Although I never focused exclusively on making money out of photography I am still affected by this idea that many people have that photography has become easy and photographers, in general, are not really needed anymore.
It sounds stupid, I know, and, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it too much. But since a lot of photography equipment is now more accessible than ever to the general public, many people consider themselves photographers just because they have a fancy, relatively expensive camera that does everything for them.
I am amazed by how many people consider the equipment to be the most important element in creating a good photograph. Many people think that they could have made a fantastic photograph if only they had that very fancy, expensive camera at the right moment.
This is a misconception, as I will try to explain using this panorama photograph I made of Vancouver (BC, Canada). Although being in the right place at the right moment with the appropriate equipment is a huge part of a successful photograph, let’s set these things aside for the moment and look at the other considerations at play.
I live near Vancouver, and it is a great place for many types of photography. I took this photograph from one of the most well-known places in the city, so the location itself is not a secret—I didn’t need to get special access to it.
Click on the image for a larger size. I hope you have a good, calibrated monitor!
I chose to make a night photograph, as the first time I visited this location, the sun was setting and the city was starting to sparkle. I went back for a day light capture too, a few weeks later, but that’s a different story.
Here’s the equipment I used:
tripod – an appropriate tripod for the camera and lenses used (mine is a Manfrotto 190X Pro-B with a Giottos ball-head)
The technique I used was to stitch together, in Photoshop, eight different photographs made with exposures between 20 and 30 seconds at f/8, ISO 100 and EV +0.3.
So, what does it take to make an image like this?
First, it took eight different trips to that location, six of which I made specifically to take this image.
The first time I went there was in December, and it was raining. I unpacked my tripod and camera, but the images I took were useless.
The second time there were a few kids running around, and the wooden deck I was standing on was vibrating a lot. I can’t ask people to keep their children still. It was a touristic location and the place was a little crowded.
The third time there was no rain and the sky looked great; however there was enough humidity in the air to ruin all my photos. Humidity means there’s water in the air. This diffuses the light, so the images were blurry at full size. I could have used them, probably, for relatively small prints, but I am never comfortable with such compromises. My aim with this project was to create a panorama that could be printed at large or even huge sizes.
The fourth time I got there the weather looked fine, but snow started to fall as soon as I finished unpacking—really frustrating…
The fifth time there was fog, like a huge cloud over the water, blocking the view. I suppose there could have been a good image there—with very low contrast as if the city was swallowed by mist—if the fog had been more even, and less dense…
The sixth time, I got rain and wind! That’s why they call it “Raincouver” sometimes… Also, huge cargo vessels were parked right in the middle of the water, blocking much of the view.
The seventh time, I thought there were no cargo vessels or big boats, as I couldn’t see them from the street while passing by. They were there, however, just in a different spot—but they still in the way. That was quite disappointing, as the sky was very interesting that day, with a very nice pattern made by the clouds and high altitude wind. Also, the sun was setting almost behind the city. I was expecting an orange-red sky ending in a dark, rich blue at the upper side of the image. I was right! Too bad the view of the city was ruined by those ships!
The eighth time was finally the moment when pretty much all the elements fell into place. The view was great, the city lights ware just bright enough relative to the brightness of the sky. The sky was not as spectacular at first, and definitely not as dramatic as the previous time. Still, eight photographs were made and all of them were sharp and correctly exposed.
And I was lucky to get it from only eight attempts!
Eight attempts at this photo meant over 260 kilometers in travel for me, and around nine hours standing in rain or snow or the cold. It took me about six weeks in total. I also spent about four hours post-processing some of the photos I took, including the last set.
All that for one single image!
And this was a relatively easy shoot: I was just 100 meters from my car, I was in a city—not in the middle of a desert somewhere or in a jungle or other more hostile environment—and this was not an assignment, so there was less pressure, etc. I like nature more than any city in the world and I would always prefer to be in the wild than in a city, but I do know that those locations are a lot less comfortable for the photographer.
Second, I had to calculate sunset time for each of these attempts, as they were not made on consecutive days. There are very good applications for this kind of timing on Android; I use Sun Surveyor, the full version. I do not use iPhone so I cannot recommend iPhone apps for this purpose.
Also, I had to be at the location on January 1st, as the schedule for the Seabus (the main public transportation from Vancouver, Downtown to the North shore) was on a reduced schedule that day. It would cross the view only once every 30 minutes, instead of every 15 minutes as usual, and I hoped this would give me a better chance of capturing some reflections on the water. Unfortunately, there were other problems on that day, as described above.
What else? Well, there are a few very important things to keep in mind while planning and executing a photograph like this:
The temperature should be as low as possible. Cold air moves much less than hot air and the shivering effect of hot air moving upwards may not exist at all in colder weather.
The humidity of the air is important and hard to predict or seen with our eyes. The distance between the camera and the city skyline was of about 3.5km (1.80 nautical miles) so there’s a lot of room for many elements to affect the shot. Also, I was taking this image across a body of water, and water has a strong influence on the air above it.
The lens, although a macro lens, is not necessarily useless in cases like this. I would actually strongly encourage anyone to use a macro lens if the focal length is appropriate. A prime lens is better, as it can provide more sharpness and certainly produce less geometrical distortion. However, a zoom lens can be used very well, as long as you use the focal length that induces the minimum geometric distortion and an f-stop that allows for maximum sharpness for that lens.
The tripod is mandatory and a ball-head may be a lot easier to work with. One more thing your tripod should have is a level indicator, so that when you are panning, each photo will be straight and keep the same proportion between sky and land or water.
Auto-metering can be used if you really know how to compensate in exposure, or if you can always find a spot to meter on, that has similar brightness in each exposure. I would, however, always recommend manual settings for the exposure while trying to compensate for sun or moon movement, changes in light intensity, and so on. The main problem in this case was the long exposure: while I took the eight photos, about six minutes passed between the first and last exposure. During six minutes at sunset, many, many things can change: color tones in the sky, light direction, light intensity, and more. I have another panorama made from 21 individual photographs, but that was completed in daylight.
Mirror-lock and remote triggering is very important, especially while using long focal lengths—even on a sturdy tripod. Also, keep the wind in mind. No matter how low the wind speed, it is usually blowing in blasts, which will affect the image.
If you use a time delay, it will not allow you to pause after the mirror locks up, so it will not work as well as a remote control. But it will be better than nothing at all. On many cameras, remote triggering cannot be combined with mirror-lock, which is unfortunate.
Live-view and zoom-in focus should be used. During night exposures, this will allow for far more precise focus, and let you get more vertical photos than horizontal ones for the same area; the longer side of the photos will become the width of the final image, giving greater resolution in the end.
Overlap 50% of the images for the greatest sharpness and clarity; the center of the current image should became the right/left side of the next image when panning. Depending on the image, you may want to combine focus-stacking with panorama merging, so keep in mind this possibility.
Assuming you use Lightroom in post-processing (if you don’t, you should!), use Sync for any global adjustments you make to the first image. Then, go over each one and manually tweak what’s necessary to make them as similar as possible in color tones, exposure, white balance, etc. Photoshop does a great job of compensating for most of these issues, but it will give you perfect results only if you feed it perfect images to work with!
So, this it! That’s what it took for me to make this single image. I am not expecting it to be to everybody’s taste; I don’t want that. The thing is that I like it, and I am proud of it because it was pre-visualized and I worked on it a lot.
If you don’t have a true passion for photography, you will not put enough effort into it. How much “enough” is depends on each of us. It’s easy to say “it’s easy” or that “anyone can do it” as long as you haven’t tried it. This is true with many other tasks, not just photography.
I hope these details exemplify clearly what it may take to produce a good photograph. For those who have the interest to understand and look into the field further, keep in mind that this is just one example from one type of photography, and from one photographer. Other specialties in this art present many other challenges and difficulties that the point-and-shoot photographer may find it hard to face.
Adi Chiru is a photographer currently based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. His focus is on Nature Photography, Fine Art and Family Portraiture. His Portfolio and Photography web-store is at http://www.adichiru.com.