Incredible panoramic tools in Tuscany

Over at Luminous Landscape, photographer Enrico Cinalli has published a very interesting look at how he’s producing landscape panoramas of his native Tuscany.

In short, he’s rigged his SUV with a pneumatic pole that telescopes out to 33 feet high. At the top, a mechanized panoramic head. A tablet computer connected via USB controls the whole business, using a script that he developed himself. Pretty awesome.

This is great for a couple of reasons:

1) Height imparts a special look to landscape photos. 33 feet is pretty high up.

2) Having mechanized the entire thing, Cinalli doesn’t have to risk his own skin by climbing up a huge ladder. E. O. Goldbeck (1892-1986), a photographer from San Antonio who was famous for his panoramas (e.g., of groupings of military personnel), was apparently completely fearless. For the big “insignia” panoramas (the troops would be dressed and arranged so that they would form their group’s insignia), which took days to plan and hours to execute, he would build a small tower from which to shoot the photo. But for other stuff—impromptu landscape panoramas, I guess (that circular platform at the very top is the base for his panoramic camera)—he had a tall ladder attached to his car. I think he must have gone through multiple versions of this ladder: I remember seeing a photo in a book on Goldbeck, in the reading room at the Harry Ransom Center (which owns Goldbeck’s archives as well), that showed a different car-mount setup. And in this other picture he was standing on the top step of this crazy ladder.

I can only imagine that Goldbeck’s car-mount ladder must have been incredibly shaky . . . it’s a testimony to his skill that he was able to make it work at all. I once tried putting PVC pipe on the ends of my tripod legs, which bought me an additional 2 feet of height. But it would wobble if anyone walked past. Okay for shooting alone and indoors, but bad for everything else. Cinnali explains that he deals with wind and wobble by keeping his shutter times very short. I had to do that on the boardwalks in Yellowstone, or give up the idea of panoramas of Mammoth Hot Springs.

In many cases, one doesn’t need to be as high as Goldbeck or Cinalli to get a great image, but my hat is off to both of them for literally taking it to the next level.

1750mm lens rental! 25 cents!

At the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, visitors can observe captive bears exercising their keen sense of smell to uncover food hidden under rocks and logs. They’re really good at it . . . they go right to that food. Then again, the food is under the same rocks and logs every time, so there may be a bit of a conditioned response at work also.

To get out of their preserve area and amongst people, a bear would first have to get past some very heavy cable fencing. If he managed that, he’d have to clear a pretty wide, 20-foot-deep chasm. Then there’s another fence. I think the whole thing is electrified. The point is that although you get closer to these bears than you normally do in other non-certain-death situations, they are still far enough away that the avid photographer still wishes he could get closer. This picture was shot at 200mm. Not good enough. I want to zoom in for a bear head shot, and get rid of all that fencing and what-not.

Voila, the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is on it! They have about three pay-telescopes lined up. Drop in a quarter, and zoom right in on these magnificent creatures. And on the side, there’s a note to photographers:





For only 25 cents, I had to try it. I used my Canon S95, because of the obvious impossibility of using any of my EF lenses . . .

First try:

Hmmm. Oh, I see, I wasn’t centered. Second try:

Better! But, and I hate to whine . . . that don’t look like 1750mm to this camera fan. Maybe I could maximize the awesomeness by zooming in on the camera itself:

As they say, third time’s a charm. I don’t want to brag, but this is SOOC. Yeah. I’m offering this fine image in a limited, signed edition of only 3,000 prints. Contact me for pricing. Act now, before it’s too late.

So even if the telescopes weren’t so great for photography, they were good for a joke. Or two. “Hey, is that a pay telescope between your legs, or are you just really excited to see those bears?”

Yellowstone: Grand Prismatic Spring

The largest hot spring in the park at 370 feet in diameter, and one of the most interesting places to stroll and take pictures. Only a few are of the spring itself; the others are merely in the same area and along the same boardwalk. I like all the pictures in this post, but like this one here for looking unlike any other picture I’ve ever taken. Throw a ship in there and you’ve got a Turner painting.

Yellowstone, part 2

More pictures from Yellowstone!

Here’s a kid passed out or in the grip of existential malaise, in a restaurant next to Old Faithful. Walker Percy talked about this (directly in Lost in the Cosmos; by narrative means in his novels): the difference between an organism in an environment, and a self in a world. The organism’s “happiness” is dependent on the presence of a good environment. The self’s happiness, however, is not always, and perhaps not often, contingent on the quality of its environment. We can find ourselves sitting on a beach in paradise, depressed half to death. Or at the most amazing party, and feel utterly lonely. Why do we get depressed at Christmas, with gifts and incredible food flying everywhere? Because our happiness depends on something beyond our environment, and sometimes our unhappiness can even be increased by a good environment—the contrast seems to mock us. This kid is in a really nice building, with a gift shop selling 5,000 different Yellowstone souvenirs . . . in a restaurant that offers 23 different burgers and sandwiches, not to mention many more sides and breakfast items (and only $3.75 to turn any one of them into a combo meal) . . . and he’s racked out in apparent despair.

So much for the kid. I hope he feels better now. But if he’d rather be locked in his room playing Call of Duty than checking out Yellowstone, he deserves to feel terrible.

Mammoth Hot Springs got some attention in my previous Yellowstone post, but the place is so cool it needs more space here.

This closed trail is a reminder, if any additional were needed, that the landscape in Yellowstone is constantly changing. In my shot of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, scree is clearly descending over the remaining snow packs—erosion never sleeps. What I find interesting is that even in the midst of all this change, many features look exactly the same as they did to 19th-century painters like Thomas Moran.

Other features haven’t fared as well. Take the Mud Volcano, for example. Today (or, at least on the day I was there last month), it looks like a small, bubbling crater at the base of a hillside. But when explorers gave it the name Mud Volcano, they did so because it used to spit out mud with much greater force. One reads online that earthquakes in 1979 caused the Mud Volcano to go a little crazy and then settle down to the bubbling state we see at present. Pictured here (though not in the thumbnail) is Kim, looking out onto this neat sight.

Right next to the Mud Volcano is the Dragon’s Mouth. Same old thing: belch steam and boiling water, day after day . . . yawn.





More hot spring action:

I didn’t take notes, but recall that this last spring had signs reading “Temperature: 178º . . . No Swimming.” At the same time I saw a woman tourist walk by wearing hot pants that were a few sizes too small, and a big parka. She was almost dressed for swimming.

The deposits left by these springs take on some beautiful colors and shapes:

That’s it for hot springs for the moment. Now, some generally beautiful scenery.

I’ll post separately about the Grand Prismatic Spring area. It’s that great.

Gear in situ: Yellowstone trip

I like to take pictures, and sometimes I like to take pictures of the camera I used to take the pictures. That’s as “meta” as I get . . . I suppose someone may one day photograph me as I take a picture of my own camera, but that’s not something I’m going to arrange.

These were taken with my pocket camera, full auto settings, and are not meant to be beautiful or artistic. I like them for different reasons.

At Gibbon Falls in Yellowstone, on a day of uninspiring weather and sky:

I shot with all three tripod legs on the ground for several years before I realized that in low wall situations, I could mount one or two legs on the wall, and get a few inches closer to the subject. For single frames that doesn’t make any difference, but when trying to make a panorama from behind a wall, it helps keep the wall out of the bottom corner(s) of the pano. As you can see from the picture, I wasn’t doing a panorama here: the light seemed too boring to invest the extra time. Seen at bottom is the original 5D, which I kept a 20mm on for the whole trip:

Overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. My original 5D hangs from the lens of the new model, for no good reason other than I wanted them both in the pic. That’s my cousin’s folded-up tripod, with pistol-grip head. That’s not for me . . . I love my Really Right Stuff stuff. Wouldn’t trade their ball head for anything.

When the railing is chest-high like this, I put two tripod legs flush with the fence, and bring the third leg up behind to keep it in place. Then I straddle that third leg and put my feet behind the front two legs to make sure the thing doesn’t go anywhere. This setup helps minimize the occurrence of rail in the panorama. If you click here you can see some rail at the bottom left. I keep the strap around my neck—I trust my tripod and ball head, but why take a risk seeing your rig disappear into the thundering mist?

This next one is at the Lewis Valley. I was sleeping in the van when my cousin’s wife pulled over. I woke up and saw the cool view, so had to make use of it. This pic reminds me that I need to replace that goofy Canon-issued strap with something with no red on it:

This is a crop of the final panorama from Lewis Valley. The full panorama looked ridiculous. Just did not work at all. Probably could have gotten the same final shot without resorting to panoramics, but oh well.

Next, overlooking the Snake River Gorge, Twin Falls, Idaho. This is from my aunt and uncle’s back porch.

No panoramics for this one, either. I tried that earlier and it, too, looked ridiculous. Nobody wants to see a 120º view of the Snake River bent like a bow about to break . . . and with patio railing along the bottom. So I’m keeping that one in pectore, if you will. Three base-jumpers leapt from the bridge while we were out on the patio.

This last is probably my favorite “gear pic” from this trip: Horsetail Falls, Oregon. A stone’s throw east of Multnomah Falls, which is a short drive east of Portland.

Shooting from this position at this time on this day was a hassle and produced questionable results. The clouds kept shifting, and tourists kept walking around down by the falls. The final product took 73 frames (i.e., a problematic 5W x 6H panorama), about half of which were exposed for the sunlit falls, and half for the foreground trees, which were in deep shadow. A few frames were of me holding the plumb line with orange string, seen resting on my camera bag in the above shot. Additional frames tried to capture various parts of the foreground without people in them. An attempt at subtlety in layering in Photoshop brought me to the scene below. I’ll have to try something different next time I visit . . .

Yellowstone, part 1

There is no place on earth like Yellowstone National Park, and I had never been there until my trip last month. Best to start with a photo.

This is the Madison River, pretty close to the west entrance, and was our first stopping point upon our first entry into the park. Yellowstone’s streams and rivers, in many places, appear wonderfully blue. They exude purity—or the idea of purity, for visitors are warned not to drink the water. It will make you sick and reportedly can kill small pets if they swallow too much of it. Here’s another killer stream:

Scenes like this are commonplace in YNP. Probably the most awesome water sight in the park is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, which dump into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:

This scene is pretty majestic in person—one shot can’t convey the wonder—so I decided to try to do it better justice by applying a panoramic treatment. The picture here is a 20-image panorama, 5 shots across by 4 rows high. God gave me indifferent clouds and sunlight for this image, and I didn’t want to wait around all day in case it changed (trying to strike a balance between photographic patience, and my desire to cover ground on this my first visit). In fact, this was the third panorama I attempted, the first two having been rendered less powerful by the presence of a lot heavier cloud cover. But having been there, and seen the place in person, I am not too unhappy with how the panorama turned out.

The individual panorama shots:

And a close-up of the detritus on top of the snow on the right bank:

Now I need a big printer.

The falls just visible in the panorama look like this from the other side:

The viewing platform goes right to the very edge of the rock. Kind of stirs up the butterflies to think about it when you’re standing there—putting your trust in a slab of concrete resting on the rock. Then a few stops down the trail you read that a certain viewing platform used to extend 100 feet farther into the canyon, until a 1970s earthquake sent it tumbling into the canyon . . . but if I had to choose between getting gutted by a bear, taking a dive in an airplane, sinking with a ship, being buried alive, being shot in the back, or falling over the Lower Falls, I think I would choose the waterfall plunge. Maybe like the Jesuit at the beginning of The Mission.

More of the falls:

We saw a fair number of animals. Here are a few of them.

This bear was foraging around the road, and walked in front of our van. My cousin was driving, so I got out and shot across the hood from the driver’s side. This was the best of the 17 or so pictures I took. 70-200mm at 200mm, with 2x extender. Not sure how far away the bear was at this point (30 feet?), but right after this shot I hopped back in the van—got too close for comfort. Undoubtedly the high-adrenaline point as far as animals were concerned.

All the animals were photographed in the wild, except for the wolves. Those live in the town of West Yellowstone, at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. The chain link fence behind them kind of gives it away. They do a lot of sleeping. The one wolf is yawning. In the wild, wolves are the top predator. In the wolf preserve, their food is killed for them, which no doubt has left their hunting skills a bit dulled. Even so, I am glad I was shooting these pictures through a picture window in a viewing room.

One more of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:

Mammoth Hot Springs is a fascinating area. Hot springs pumping water and two tons of calcium carbonate every day, left running for hundreds or thousands of years, will create one bizarre-looking landscape. Seen from afar:

Mammoth Hot SpringsOne of the hills up close:

Mammoth Hot Springs, hill close-upWith spring activity, which produces orange algae/bacteria growth (another panorama):

Mammoth Hot Springs, hill close-up with spring activityA note on tripods in Yellowstone: they are indispensible, if you want to steady your long lens for sharper wildlife shots. They come in handy in lots of other places, too. But trying to use a tripod on the boardwalks, such as criss-cross the hillsides in Mammoth Hot Springs, or provide pathways through areas like the Grand Prismatic Spring, is an exercise in futility if there are other people around. Every step jostles the entire boardwalk. And going in the second week of June, as I did, one finds oneself surrounded by hordes of fellow tourists. The boardwalks are fairly narrow, which prevents the full spreading of the tripod legs. Nevertheless, the shot immediately above would not have been possible (for little ol’ me, anyway) with a single frame, and I minimized the ill-effects of vibrations from the constant foot-traffic by upping the ISO to 400 so I could keep my shutter speed at 1/160th (at f/16).

Mammoth Hot Springs, hill with dead treesMammoth Hot Springs, ridgesMammoth Hot Springs, boardwalkWhat’s more interesting even than this desolate landscape itself, is the fact of its situation amidst some really beautiful green hills. If you stand in the place where the last two photos were taken, and turn around, you see this:

I think that’s enough Yellowstone for one post.