Steptoe Butte is located in the middle of the Washington Palouse and is famous for its underlying quartzite. It towers approximately 1,000 feet above the Palouse and offers a 360 degree panoramic view. It is a popular place for photography, hang gliding, sight-seeing, model airplanes and kite flying.
For this shot I wanted to show the panoramic view of the Palouse that Steptoe Butte offers. The best light of Steptoe Butte occurs when there are patches of sun illuminating the rolling hills of the Palouse or at sunset. The problem with sunset is you don't see much of the green so it's better to shoot sunset later in the year when the fields are golden. This is due to the golden wheat reflecting the sunlight better than the green crop.
I wanted to have something besides fields in my shot so I drove to the East side of the butte for this photo. I wanted to shoot a very wide panorama so I could crop in on any part of it at a later time and show the specific parts I wanted. The Eastern side of Steptoe Butte offers a view of the town of Steptoe, Washington (as seen in the photo above).
The Set Up
I chose a 300mm lens for this shot to compress the background and bring out the details in the photo. Because I was taking a panorama, I needed to be on a sturdy tripod so that my photo had no camera shake introduced and so my horizon was straight. I use a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead because it is robust but still lightweight for the amount it can hold. If you have a lightweight camera you don't need this extreme of a setup but a nice sturdy tripod and a ballhead will allow you to get a nice, sharp photo. After I mounted the camera on the tripod I wanted to make sure the tripod legs were level so I could pan the ballhead and not have any tilt in the horizon. After that I composed my shot starting on the left side and did a quick "left to right check" to make sure my horizon was level throughout the entire shot.
When shooting a panorama you want to ensure your exposure is the same throughout the image. If one shot is lighter or darker than another in the panorama, it will look funky when it's merged. For this photograph, I set my camera to manual and set the aperture at f/11 to give me great depth of field and ensure the entire photo is in focus. I set my ISO to 100 to get the best image quality and colors. After these were set my shutter speed was set at 1/160th to make the proper exposure. I autofocused my lens and went to live view and zoomed in 10x to check my focus and ensure it was perfect. After I did this I set the lens to manual focus so my focus wouldn't shift. If your camera allows you to shoot RAW mode, shoot in this mode because you will have more latitude in your files and be able to perfect settings like white balance later and adjust your exposure with less degradation of image quality.
Taking the Shot
I turned my camera to a vertical orientation to capture more fields and sky. I always shoot panoramas this way because it gives you more detail to work with. To take the photo I used a remote shutter release to ensure no camera shake was introduced. I started on the left side of the photo and took each shot overlapping the other by approximately 20% to ensure Photoshop could blend the shots together well. I used the panning part of my ballhead to do this so the horizon stayed level. It's important to finish your panorama quickly because the light and sky is constantly changing and your photos won't merge together well if there is too much change.
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II which is a 21MP camera so the file sizes are quite large. I always shoot in RAW so I have the best flexibility later in processing but the downside is larger files. To help with this, upon importing into Adobe Lightroom 4 I convert the RAW files to DNG (Digital Negative) by doing this it reduces the size, but does not compromise quality or functionality. Once the files were imported I adjusted one of the frames to get the correct exposure, white balance, and contrast I wanted and then applied that to the rest of the files via the "sync" feature. After this point I exported the photos at JPEG files which are smaller in size and easier for Photoshop to handle when there are so many photos to blend.
In Photoshop, I used Photomerge to blend the photos together into one panorama. This is located under File --> Automate --> Photomerge. From here I selected the folder with the JPEG files and chose "Auto". After Photoshop worked its magic I merged the visible layers to reduce file size once I had verified that the photo looked correct. Next, I made a selection around the areas that were white in the edges and needed to be filled in. I used Content Aware Fill to do this and got a great result. Next, I saved the photo and re-imported it into Lightroom.
In Lightroom I decided to make a virtual copy and crop it down to just the town of Steptoe because it had interesting elements in it and is easier for viewing on the web. By making a virtual copy I still kept the original and didn't waste hard drive space since virtual copies take no additional space. After I had cropped the photo down to what you see above, I made my final adjustments to the image. I added minimal saturation and clarity to give it an extra "punch".
I hope you enjoyed learning how to shoot a panorama, the best way to get better is practice so get out and shoot. Feel free to post your favorite panorama in the comments!