I am currently in the beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado, getting ready to conduct my annual Colorado Fall Workshops. Although some of the areas have not turned in their full fall color glory yet, it is just a matter of days at this point to witness the stunning transformation of the scenery before winter rolls its cold in. A breathtaking visual spectacle; something I love indulging myself in, together with some of the most amazing people from all over the world – our readers who will be arriving later this week to join the workshops. As I was trying to catch up with work earlier today, I realized that I was about 30 minutes away from sunset. I looked outside and was disappointed to see a bunch of thick clouds covering the sky. At first, I thought I would just stay and work, but then the thought of potentially losing a sunset opportunity crossed my mind, so I grabbed the Sony A7R II (which I am currently testing) and off I went to quickly get to the first overlook of the glorious Mt Sneffels.
Upon arrival, the situation looked even worse. With only 10 minutes left until sunset, the clouds looked dense and the horizon did not seem like it would clear up any time soon. The few people that were there lost hope to see anything interesting and all left. I sat in the car and waited. Sunset passed and about 5 minutes after sunset, I started to see some color on the right side of the range. I looked at Mt. Sneffels and noticed a tint of red on the side of the mountain. Suddenly, the hope of potentially witnessing a beautiful sunset came back – I quickly set up my tripod and mounted the Sony A7R II along with the 70-200mm f/4 lens. Within the next few minutes, this happened:
The light continued to look more red on the right side, with the clouds getting lots of color. Unfortunately, there was nothing to shoot on that side, so I kept my camera pointed at the mountains. The color show stayed on for the next 15 minutes or so, which was something I have never seen before. Although it got quite dark, the colors on the horizon were still casting a lot of red light on the mountain and reflecting off the clouds. I took a few images from different angles and focal lengths, playing with the light while I had it. Next, I set the camera to manual focus, switched to vertical orientation, then started capturing panoramas. At f/5.6, I was getting 20-25 second-long exposures, which is crazy! As I would move to the next frame, I was scared that the light changed drastically and that the panorama would not look good after getting stitched in post. By the time I was done with all the frames, light levels indeed dropped significantly, with the last image looking much darker than the first one. Those five minutes were the last light of the day and it was time to wrap up…
As I got back into the car, I thought about the panorama and wondered if it would look good or not. I have made many mistakes with panoramas in the past and I knew that if exposures looked drastically different, there might be issues with all kinds of weird lines running across the stitched image. After importing all the images into Lightroom CC, I selected the vertical images and picked Photo Merge -> Panorama. My computer struggled for a while with those 42 MP files, but Lightroom was able to crank through the process and finally made a panoramic image. To my surprise, the rendered image looked just fine! It was a bit darker on the right side where the last frames were, but I used the Graduated Filter from right to left at +1 EV and that pretty much took care of the problem. I then tweaked the exposure a bit, changed white balance and made some other light changes to the image to my taste. Here is the final result after a little bit of cropping and resizing:
The final image was over 2 GB when I saved it. The resolution on this thing is massive – over 30,000 pixels horizontally, which could make into a very detailed print with a crazy high ppi. At 300 ppi, that’s a 100 inch wide print!
Get out to shoot even if the conditions don’t look particularly good. You never know what the nature might uncover – you just need to be there! And once the sun sets, don’t rush and leave – always wait a bit more. I feel sorry for all those photographers who took off early, thinking that nothing would happen after sunset. I was the only one there to witness this magical moment.
And if you deal with a low light situation, looks like there is no need to be overly concerned – Lightroom apparently does a great job stitching images at different brightness levels. Just make sure to lock both your focus and your exposure, so that those two do not keep changing from shot to shot. You certainly want to have exposure consistency in your images when stitching panoramas. Oh, and don’t forget to turn off image stabilization when shooting on a tripod – my first couple of images were blurry as a result and I had to delete those. Glad I actually zoomed in and looked early on!
I will be posting a review of the Sony A7R II soon. My impressions so far are quite positive. With Sony bringing out uncompressed 14-bit RAW option soon via a firmware update and heavily working on adding more lens options, the future of the Sony full-frame mirrorless system is looking quite good…