Get 4×5 Quality With A DSLR

Using a stitch-together method, you can get a large-format look from your regular digital camera
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DSLR
The 4x5 view camera was, for many years, the tool of choice for many landscape photographers. Its large negative offered unparalleled resolution and the ability to make extremely large prints that were tack-sharp. As digital cameras have taken over, 4x5s have been steadily fading from mainstream photography, but if you’re looking for that 4x5 extreme resolution, you can use a modern D-SLR and re-create it. This image was composited from three RAW files that were captured with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera. The final image is capable of huge enlargements that are razor-sharp.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

For almost 20 years as a professional photographer, I’ve shot with large- and medium-format film cameras. Then, five years ago, I purchased my first digital camera, a Canon EOS-1Ds, and gave up film altogether. While I loved all the advantages of shooting with a digital camera, and I was okay with the camera replacing the quality I used to get from my 645 medium-format camera, at times I missed the sharp detail I achieved with my 4x5.

About two years ago, things changed. With the advent of automated photo-stitching software, which first appeared in Photoshop CS3 and other programs, I now use a technique that stitches three digital vertical images together to create a horizontal image, or three horizontals to get a vertical image, the size of which rivals 4x5 resolution. Photoshop does an amazing job at easily stitching these images. Typical stitched file sizes converted to 8-bit range from 110 MB to over 150 MB from my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera. I know that from a pixel-peeping point of view, I can get more resolution from a drum-scanned 4x5 transparency, but what I’m excited about are the results I can see in an actual print. In comparing large prints, the sharpness of the three stitched images is every bit as good, if not better, than a scanned 4x5. Now, of course, there are other qualities in a print besides sharpness, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone liking the “look” of a 4x5 print better, but if you’re looking for that sharp, almost 3-D type of “pop” that a large-format film or medium-format digital-back file can achieve, I think you’ll be very pleased with the three-stitch file.

Capturing a scene using the three-file method works for about 70% of the landscape and floral images I typically shoot, but two circumstances can cause me to forgo the attempt. One occurs when there’s motion that causes elements such as leaves or other objects to move from one exposure to the next, making it difficult for Photoshop to match up. However, I can sometimes compensate for this by manipulation in Photoshop. A more serious problem occurs when a scene I’m shooting is changing rapidly as does, for example, one with moving people or ocean waves. At times like these, I find it almost impossible to set up a three-image capture.

All of the photographs on these pages were built by stitching together several original images. The stitching process is most effective when you selectively mask and combine specific components of the captured images. To make the job as easy as possible, it’s necessary to keep the camera level across each capture. Levelers like the one on the opposite page are ideal tools for this technique.

Recently, because of my absolute devotion to producing a sharp, detailed print, I considered purchasing a 39-megapixel digital back for a medium-format camera. I even had a representative from the manufacturer come to my office with the camera, and we spent a few hours taking sample images. After he left, I felt certain I was going to purchase this camera. However since this was such an expensive acquisition, I decided to compare a file we shot that day with a three-stitched image from my Canon.


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Kirk Enterprises BL-Mark3

Using my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, I shot the very same image as the rep and I had shot with the medium-format camera. With my Canon I took one image with just a single shot of the entire scene and then three vertical images encompassing the same area, all at ISO 100. Next, I stitched the three verticals together and compared the files side by side at 100% on my monitor. While the 39-megapixel file, which was shot at ISO 100, was of much better quality than the one-shot image file from my Canon, I was amazed at how close in quality the three-stitched file was to the 39-megapixel image! The medium-format digital back file definitely had much better dynamic range, and I saw much more shadow information in it. But with Canon’s excellent noise characteristics, I was able to bring the shadows back to a level comparable to the medium-format back. Also, at 100%, the digital back files were slightly smoother, showing off its larger sensor. The sharpness between the two same-sized files was almost indistinguishable.


Manfrotto 438 Ball Camera Leveler

I realized I couldn’t justify spending so much money on the medium-format camera for such a small difference in quality. I knew it would be a lot easier not to have to make three stitched files and perform the work required in Photoshop, but again, it just didn’t seem to justify the expense. Besides, there are advantages in speed of use and lens selection with my Canon.

Much of the landscape photography I do is based on capturing the fleeting moment—unique weather conditions such as clouds, fog, rainbows, etc. Because of the speed at which these conditions change, I’ve developed a system for capture that may not satisfy the perfectionist, but works well for this kind of photography. Of course, a variety of panorama equipment makes flawless stitches (I use gear from Really Right Stuff), and I’ve used some of this equipment in the past and have been pleased. However, it has always added weight and time to the process, and doesn’t allow the spontaneity I need for changing conditions.

I’ve successfully made stitches by shooting handheld, but in order to line up the files consistently, I find three pieces of equipment to be indispensable: a tripod, a bubble level that fits into the hot-shoe that most cameras have and a way to level my tripod. Leveling both the tripod and the camera is necessary in order to align the three images so I can more effectively process them in Photoshop. Some tripod legs have a built-in level, while others are sold with a leveling base built in. It’s also possible to purchase a leveling base to add to the tripod head. Some of these can be quite heavy, but others are lighter, perhaps adding an additional pound or less. I use the Manfrotto 438 Ball Camera Leveler. It’s light, under $100 and handles the leveling of the tripod head quite well.


Figure 1

Figure 2

The first thing I do to create a three-stitched image file is to level the tripod. Then I level the camera using the bubble level. Next, when setting up a horizontal-format picture, I compose it through my viewfinder in horizontal. I then memorize the boundaries of the composition I want and flip my camera to vertical to make the three images. It helps to have a horizontal/vertical quick-release plate on my camera to easily switch from one to the other. These can be purchased from companies like Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises, among others. I then release the panorama knob on my ballhead so I can swing the camera to take the remaining images.

I generally overlap one-third to one-half on each image, depending on the composition. Both of these overlaps work. It just depends on how wide I want the composition to go. Also, I find it important to lock down the tripod head after each exposure because, in some instances, movement could occur. I expose the images set on manual and avoid using auto white balance, auto exposure and autofocus because these settings can change as you make the three panels. I want each file to have the same settings.


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While Frates uses a pro-level D-SLR, much less expensive models like the new Nikon D5000 can be used to build 4x5-like, extreme-resolution images. Keeping the noise level low by shooting at moderate ISOs is a big help for generating the cleanest possible captures.

I prefer to use a zoom lens because it gives me more options in composing the image. I particularly like using a 24-105mm lens, but I’ve used all focal lengths from 17mm to 300mm.

Once I have the three tiff, jpeg or RAW verticals or horizontals I want to use, in Photoshop, I select File > Automate > Photomerge. When this panel opens, I browse to find the images I want to use. There also are several options under the Layout portion of this screen. Usually, the first option, Auto, works best, but I’ve found I need to use other options with some lenses, especially when using a very wide-angle lens. These usually process well with the Cylindrical option. I experiment, since at times other options work better. Once I’ve made my Layout selection, it’s a simple matter of clicking OK and letting Photoshop do its magic (Figure 1). And magic it is—I rarely need to do anything else to the resulting file except to crop it.

If you want your large prints to sing with sharpness similar to that from a large-format camera or medium-format back, give this technique a try.

To see more of Dennis Frates’ photography, visit www.fratesphoto.com.

10 Comments

    When I select 3 images the program merges 2 of them and the 3rd just sits above the other 2.
    Is there a way to make the format more horizontal so all can fit?

    I’ve done stitched panoramic landscapes in the past with nice results, and I even tried doing a scene by stitching 4 files together to make a huge file (upper right, upper left, lower right and lower left) but that didn’t quite work as I had envisioned. But THIS method is one I had not yet tried and I’m EXCITED to put the theory into practice! Thanks for the kick-start toward some really tremendous results!

    I will definitely give this a go. I did a quickie set of six images with a 50mm/1.4 on my 5D2 at a baseball stadium with NO tripod, and Photoshop easily churned out a 27,000 pixel-wide image that was surpisingly accurate! so I’m REALLY interested in this method of yours. Thanks for sharing!

    (PS: ForestWander, Dennis’ 1Ds MKIII is also 21MP, FYI)

    I have used this strategy to the extreme. I just recently shot a panorama composed of 72 photos (3 rows of 24 shots) of the town of Avon, CO. Each image was shot with a Canon 40D using a zoom lens set near 135 mm. It was stitched together with PhotoShop CS3 on a Mac. The computer was high end, but still took 25 minutes to process. The 72 10 MegaPixel shots makes for a huge, very detailed image. The final file was 654mb. Know anyone who has a printer with a carriage 10 feet wide?? My web site has other examples.

    I have tried this technique before and it really works great, just like you’ve mentioned. It takes a bit of work for wide angle shots due to the distortion (I have to do selective masking of small areas of the images that did not merge well) but the resulting image is really worth it

    I prefer to use Large format camera, too bad that those pros were using large and medium formats and now using digital and telling us to use digital and techniques of panorama and stitching photos, i don’t have time always to shoot multiple shots to make those large files photos which is closer to large format photos, also the DR of Large formats and medium formats are slightly better than those of digital, can’t we use what pros and masters were using in the past?

    A great personal assignment- I’m putting this on the top of the list. I haven’t used any stitching techniques yet, but your recommendation is good enough for me! (Now if only I had a wall big enough to display a large format photo…)

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