Tag Archives: San Francisco Bay Area

Panorama Pursuit

Original Publish Date: 25-May-2011
Last Revision: 06-November-2017

First and foremost I’d like to thank my friend, Eric (Mr. Panorama) Harness for teaching me the basics of this panorama stuff. He’s even helped me salvage a few of my early bad attempts.  Eric knows what he’s doing. I’m a dabbler.

The Scene

15 minutes before sunset clouds and fog over the San Francisco Bay amps up the goldenness of the golden hour. All 24 shots (see below) were taken over a 1 minute and 20 second time span. This view spans NW to North.

What fascinates me about this technique is how well the sun can be included in a normal daylight shot, and how using panoramic techniques is a great way to avoid or eliminate flare. I’m not new to flare. I’ve developed a few techniques to control it. But this method was a pleasant surprise.

The Tricks

There are two important things to get right to pull this off – at least to do so well.

  1. Get the right bracketing of the exposure.
  2. Level that tripod and camera.

Some additional tips that will help a lot include:

  • Use a tripod!
  • Keep the foreground “far away”
  • Use manual exposure settings
  • DO NOT use a polarizing filter
  • Turn off autofocus
  • Rotate around the “nodal point” of the lens
  • Overlap your shots generously
  • Set autoexposure bracketing (I recommend 0,-2,+2 on Canon, or 5 stops on Nikon).

Let me try to explain a little. A sturdy tripod is a must for a stress free panorama and doubly so if you try to use HDR. I don’t have a panorama head, but I discovered that using the tripod collar on my 70-200mm f/4 L lens is a great advantage.

Since things near the camera are more likely to cause stitching errors avoiding elements closer than the hyperfocal distance is a good strategem. Hyperfocal distance is a big word and a slightly murky concept, but I’ve covered it before.

There are holy wars about what the proper name is for the correct pivot point to take images for a panorama (horizontal images) or vertorama (vertical images). I really don’t care what the point is called, but knowing that it is definitely somewhere IN the barrel of the lens is important since the tripod mounting location on the camera itself is definitely NOT in the correct place.  The best camera orientation for taking a panorama is portrait (vertical) mode. Short of investing in a nodal rail and a bunch of other panorama specific hardware it becomes obvious that a ring collar around the barrel of the lens is the simplest “good enough” solution – even if it is not the perfect place.  To find the proper rotation point is pretty straight forward. Have something in the foreground and something far away. Place your camera and the left edge of your frame such that the foreground and background item nearly overlap. Then swing the camera around the attachment point to confirm if at the right edge of the frame the objects have the same spatial relationship.  A more detailed explanation can be found here.

For zoom lenses the proper pivot point may be different at different focal lengths. I merely pass along this observation: using the ring collar at 75 mm on my 70-200mm f/4 L lens I get no stitching errors.  That is good enough for me.

The Setup

I mentioned leveling the tripod. That is important or the panorama will be skewed and detail is lost when I have to crop off a lot of the image – and realism will suffer, too because the horizon will also go weird.  I recommend setting the horizon in the middle of the frame and rotating the camera well past your beginning and ending points and making sure the horizon is level in all the shots. I mess with the tripod and the ball head until it looks good to my eyeball.  I do not use a level or bubble level for this, though I am sure one might help.

While looking at the various frames that will comprise my panorama, I note what the camera metering says. When close to, but not including bright light sources the metering will define the fastest exposure needed. The slowest exposure is defined by the darkest areas.  If 5 stops is not enough, the image may not work. At minimum I want my fastest exposures to be right for the brightest areas (usually the sky) and my slowest exposures to be right for the darkest areas. I choose the exposure that is midway between the extremes as the starting point.

MountAllison_All 1920x1200

In this case, I saw that at ISO 200, f/8 the bright frames metered at 1/1250th while the dark frames metered at 1/80 so I set the exposure to 1/320. Two stops slower is 1/320 × 4 = 1/80. Two stops faster is 1/320 ÷ 4 = 1/1250th.   I took test shots to confirm that at least one of each of the shots in each set was not seriously blowing out pixels.

Shooting starts by setting auto exposure bracketing on, aiming the camera to the left of my intended first target and firing off the bracketed sequence. I then rotate the camera to overlap the last shot by about 1/2 to 1/3 and keep shooting until I have gotten at least one full frame past my intended ending point.

For speed, I also have been producing RAW and small JPG files. Usually I process the small JPGs first. If I later want a larger image, I can start over with the RAW files.


I use Photomatix Pro in batch mode to process each image set into an HDR image. I found “all defaults” worked pretty well in most cases, but it is possible to tweak things a little if I desire.  Photoshop’s merge to HDR can be used but it seems to be much slower, and I do not know how to automate the batches.  I also find the Photoshop interface to be a bit clunkier.

Once each of the HDR images has been created the HDR images can be loaded into Photoshop and stitched using the “photomerge” operation. When I used the Photoshop photomerge operation it left some serious flare in the image which I had to manually fix up by adjusting the layer masks. By contrast Microsoft ICE – a free tool – removed the flare automatically by using the non-flared overlapping portion of another image.

I finished the image in Picasa by adjusting the white balance (cooler), adding tags, downsizing and adding watermarks.

The same evening I made the featured image, I also created this image.
Wide Open Spaces [C_031244-61]

I much like it, too.

Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome. Sharing with your friends is encouraged.  And if you are further interested, please join me at one of our Workshops where you can learn this topic and many others.

Oh, and keep an eye out for Improving your Panoramas written by Eric Harness, yes, THE Eric Harness who taught me the technique in the first place.

Cheese, Emotion and Star Trails

KQED has listed the content of the May 18, 2011 Quest show on their website.  My segment in the episode was taped on March 15th. From left to right below are Josh, the assistant producer, night photo guy (me), Amy, producer, and Helen the sound engineer. Also featured is Helen’s four-footed companion.  It was a fun time – especially since it was pouring rain before we got here!

What’s the Quest episode about? Well this episode (#503H) is:

Science of Cheese/Emotions Revealed
Discover the microbiology of cheese-making, and explore facial expressions with Oakland psychologist Paul Ekman. Plus, see Steven Christenson’s images of the night sky on “Your Photos on QUEST.”

(For a larger/higher definition image click here)

Channels and Airdates:

Wed, May 18, 2011 — 7:30pm
Thu, May 19, 2011 — 1:30am
Fri, May 20, 2011 — 1:30pm
KQED World
Thu, May 19, 2011 — 6:30am
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 1:30pm
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 7:30pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 1:30am
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 7:00am
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 12:00pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 2:30pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 6:30pm
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 3:30pm


My portion in the show is two minutes.  I’m sure it will be much more popular than that recent Prince and Princess wedding thing 😉  Here some examples of my night photography.

Thumbnails of my Night Sky Photos (subset)

The actual photos seen in the show are here.

Here is one photo they used:

South Side [C_009842-75br]

If you give it a watch, I’d be glad to know your thoughts. Especially which – if any – of the photos most inspire you.

If you’re thinking, Steven, haven’t we seen you on TV before, gosh, yes, you might have. I was featured on KGO ABC7 News. And you may have seen the Buzz Films short about me.

By the way, my friend, mentor and partner in StarCircleAcademy.com (photo at right) was featured on “Your Photos on Quest” in July, 2009. Check out Harold Davis’s Quest feature, his BLOG and his photos on Flickr.

Yet Another Day Done

It’s all about the altitude. Nothing improves my attitude like a little good old fashioned altitude. Air under me, a vista, and a bit of solitude.

My only regret on my most recent trip up this mountain is I didn’t take advantage of the very clear skies to attempt star trails. On the other hand, the wind was whipping the straps on my pack into my face and other body parts so camera stability was going to be suspect.

I have a huge backlog of creative ideas from this pinnacle at the South Eastern Edge of the San Francisco Bay. The place is called Mission Peak Preserve and it is for me an absolute jewel. It’s existence is a testament to the vision that some have pursued in keeping parts of this very urban area natural and rugged, and the generosity of many landowners to contribute large expanses of hilly and mountainous terrain into eternal naturalness.

This also happens to be one of the few wilderness areas that is open after sunset – until 10 pm in fact. Nothing quite prepares you to watch the fading glow of a fiery sunset be slowly replaced by hundreds of thousands of shimmering man made lights.

It helps that it takes some serious, well intentioned effort to gain the altitude. A steep trail awaits you no matter which direction you approach from. And the reward for your sweat is a view with solitude since many hikers scurry down the mountain as soon as the sun dips below the horizon… long before the best color and the spreading man made light improves the view.

Some co-workers and Night Photographers set out with me for the Hang Glider Launch Area on Mission Peak. Why this area? Why not? I’ve been all over Mission Peak, but never at this area for sunset. It’s about 700 feet lower in elevation than the summit, but it allows a 180 degree view of the San Francisco Bay, including downtown San Jose (not this direction, of course). However there is not a lot of interesting foreground here as it is gently sloping.

The road along the foothill at the right is Mission Boulevard. On the distant horizon is Mt. Tamalpais which is in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge – 47.5 miles from this location.

In the foreground with noticeably different colored lights is Ohlone College.

© Copyright 2011, Steven Christenson
All Rights Reserved.