Digital Stitching: My Journey

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Classic shot of The Wave at North Coyote Buttes. Photographed with a 1Ds3 and multi-row stitching. This shot is comprised of over 15 images shot with a Canon 50mm 1.4 lens.

Prior to my return to film, I tried very hard to make digital work for large prints. Even with a 21 megapixel camera, I was not satisfied with the print quality beyond 12×18.  Technically, the resolution was sufficient. However, I was still not very happy with the look of the fine detail. Even at 12×18, the images seemed a bit digital when viewing up close.

I decided to try photo stitching as a method of increasing the overall resolution.  I purchased a single row panorama head from Really Right Stuff and it did work quite well. By taking 5 or 6 shots vertically with a 35mm prime lens, I was able to obtain the same field of view as a 16mm lens on full frame. This allowed for a significant increase in resolution.

I wanted to take it to the next level.

My next purchase was a multi-row panorama setup. This allowed me to use a 50mm prime lens, and shoot a matrix of images that amounted to a 16mm field of view on full frame. I would usually shoot 3 rows (for plenty of overlap) and 6 or 7 shots from left to right.

This would yield me an amazing amount of resolution, but I soon abandoned this technique. I found many flaws with this process.

Depth of Field Although I was happy with the resolution of multi-row stitching, I encountered many problems with depth of field. Although I ended up with the field of view of a 16mm lens, I had the DOF of a 50mm lens.  Even if I stopped the lens down all the way (serious diffraction territory), I still would not be able to achieve a large enough DOF to cover both the foreground and the background.  I found that f/18 gave me the best compromise between hyperfocal (both foreground and background in focus) and diffraction (a softening of images due to a small aperture). However, the images were still clearly suffering from both. I found this to be a very serious limitation to multi-row stitching.

Timing Taking a series of photos for multi-row stitching definitely takes some time. During mid-day, this is often okay. However, it is nearly impossible to use this technique for critically timed photos (ocean waves, the moment of sunrise, etc).  During the moments before sunrise, or after sunset, each photo in the sequence may take several seconds. By the time the entire matrix has been shot, the light levels will change.

Composition My style of photography involves very precise compositions. I often spend a lot of time adjusting the composition of  a photo. I found that with multi-row stitching was horrendous in this regard. Not only is precise composition out the window, the final image will suffer distortion.  I was only able to make this technique work by deliberately overshooting the scene, and cropping afterward.

In the end, I found that large format film gave me all the solutions I needed. Depth of field is very shallow with large format. However, the range of lens movements solves the problem. Timing the shot is quite straight forward since a single exposure is necessary, and precise composition is also a piece of cake. As an added bonus, I found that composing an image on the ground glass of a large format camera helped with my compositional skills. If an image looks good upside down and backwards, it often looks better when displayed properly. After a high quality drum scan, I can easially yield 200 megapixels from a 4×5 scan, and 800 megapixels from an 8×10 transparency.

I sold my RRS panorama gear, as well as my digital camera. I felt much more at home with the controls of my 4×5 and 8×10 cameras. I have never once regretted my decision to switch back to large format. It is the better tool for the type of photography that I enjoy. Your mileage my vary.

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