK, the picture rotates just the right amount to make the horizon level. I then cropped the image to a 3:1 ratio to create the final version at the top of this post.

    Rotate Canvas

  5. Superior Falls

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    Superior Falls

    The approach to Superior Falls is hardly auspicious. It’s on the site of an hydroelectric dam so you’ll see the inevitable trappings of a modest industrial site as you arrive. An upper viewing area is somewhat obscured by a tall chain link fence–understandably so since a misstep would send you over a precipice. A very rough, steep, and slippery concrete path leads down to the Montreal River below the falls, just a few yards from Lake Superior. You have to backtrack upstream a few hundred yards past the dam’s powerhouse to see the falls.

    What awaits is truly a stunningly beautiful sight. Superior Falls flows over the lower lip of an immense stone amphitheater. You’ve got to shimmy around a narrow stone ledge to enter the amphitheater itself, but it is worth the effort.

    I arrived on a bright fall afternoon. The left half of the scene was in full sun and the right in deep shadow. I knew I would not be able to capture the vast brightness range in a single exposure, so I took a series. I set my camera on manual, the aperture at f/8, and then took five shots varying the shutter speed from 1/20 to 1/160 second.

    Back in my studio I found that the middle shot of this series, an exposure of f/8 at 1/50 second, was a good base for working with this image. By adjusting the shadows and highlights in Adobe Camera Raw, I was able to accomplish most of what was needed to make the image express itself to it’s full potential. But the sky remained somewhat washed out, and I wanted more detail.

    I found that the sky in the last photo in the series, f/8 at 1/160 second, was perfect for my purposes. So I opened the two shots in Adobe Photoshop, and dragged the photo that was my base onto the photo exposed for the sky, to create a layered image. I then used Photoshop’s eraser tool to erase portions of the overlying image and let the darker sky show through. I used a large 1000 px eraser, set to a hardness of only 50%, and an opacity of just 25%, so that the edges of erased portion would be soft and I could build up the effect with multiple passes. I fully erased the portion over the sky, and partially erased the portion over the sunlit bluff to darken it just a bit.

    Here are the two images I combined to create the final image above:

    Superior Falls Fall ExposureSuperior Falls Sky Exposure


  6. Rock River Falls

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    Rock River Falls

    Alger County, in the center of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is home to many famous waterfalls. Munising, Miners, Chapel, and Sable Falls are all popular destinations in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Wagner and Laughing Whitefish Falls are well developed destinations too. While I’ve enjoyed visits to all of these, my favorites are the more out of the way locations where crowds don’t need to be controlled with boardwalks and decks and the falls are in more pristine settings.

    Nestled deep in the Rock River Wilderness Area, Rock River Falls takes some finding. Starting at the small farm town of Chatham, your journey begins with an 8 mile drive down a series of gravel roads. The last 3/4 mile you’ve got to navigate a two track forest service road of questionable navigability. You eventually reach a small clearing with room for a few cars. You’ve got to go forth in faith because there’s no sign, though the trail is clear enough.

    A three quarters mile walk through the woods brings you to the falls and an ample reward for your adventuresomeness. It’s a beautiful falls and humankind has been mercifully gentle in it’s enjoyment. I rested an hour to the sound of falling water and never saw another soul.

    This panoramic view is a blending of three shots that I took in sequence. The key to success in situations like this is to set your shutter and aperture manually to assure the three shots share an exposure. In this case 1 second at f/11. I also make sure that both the camera and the tripod are level so that they swing in a flat plane when rotating through the scene.

  7. Fallasburg Covered Bridge

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    Back in the 1800’s, wood was the material choice for bridges in Michigan. Because wood didn’t stand up too well to the elements, covered bridges were the standard. My own town of Grand Rapids had several covered bridges spanning the Grand River.

    What must once have numbered in the hundreds, dwindled to a handful of remaining wooden covered bridges by the late 20th century. Most were simply replaced by modern structures spanning crucial traffic corridors. The few that remained were in lightly trafficked rural backwaters that unfortunately also left them exposed to vandals and arson. In my neck of the woods, the Ada covered bridge succumbed in 1979 (but was subsequently rebuilt), and more recently White’s covered bridge was completely destroyed. And they’re not immune to other forms of idiocy, such as when a cement truck driver crossed the Fallasburg covered bridge (pictured above) with a full load of concrete weighing over 30 tons–ten times the rated limit for the historic bridge.

    As far as I can tell, the Fallasburg covered bridge is now the oldest and one of only two covered bridges that remain in service in their original locations in Michigan. The other is Langely covered bridge that crosses the Saint Joseph river in southwest Michigan.

    I arrived for this photograph on a perfect summer afternoon with blue skies and puffy clouds. The Fallasburg covered bridge is bordered by a beautiful park, so there is almost no modern development marring the scene. I tried a number of vantage points but liked best this location with the arrowroot and lily pads in the foreground. The bridge angles slightly to to the southwest, so in summertime the afternoon sun glances across the northern side. In full sun the slight overhang of the bridge created deep shadows, so I waited for a thin white cloud to cover the sun and soften the shadows.

  8. Creating Panoramic Images

    Platte Bay

    Platte Bay

    I’ve created a lot of new panoramic images in the last couple of years. These aren’t just cropped from a standard image. Instead I shoot a series of overlapping images and then combine them in Photoshop. This creates a very high resolution image that captures far more detail than a cropped image would. You can see a gallery of my panoramic images on my website.

    I thought I’d share a few tips for creating your own:

    • Use a tripod and make sure it is level. I use a tripod for virtually every photograph I take. In addition to assuring that the camera is absolutely still during the exposure, I find a tripod helps me be more thoughtful and deliberative in my work. When shooting a series of images for a panorama, it is important that the tripod be level–otherwise your images will line up in an arc instead of a straight line. My tripod has a built-in bubble level, but you can also purchase one as an accessory. 
    • Use a tripod head with a panoramic base. My ball head has an independent lock so it can rotate in the horizontal direction while the rest of the camera remains firmly locked. This assures that the overlapping images will be closely registered.
    • Level your camera too. My camera has a wonderful display that I can use to make sure it is level across the horizontal plane. Again, you can also purchase an accessory bubble level for this. For shooting panoramas it’s okay if the camera is tilted forward or back, but you want the horizon level.
    • Shoot in manual mode. You want your exposures to be identical in all of the overlapping images. The only way to do this is to set both the aperture and shutter speed manually. I first take test shots of the scene in aperture priority mode to find the ideal exposure, and then I switch to manual exposure using those settings.
    • Overlap your images approximately 25 percent. Take a series of shots, rotating your camera so that they overlap by about 25 percent. Frame your images with a little extra space on all sides, so you have some wiggle room when it’s time to crop the final composite.
    • Be careful with polarizing filters. I use a polarizing filter on most of my images. This filter cuts glare on reflective surfaces and enriches the colors. But you have to be careful with panoramic images, since the effect on the blue sky is most pronounced at a 90 degree angle from the sun. It can create an unnatural looking gradient from dark to light blue across the picture when shooting a long expanse of sky.
    • Blend the images in your favorite software. I use Photoshop for the vast majority of my panoramas, but there are lots of other options. Some are freeware or shareware, and some are far more sophisticated and expensive. You’ll have to do your own research on this!
    • Crop to a standard size. My favorite proportion for panorama is 3:1. I also have used a 5:2 ratio and 2:1 ratio.


    Sturgeon River Canyon

    Sturgeon River Canyon