Symmetrical compositions

After this article, Kara convinced me to sign up for the Worldwide Photo Walk this year. I ended up going to the Marin one even though there were five in SF.

The big challenge of an outdoor nature photo walk—besides watching others take better photos than you—is getting your gear down to something you can live with. Especially if you haven’t been photographing in forever. Even if you see something you like, it means compromises to get there. I noticed that the lighting was too flat, but the sky had nice texture, and from the town, I could see Rat Rock Island standing off the promontory.

I really had to shoot that:

Rat Rock Island

Rat Rock Island
China Camp State Park, Marin, California

Nikon D3, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G, handheld
8 exposures 1/400sec @ f/10 +/-2/3 stop, iso200, 14mm

View Large on Black

The composition

The first rule of landscape photography involving ultrawide angles is to have something in the foreground to hold interest. I tried to shoot with a fence in the foreground, but it didn’t work and walked to the side the promontory to settled on a couple weeds and the promontory as my foreground—moving as far forward as was safe.

The problem was, I couldn’t get the right composition from there, even though I had 114º to work with on my wide angle lens.


What’s wrong with this photograph? What attracted me to the island was the circular symmetry of it. But, I couldn’t maintain that symmetry in the photo and have any foreground interest. So I opted for the Rule of Thirds to get the foreground on one thirds and the island on the other. This broke the symmetry and eliminated most of the sky from the photograph. Even though the Rule of Thirds is a great rule, sometimes it doesn’t work. This photo doesn’t work.

What I wanted was the horizon bisecting the image exactly with enough of the sky in view to show the structure of the clouds and the foreground symmetric enough not to be sticking out unnecessary.

So how did I do that?

Shooting a handheld panorama

The trick is to shoot a vertical panorama. Since I didn’t have a tripod and panoramic clamp, I just shot it handheld with a lot of overlap (about 80%) between frames.

Why so much overlap? The first is that you can shoot in autoexposure mode and even though the exposure varies, the enblend routine will softly merge the image similar to the way a gradient ND filter might work. The second reason is that you won’t be able to rotate the camera around its optical center so having a lot of extra frames will make merging and blending a bit easier.

The latter is especially true for this camera and this lens combination. The nodal point is nearly the front element of the lens, but in handheld panoramas, you tend to rotate at or near the film plane! So there’s a lot of distortion here.

By the way, the other trick is you form the image so the long side of the film is perpendicular to the film plane. When you do that, even for small panoramas like this, you’ll get a photo that looks like you took it from a medium format camera… especially when you use a rectilinear map instead of a cylindrical one.


A single frame of the panorama. Notice that if the panorama is portrait the framing is landscape. If you have a good single frame in your panorama that stands on it’s own, then you know that odds are high that the image will be successful.

A note about processing

Besides PTMac to do the stitching, I did a little bit of processing on the final 16-bit image. The first was to use a digital graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky. Most people do this in camera, but as long as you don’t have blown highlights, because of the linear capture in the highlights, you can do this safely digitally with a high-bit RAW file.

The second is to use a contrast color range filter. This is like a color filter for color photographs instead of black and white and can only be done digitally (Exception: loading tungsten film in an outdoor photograph and putting a sheet of CTO in front of the lens). What this does is increase contrast for one color range )in this case, I targeted blue/green. The cost was all the contrast on the foreground and the island, which I pulled back with a mask.

The final processing trick, and the most obscure is to use a smoothing routine on the water. Multiple overlapping exposures adds a lot of structure to the water which needs to be smoothed out. I probably could have gotten away with using a very aggressive setting on a denoising routine or a portrait skin smoothing filter (applied to the green water “skin tone”). In this case I used Topaz Simplify, if only to justify a recent purchase of a Photoshop plug-in. Of course, it does too good of a job, so I put it it’s own layer, masked the water region only, and pulled back the effect using the opacity adjustment.

In the end, that’s a lot of adjustment, but one which I feel doesn’t distort the essence of the image.

Beyond that, I was too lazy to get rid of all the sensor dust and lens flare beyond what I could do simply by grabbing a dust free portion of the stitch. Next time I should clean my sensor better before heading out. 🙂

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