Panoramas, Snow & Coffee

While planning to write a better title, I thought and thought, but then I just wrote down the three words that came to my mind. Why waste time on a title when I have so much more to say? This article is just about these three words and how I got around to creating some panoramas.

Himalayan peaks after snow-fall

(Himalayan peaks after snow-fall – captured just a few days earlier)

It had snowed incessantly for a night and day. Everything was covered in white. The skies were gray and gloomy. The frigid weather was getting on my nerves when after a couple of overcast days, one fine afternoon, the sky started to clear. In just under an hour, everything was bathed in the warm glow of the sun. The snow shimmered and the Himalayan peaks were visible again. All the more covered in snow, covered in golden light. A chance to lighten up the moods and click some landscapes before the sun disappears once again to give way to the night.

A blue-whistling thrush came by and broke out into a fine melody, almost welcoming the bright sun. A few Himalayan bulbuls also flew by and perched themselves on a tall oak tree, basking in the bright sun. Their yellow tummies looked even yellower in the evening light. The swallows came flying around low, almost around the place where I was standing, soaking up the sunshine. Why not me? Why should I not enjoy the warmth of the sun? Well, for one reason. There was a wonderful scene in front of me waiting to be captured. I went back in and fetched my camera. The plan was to capture some beautiful landscapes.

There were two options for me to capture the landscape in front – Use a wideangle lens and capture the landscape, then crop the excess sky and foreground. The other option was to use a short telephoto and capture multiple photographs and then stitch them to create a panorama. For obvious reasons, stitching a panorama is better than cropping an image from wide-angle. The stitched panorama has better image quality and more leeway when it comes to framing the final image.

While I was planning the shot, the clouds came over again and covered the sky. The wind was once again chilled. I did not click even a single image. At least I was able to warm myself a little. That was a consolation.

Further snow did not follow. The wind was quite chilled in the evening. On a cold dark evening, hot coffee seemed like an ideal thing to do. With a fire going on, a hot cup of coffee was God-send. The night fell early, as it always does in winters. Maybe, the next day would give me better opportunities. And it did …

Camera mounted and ready to capture

(mobile click of the camera, all set for evening panorama)

Opportunity Strikes

The morning was cloudy but by afternoon the sky was starting to clear. By late afternoon, the sky was almost devoid of clouds. The light was golden and exactly as I had wanted it. It was time to click some panoramas.

There was snow on the ground, so setting up the tripod was tricky. I first stomped hard on the snow a few times at the location where each of the legs was going to rest. This compacted the snow. My tripod has an option for spikes too. This is useful in slippery conditions like ice and snow. Exactly what I needed. When these spikes are a part of tripod feet, do take care that they are open all the way out and not sticking out partially. Two of the legs had to be opened partially since the ground on which I was standing was tilted. The spirit level of the tripod came in handy (Tripod – using it efficiently!).

Once the tripod was set, I screwed on top of it my favorite ball head. In such cold weather, it is easier to use a ball head with just one knob to turn. There are some problems when it comes to smooth panning but then there are ways to do that even with a ball head. A stable lateral movement or panning capability is required even for creating panoramas.

Next, I mounted my camera on top of it. My trusty and yet nostalgic in its feel, the Nikon Df with a Zeiss 135mm lens. No filters or any kind. Not even a clear filter or UV.

For the first photograph series, I used Manual Mode (Obsession with Manual Mode), ISO 100, 1/250 sec shutter speed, f/8 aperture. Though I could have used the camera hand-held with that shutter speed, I prefer the stability of the tripod. Using a tripod also ensures that all my shots are lined perfectly to be stitched. For panoramas, I always go from left to right, with every shot covering at least 1/3 view of the preceding shot. After clicking the first shot, I moved the center-post itself towards the right. No need to fiddle with the tripod-head settings. I had kept the center-post slightly loose and all the way down, before the first shot. So, instead of fiddling around with the ball-head, I could simply turn the whole ball-head with the camera attached all around laterally. After clicking 6 shots, my first set was ready.

Evening Panorama

(This is cropped and down-sampled version of the first panorama. Full resolution image under CC 4.0 License – Evening Panorama 1)

The setting sun does wonders. Yellow light on the snow-peaks which was slowly turning to orange and pink! The grandeur of the view can’t be justified by any photographs.

It was starting to get chilling. Icy winds were blowing. A friend of mine lit a bonfire just a few meters in front of me and my camera. A truly concerned soul who totally spoiled the clarity with the rising smoke. I could do nothing but just thank him for his gesture. Leaving my camera there, I went to him and we shared a cup of hot coffee. Somehow, lately, whenever I end up having coffee, photography seems to end for the day. Today, I was not going to let this happen.

… and the second series of shots clicked

Luck was on my side. Just as I was finishing my coffee, the wind started to gather speed. It fanned the fire. The smoke reduced and whatever smoke was there was carried away by the wind. From the high up vantage-point where my camera was mounted, I was sure that the view would again be clear. Wind can also create a fire-hazard but we never leave a fire unattended. Quickly gulping down the remaining coffee, I hurried back to the camera.

The light had already fallen low. I reduced the shutter speed to 1/125 and also opened the aperture to f/5.6. Even though the camera was mounted on a tripod, a high shutter speed takes care of camera shake that occurs with the mirror and shutter movement. The wind was also strong! I had used f/8 earlier since that is about where my lens performs the best. Even f/5.6 gives equally nice results so opening the aperture was not a problem. One thing to consider here is the quality of the lens. If the lens has any kind of visible vignette or distortions while opening the apertures, it is best to keep the aperture somewhere in the sweet zone of the lens.

What people don’t realize that regardless of the aperture used, there is always one and only one plane of focus. The point of focus where the subject is totally in focus. For landscapes such as these, that point is almost infinity and that is where the actual focus lies. I focus on that plane and change the shutter to bring out the best performance of the lens. Nothing to do with the depth of field here.

Once again, I capture a series of shots for yet another panorama. Capturing them quickly and smoothly is important. With the setting sun, the light changes rapidly and even a small delay can make a noticeable difference in the photographs.

(The second panorama! By the time, I finished that coffee, the light had turned orange. The foreground hills were no longer lit by the sun. Full resolution image under CC 4.0 License – Evening Panorama 2)

… and the final wrap-up shot

The light was fast dropping. I clicked the last series of the day at 1/60 second and f/5.6 aperture. ISO was 100. This was just a few minutes after the series above.

Going from left to right, rotating the center-post, I captured another series of photographs. The peaks had a pink glow to them. The alpenglow!

After a few more minutes, this spectacular show of colors on the hills ended. They were once again grey-white against a dark sky. The snow under my feet was now starting to feel through my boots. It was time to wrap-up and hit the bed. In the hills, when the sun sets, its time to sleep or freeze. I always choose to sleep.

Evening Panorama 3

(The orange glow had now converted to pink. Alpenglow at last! Full resolution image under CC 4.0 License – Evening Panorama 3)

A quick technicals’ Recap

  • Use manual mode and set the ISO also manually.
  • While moving the camera the plane of movement should be fixed. If you are creating a wide panorama, move only horizontally.
  • Use an aperture that gives the least distortion and does away with vignetting.  Usually, mid-range apertures are good.
  • Have an ample amount of overlap between the subsequent shots.
  • Capture the shots in a short duration to avoid change in light conditions.

All the panoramas were created using raw files on Affinity Photo. It did a fairly good job of stitching images. There were some artifacts too, which I had to later remove using cloning and healing.

The same technique of clicking panoramas can be used for tall photographs (multiple shots clicked vertically) or for creating images with insanely high resolutions (for example instead of a wide-angle photograph of a landscape, try clicking multiple images using a short-tele and then stitching them together to create a high-resolution image)

Do check out the full resolution images, the links to which I have provided under each panorama.

Further Reading:
On trail of snow-capped peaks
When the clouds clear up!

Interview with Affinity Photo (Opens in a new Tab)

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