My daughter and I have been on a road trip north from Texas to Montana. One of the stops on our way was the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. When the need for our road trip arose, I took the opportunity to cross this national park off of my list of parks as I have always wanted to see it. Below is my daughter and me taking the cliché photo in front of the park sign.
The Great Sand Dunes is just that, massive dunes of sand at the base of a mountain range in Colorado. Great Sand Dunes National Park is kind of isolated but a well-visited park just the same. You can park and go climbing on the sand dunes and sliding back down them on sleds if you like. I wasn’t much in to sledding but I did drag my camera around to take some photos.
I found that right outside of the lodge was a good place to take in the entire sand dunes so it seemed like a good opportunity for a panorama. On the day that we arrived it had been a very windy day and the sky was filled with dust and haze. The panorama below was taken just as the sun was setting into the haze on the horizon. You can see the sand blowing across the dunes in the distance.
The above photo is a panorama merge of 15 vertically shot images. Shooting like this can give you a much higher resolution image than just cropping a wide angle photo. The image above was cropped to 21457 x 6642. A single image has a resolution of 5504 x 8256. So, I got a much larger image than any single photo could give.
Getting good pano results is not as simple as just shooting a bunch of photos and stitching them together. There are a few techniques to practice for good results.
1. Your subject needs to be relatively distant from your camera, or you will see stitching errors in the merge. This is because as you pan the camera on a normal tripod head, the lens swings around and you get a slightly different angle on your subject with each shot. This creates parallax error and ruins your stitch. You can mitigate this with a panorama tripod head, or choosing a subject that is a long way away such that the slightly different angle won’t be noticeable. I got away from the nearby trees, so that only the distant dunes and mountains were in the frame.
2. Use a tripod and make sure it is level. One good way to do this is to attach a level to your camera, which I didn’t do because I never bothered to get a level. I lined up the camera in the middle of the scene and leveled it using the camera built in level, and then I panned back and forth and adjusted it until I had a level sweep. It wasn’t quite perfect, but good enough for a crop. Below you can see my slightly crooked raw pano.
3. Put the camera in manual mode and select an aperture well above the base aperture of your lens to reduce vignetting as lenses tend to have noticeable vignette when wide open. The vignetting may create patchiness in a clear blue sky if you don’t have enough overlap in your photos and it is just about impossible to correct this in post. And manual mode keeps the camera from varying exposure from shot to shot, which is also difficult to correct in post.
4. Next, set a focus point and switch to manual focus so that your camera won’t autofocus for each shot. This avoids a stitch of photos that is a mess with different focus points.
5. Make sure there is good overlap from photo to photo to help the stitching program line them all up. They say about 50% overlap is a good practice. Below are a couple of raw frames from the pano with quite a bit of overlap.
6. Next patiently take your photos and then import them in to a panorama stitching application. I used Lightroom, but there are lots of free ones available. I use the default stitching settings in Lightroom as they work well enough.
I have had stitches go bad because I didn’t shoot them well, but this one worked out.
In the morning, I thought that the light was better, there were some clouds in the sky, and the air clearer so I went back to the same spot and reshot the panorama.
I like the layers of the sand dunes and then the mountain range. And shooting by early or late light, you get shadows across the dunes giving you some depth and texture. The panos taken from a few miles away and just outside of the park are my favorite shots of the visit.