The Offending Pickup Truck

A photographer’s dilemma.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might be aware that I’ve been fooling around with panoramas. Last night, I created a panorama from 11 vertical images shot at Monument Valley:

Monument Valley Panorama

The ability of Panorama Maker 5 to stitch these together so perfectly sold me on the product. I bought it as soon as the stitched image appeared on my laptop screen so I could save my latest creation at full-size. The resulting image is a whopping 16,724 × 3,485 pixels in size and weighs in at 37MB — as a JPEG file.

Silver Pickup TruckOn close examination of the photo, however, I realized that there was one thing that marred it: a silver pickup truck dead center of the image (see red box above and blowup right). It wouldn’t be so bad, but the darn truck is shiny and really does stand out when you look at the image in full resolution.

So the question is: Do I Photoshop it out?

I experimented with this and did a reasonably good job with the cloning tool. But then I got to thinking about it. To me, a photograph represents reality. The reality of this image is that a silver pickup truck driven by what looks like a Navajo man was there when the image was shot. Removing the truck removes part of the reality of the image.

Or am I over analyzing this? Putting ethics where they don’t belong?

Are you a photographer? If so, how do you feel about modifying images to remove unsightly elements? If you’re not a photographer and just like to look at photos, how do you feel about a photographer’s honesty when creating and sharing photographic images?

Monument Valley Panorama

Twelve vertical shots, stitched.

I was at Monument Valley again today. I come here several times a year by helicopter with passengers on my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. I was here last month and will be back again next month. I’m always here on a Wednesday.

I land on one of the helipads at the landing strip at Goulding’s Lodge. Before my blades have stopped spinning, a shuttle van from the lodge drives up to meet us. The driver loads up my passengers and our luggage while I tie down the blades and lock up. Then he drives us all up to the lodge — a distance of about 1/2 mile — we check in, and we go to our rooms.

The next day, my passengers take a 3-1/2 hour ground tour of Monument Valley. I unwind, blog, and relax. Then I bring the luggage down to the helicopter (by van), preflight, and get ready to go. When they return from their tour at 1 PM, we head out to our next stop: Flagstaff.

The point of all this is that I don’t usually get to go into Monument Valley. Instead, I spend the entire 20 hours of our stay at the lodge or helicopter.

Now, I’ve been in Monument Valley many times. I’ve driven in twice and taken the tour at least three times. I highly recommend it. It’s the only way to really experience Monument Valley — and to take some really great photos. I just don’t have time to do a tour during our excursion. And since I don’t have a vehicle here — other than the parked helicopter — I can’t drive myself in for a brief trip.

Today, however, I asked one of the folks at the lodge desk to drive me in. All I wanted was a few shots from the overlook — which happens to be the best place in the park to shoot The Mittens with the late afternoon sun on them. She dropped me off with my camera and tripod. I then proceeded to spend the next hour shooting 85 images, many of which were destined to be part of panoramas. When she picked me up 90 minutes later, I was happier than a pig in you-know-what. I knew I’d gotten some really great photos.

And here’s the first panorama:

Monument Valley Panorama

You’re looking at 12 vertical images, stitched together with Panorama Maker 5 — which, by the way, I’m now pretty much sold on and will be buying when I get home and can play on a beefier machine. It handled this stitch job very well, probably because I shut down all other applications while it worked.

I had my 16mm to 85mm lens set to 50mm for these shots and they were taken 15° apart. You’re looking at a 180° view here.

The image had some exposure issues that I patched up sloppily in Photoshop. I’ll do a better job when I get serious about making these panoramas.

But I wanted to share this here. Although it’s not perfect, I think it’s a good step in the right direction. And I’m so proud of it that I put my name on it.

I also got some great shots of The Mittens by themselves. I’ll likely put those in my Photo Gallery one day soon.

A(nother) Visit to Grand View Fire Tower

No rain this time, but plenty of wind.

One of the things I like about the Grand Canyon is the interesting little places that the tourists generally don’t know about. Visiting these places can get you out of the glut of tourists and fool you into thinking that the Grand Canyon is your own backyard.

Grand View Fire Tower

Grand View FIre Tower

Grand View Fire Tower is one of these places — especially when the main tourist season is over. This rickety old fire tower stands tall just outside the park boundary on Coconino National Forest Land. You can get to it from within the park by following signs for the Arizona Trail. You can get to it from outside the park by following a series of numbered forest roads.

The tower area has been spruced up considerably since I last visited it back in 2004. I was flying helicopter tours for one of the Canyon’s operators back then and I’d gone straight from work to the tower, hoping to watch the thunderstorms move around the area. It was fire season back then and the tower was “manned” by a female observer. I visited with her atop the tower. Afterwards, I drove into the park and got completely soaked to the skin — in my pilot uniform — while visiting Grand View Point.

The entire area was deserted when I arrived. I immediately noticed the big Arizona Trail sign that I’m pretty sure wasn’t there when I last visited. The Arizona Trail cuts north/south through the center of Arizona. I don’t know if it’s complete. But at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it’s clearly marked and evidently available for hiking, horseback riding, and, in the winter, cross-country skiing. I’ve never hiked any part of it.

I also noticed a guy wire stretching from near the tower’s top to the cabin set aside for the observer’s use. I don’t recall that from my previous visit, either

There’s a sign at the bottom of the tower warning visitors that the tower is maintained solely for the use of fire observers. Although others can climb the tower, the park service takes absolutely no responsibility for any injuries. The sign also limits the number of people on the tower at any one time to four. That number had been written over another number that was likely higher.

I climbed. It was a windy day and the higher I climbed, the windier it got. I was about halfway up when I could feel the tower swaying. Unnerving when you consider that the tower had probably been built back in the 1930s as part of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) program.

Helicopter Near Grand ViewThe sound of a helicopter caught my attention. I caught sight of one of Maverick’s EC130s making its way from the west toward the tower. The Green 1 tour route passes within a mile of the tower to the south. As I finished my climb, four helicopters flew by. They would be the last four on that route for the day. It was about 4:15 PM and this time of year, all helicopters have to be out of the canyon by 5 PM.

The view was better than I remember it. The tower stands tall around a forest of mostly ponderosa pines with some oak trees starting to show autumn color. Most of what you see from up there is trees. You can see other peaks in the area, of course — the San Francisco Peaks, Mt. Kendricks, etc to the southeast near Flagstaff stand out. I looked for and easily found Red Butte, where the next closest fire tower is. If smoke is spotted, the two observers will communicate by radio to triangulate the exact location of the fire.

To the northeast, where the Grand View Ridge drops off, I could see the rim of the Grand Canyon and some of the buttes inside it. I took a series of three photos for a panorama that actually came out quite good. As you can see, it was a cloudy day and the light was a lot softer than I like it.

Panorama from Grand View Fire Tower

I climbed down from the tower a short while later. It was almost spooky being there all by myself. I’d just left Grand View point where I’d been stuck in traffic in the parking lot. Here, less than five miles away, there was no one.

I spent some time taking weird photos of the tower’s structure with my 16-70mm and 10.5mm fisheye lens. Fun stuff. Then I climbed back into my truck and headed back into the park to join the rest of the tourists.

Making Panoramas

Not bad, but I’m not ready to buy yet.

I spent part of Sunday afternoon in Sedona, AZ, on top of a red rock with about 270° views of the red rock cliffs around me. I was playing with panoramic photography.

I’d just bought a new tripod head for my camera. I wanted a ball head set up with a swivel base for panoramas. That means compass points marked off for precision panning. I wound up with another Manfrotto, which makes sense because the tripod is Manfrotto, too. It cost about twice what I wanted to spend, but I figured that between it and the tripod head it was “replacing” I’d have all the tripod heads I’d ever need.

Anyway, I was experimenting with panoramas shot with the camera held vertically, in portrait view. Most folks don’t think of doing panoramas that way, but if you want great big finished photos, you need to maximize your pixels. Do the math. My 10 megapixel Nikon D80 shoots photos that are 2592 x 3872. Shoot that vertically, and your panorama becomes nearly 13 inches tall at 300 dpi. That’s 5 inches taller than if the photos are shot in landscape.

Of course, the drawback is that you need to stitch more photos together to get the final image. Like this one, which is 8 images:

Sedona Panorama

In case you’re curious, the images in this panorama were shot with a 50mm focal length (that’s a 75mm equivalent for standard 35mm film cameras, if that matters anymore). All the shots had the same exposure: f6.3 at 1/160th second. The tripod head was rotated at 15° increments. If you’re looking for a seam, you won’t find one — not even in the full sized image.

This represents my first stitching attempt with Panorama Maker 5, a Mac OS application by ArcSoft. Panorama Maker takes a lot of the guesswork out of creating panoramas by automatically identifying shots taken around the same time (and likely to be part of a panorama) and handling the stitching for you. Just click a photo in its browser and it selects the shots that go with it. Tell it what kind of panorama you want, and let it get to work.

I ran into frustrations with the software immediately. For this particular panorama, even though the software’s browser recognized the images as vertical shots, the stitching component wanted to turn them all sideways before stitching. This would basically attempt to stitch the top of one shot to the bottom of the next. I couldn’t find a way around this — at least at first. But then I just told it to create a vertical panorama. I saved the resulting image and opened it in Photoshop, where I rotated it 90°.

Later I realized that if I used the software to rotate the images 90° and then rotated them back, it properly recognized them for a stitch. Personally, I don’t think that step should be required. I think the software should stitch photos in the same orientation they appear in the browser. Period.

I also tried a 360° panorama. The images were great (if I do say so myself) — 24 shots taken at equal intervals using a tripod with manual exposure settings. The software had a lot of trouble with it. It failed on several attempts and when it finally succeeded, one of the images was shifted way higher than it should have been. I had to manually edit the match points on one shot. That fixed things, but it really did take forever (or almost) on my old 15-inch MacBook Pro, which is what’s with me on this trip. At one point, the fan was screaming. And the resulting QuickTime movie looked like the first effort that it was. (You can click here to download it; didn’t think it worth embedding in this post.)

Panorama Maker is try-before-you-buy software and the folks that make it don’t time-limit it. Instead, they display the usual annoying reminder and limit save size to 1/16 of full size. Perfectly fine for testing purposes. It costs $70 to buy and I’m not 100% sold on it because of the problems discussed here. When I get time — if I ever get time again — I’ll try it on my iMac back at home. I suspect it’ll be a bit quicker and not have to wheeze to get the job done.

If I see any improvements, I’m sure I’ll have more panoramas to show off here.

In the meantime, I’d love to get comments from readers about solutions they’ve found that work on Mac OS.