Shooting a Panorama of the Great Sand Dunes

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.

28 thoughts on “Shooting a Panorama of the Great Sand Dunes

  1. Great shots, and have to agree with Tippy, the last one is my favorite.
    You and your daughter have long sleeves. A little cool out there? Its t-shirt weather here in the beautiful sunshine, no white patches here. LOL!

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      1. Well finding coffee shops definitely adds pleasure to a road trip! Does your daughter cheat her taste buds out of good , sweet, creamy coffee like you do or does she go for a Salted caramel coffee?

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            1. Maybe you will find bears tomorrow. My brother in law often asks himself the same question about Montana. He loves the West. He is from Colorado, met my sister and love brought him to Pennsylvania when they got married.

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            2. Love brought him to Pennsylvania, huh? I guess it would have to be that. Or waterfalls I suppose.

              Tomorrow I fly back to Austin and leave my baby here. I might cry.

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            3. Hey, Pennsylvania is a great state. We have the waterfalla, mountains (well my BIL calls them hills, compared to Colorado) and beautiful countryside. And cows.

              Aww! Glad you were able to drive out with her. I hope she has an amazing time, and Dad’s are allowed to cry. You guys will have to Zoom and Facetime. 🙂 We raise them to spread their wings but its not always easy when they do.

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            4. Oh, I feel for her, but don’t know if I can help her, though I am always willing to listen. I am blessed to have a wonderful relationship with my kids. I have had my daughter talk about some of her friends too though that struggle having a good relationship with their moms. I will get back to you. I am going to try and finish my post before midnight.

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            5. Its become a habit so I don’t really feel pressured. Its funny for there has been nights where I have felt too tired and though it wasn’t going to happen. But I would wake up with a story on my mind and climb out of bed to write it. I guess there could be worse habits. 🙂

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            6. You are always welcome! I appreciate you reading, annnnnd…. yes, your comments keep me enteratained as well. In spite of the times that I may … “smack my head”..! LOL!

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            7. My daughter and I have a wonderful relationship BUT it had its rough times for sure. I think the most important thing that a mom and daughter need in order to get along is communication and honesty. My daughter knows she can tell me anything, even things that she knows I won’t like. Things I will disagree with. I just have always told her I want her to be honest no matter what. Has that worked perfectly all the time. No! But for the most part, yes. My daughter’s friends who struggled with their moms would say how they couldn’t talk to their moms. How their moms would blow up over everything, or be too busy. Well, don’t be suprrised if your daughter pulls away from you if she knows she is going to get yelled at about everything. If she knows that she isn’t going to be listened too. It can be very hard at times to keep your cool, but its much better if you do. There needs to be some sane voice of reason, you can’t both lose it. Something I had to learn was just to walk away. Walk away, breathe and come back to discuss after I ..smacked my head.. a few times.
              I hope that helped a little maybe.

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            8. Was just thinking of her, didn’t know how early your flight was leaving today. I can imagine its scary. Tell her she is braver than she feels, stronger than she thinks…. Yes, a quote from Pooh Bear, but the wisdom of Pooh Bear is for all ages. 🙂

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  2. I grew up in canon city Colorado. My parents took me and my 2 sisters on the intense four wheeling drive to get there. It was rough. We were bou cing our heads of the ceiling and windows. It was a ball!!. We honestly didn’t think we’d make it there. Because the trail was so bad. When we made it, it was over 100 degrees out and my sister stuck one foot in the sand ans had green blisters. My dad said whoever hikes to the very top gets whatever they want from dairy queen tonight. I was 8. And I hike all the way to the top with my mom and dad. It was amazing. I recently moved back to Indiana where I was born. Ans wish everyday I never left Colorado.

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