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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A View From The Top

Think about the sun to plan your time in the mountains, and you’ll get your most inspiring shots from the summits

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A 200º panorama looking west at sunrise from the summit of 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM
The angle of sunrise also remains crucial. The view from the summit extends 100 miles or more, so some haze is inevitable. The best Fourteeners for summit shoots are often those surrounded by dramatic peaks that are close enough to see clearly through the haze and that are sidelit at sunrise. The portion of our visual system that allows us to see depth is actually color-blind. It works strictly on luminance values, which is why sidelit images, with their rich interplay of highlight and shadow, convey a sense of depth, while frontlit images often look flat.

Front light can work well just before the sun crests the horizon. On exceptionally clear mornings, the light from the sun, still below the horizon, takes a tremendously long path through the atmosphere from east to west, bounces off distant air molecules and returns to your eye. During its journey, the blue light scatters out of the beam. What you see is a pink band of light just above the western horizon. The bow-shaped band of blue sky between the horizon and the band of pink is called the twilight wedge. It's actually Earth's shadow. From the summit of a Fourteener, it can reveal the curvature of the Earth—though not for the simple reason you probably expect. (For a full explanation of this complex phenomenon, see my blog post at www.glennrandall.com/2011.02.01_arch.html.)

Moonset over Wetterhorn Peak from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak at sunrise in early March, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM
Think Wide
My first efforts at shooting sunrise from the summit weren't very successful. Somehow images with the normal 4:5 or 3:2 aspect ratio often failed to capture the expansive feeling of standing on a 14,000-foot summit. I decided to try shooting wide panoramas—really wide, such as a panorama that extended more than 180º, from the rising sun to the full moon as it set directly opposite the sun in the sky. Of course, the peaks in between the rising sun and setting moon would have to be spectacular enough to hold the viewer's interest across the entire width of the frame. I also knew I'd have to print the image big, say, five feet across, otherwise the peaks would look like molehills, not mountains. That meant I needed extreme resolution. Before 2009, I hauled a 4x5 field camera to the summit. Now I was shooting a 21-megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds-Mark III, which opened up a new possibility: stitching together many frames to create an enormous file that could top 1 gigabyte in size.

Digital capture had a further advantage. It allowed me to use HDR (high dynamic range) software to produce a panorama with the best possible shadow and highlight detail. I'd start by shooting three frames at each camera position. I'd merge the three frames shot from each camera position into 32-bit files in Photoshop CS5. I then could use the Photomerge utility to stitch the 32-bit frames together and create a seamless 180º, 32-bit panorama, which I could process in Nik Software HDR Efex Pro to retain shadow and highlight detail despite the extreme range in brightness across the scene.

The ultrawide angle of view from left to right meant I needed to be meticulous about setting up the camera so the plane of rotation was absolutely level and the camera was level both left-to-right and front-to-back. Even a small error would make a normally straight horizon curve up and down like a roller-coaster track. I also needed a system that would allow the camera to rotate around the nodal point of the lens so that foreground elements always lined up with the same background elements in the overlapping portions of adjacent frames. I have a Pano Elements Package from Really Right Stuff that lets me get everything level and position the camera perfectly in under a minute.

Look Down…At Least With Your Lens
I began studying maps, searching for a place where such a panorama actually was possible and soon realized that only a few peaks would work. I knew I couldn't just shoot a distant skyline with a telephoto lens. I'd end up with a print that was five feet wide and three inches high. For an ultrawide panorama to work, I needed either an interesting foreground, a view into the valley below, or both. Many Colorado Fourteeners have broad, nearly level summits big enough for a high-altitude football game. Shooting from their summits with a wide lens would produce a panorama where most of the frame was filled with nondescript talus and scree. There are no lush fields of wildflowers on the summits of Fourteeners. My best bet, I decided, was to be atop a rugged peak with a small summit that would let me look down at a steep angle into the valley below, so a 60-inch-wide print could be 20 inches high and still include something of interest besides the distant peaks.

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