Shooting Panoramas at Night: A Contest, and Gear Meditation

Waiting at the Crossing, Lincoln, NE 1993 -- by Chris Faust
Waiting at the Crossing, Lincoln, NE 1993 -- by Chris Faust

The January 30th deadline is fast approaching for the panoramic night photography contest hosted by The Nocturnes, dubbed The Panocturnists. The entry fee is a reasonable $25 for up to three images. The juror will be none other than Chris Faust, whose wide format night photography book Nocturnes is highly recommended.

The only panoramic night photograph that I've produced as a print is the Mad Mouse Rollercoaster image from a year ago. The 4 shot rollercoaster image was shot from a tripod without a panoramic head, and stitched together in Photoshop CS3 using Photomerge. Photoshop's panoramic stitching functionality took a quantum leap in CS3 and CS4. If you're shooting with a medium focal length and don't include foreground subjects, Photomerge will quite often work seamlessly within a few minutes. No more specialized panoramic tripod heads or difficult to learn panorama stitching software.

But Photomerge isn't perfect. If you're just delving into the world of digital panoramas, I recommend locating a copy of Harald Woeste's book Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography. Woeste gives a logical introduction to the concepts behind digital panoramas, as well as an excellent overview of panoramic tripod heads and stitching software options. A couple of years ago I experimented with various software and equipment for panoramas, and spent weeks digging around online -- this book would've saved me a lot of time.

The Star Trails Barrier

The reason I rarely shoot panoramas at night is gear related -- shooting and stitching a scene with star trails is extremely difficult. Gaps between exposures longer than a second or two will cause your star trails not to line up. Those of you who've stitched a few panoramas know that the multiple images don't stitch on a perfect vertical. Even using a panoramic head with detent stops and practicing to minimize the interval between exposures will yield star trails that are not accurate. If you're a digital photographer with a solution to this problem, I'd love to hear about your technique.

The Mad Mouse panorama was easy to stitch because the fog provided a consistent sky tonality. Clouds are do-able. Stitched city skylines are usually OK, but that's not my bag. For star trail panoramas, you're probably better off either cropping or using a medium format film camera.

The Crop Option

One easy way to make panoramas with star trails is to pre-visualize the panoramic format, shoot a bit loose, and crop. This technique works fine for online viewing, but compromises how big you can print. Let's look at the resolution of the Canon 5D Mark II as an example:

The Canon 5d Mark II is a 21 megapixel digital SLR with the pixel dimensions: 5616 x 3744 For the sake of this example, let's say we would like a 2.33:1 aspect ratio. This crops the height to 2410 pixels. Our 21 megapixel camera is now 13.5 megapixels, and here is the print resolution for our cropped panorama:

  • at 300dpi: 18.75" x 8"
  • at 240dpi: 23.5" x 10"
  • at 200dpi: 28" x 12"

I'd like to have the option of printing bigger. This requires medium format film.

Medium Format Film Camera Resolution for Panoramas

Here's a quick look at medium format film resolution for panoramas, and a few cameras that do well for night photography. Pixels are calculated using a 4000ppi scan.

But first, a note on cameras I'm not covering:

  • Hasselblad XPan (Fuji TX1) - battery dependent. If you've shot long exposure night photographs with this camera, I would be interested to hear more about battery performance. The format is 24x65mm, comparable to the 645 or 6x6 numbers below, with a wider 2.7 aspect ratio.
  • Medium format view cameras and large format cameras with a medium format back. For my current style of shooting, view cameras present too many focusing and productivity challenges. Night photography veterans Tom Paiva and Lance Keimig will beg to differ, I'm sure.
  • Medium format digital - if a camera costs more than my car, I don't have a reason to even look, unless I win the Lotto.

645 or 6x6 format cropped to 2.33 aspect ratio = 6cm x 2.58cm = 9448x4063 pixels (38 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji 645 Wide, Hasselblad V system, Mamiya 6, TLRs such as Yashica and Rolleiflex. Choices range from $100-2000+.

  • at 300dpi: 31.5" x 13.5"
  • at 240dpi: 39.4" x 16.9"
  • at 200dpi: 47.25" x 20.3"

6x7 format gives us a little bit more real estate = 7cm x 3cm = 11,025x4725 pixels (52 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Mamiya 7, Mamiya RB67, Pentax 67, Fuji 667 (?). Choices range from $300-2000+.

  • at 300dpi = 37" x 15.75"
  • at 240dpi = 46" x 19.75"
  • at 200dpi = 55" x 23.6"

6x9 format ups the ante to = 9cm x 3.85cm = 14,173x6063 pixels (86 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji GSW690 series (the "Texas Leica"). The GSW690 III is the only version that can still be easily repaired, comes with a 65mm lens (about 28mm in 35mm terms), does not require a battery, and is $800-1200 on the used market.

  • at 300dpi = 47.25" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 59" x 25.25"
  • at 200dpi = 71" x 30"

6x12 format is 2:1 aspect ratio = 18,897x6063 pixels (114 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Horseman SW612 and SW612P, Linhof 612. All of these cameras are obscenely expensive new, and start around $3000 on the used market. The Horseman SW612P apparently requires f/16 to be sharp in the corners when shifted -- this means 1.5-2 hour exposures at a minimum under the full moon. The Linhof has 8mm of permanent rise, and there are varying reports of the optical quality of older models.

  • at 300dpi = 63" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 78.75" x 25.25"
  • at 200dpi = 95" x 30"

6x17 format is 2.83:1 aspect ratio = 26,771x6063 pixels (162 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji 617, Horseman 617, Linhof 617. If you want a high quality 617 camera, be prepared to shell out at least $3-4K or more for a used one.

  • at 300dpi = 89" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 111.5" x 25.25"

Conclusion

I hope these resources and resolution numbers for panoramic night shooting are useful. If you are successfully using digital stitching techniques, or film cameras that I haven't covered, I'd love to hear more.

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