The sun was shining, the river was flowing, and the air was warm. Perfect conditions for an Aperture Academy panorama workshop, and this group was ready. We met up for our 12:30 orientation at the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, where we got to know each other and find out about each others' photographic interests.
Of course, no PowerPoint presentation is complete without loads of great photographic examples to accompany all of that information!
After saturating the group with abundant pano knowledge, we opened up the floor for a quick Q&A session, then it was time to dive head first into one of the most important aspects of pano photography--finding the elusive nodal point (the no parallax point, to be more precise).
To find the no parallax point, we strategically placed two bottles of Mammoth Nut Brown Porter spaced apart, to be used as reference points. The type of soda, beer or wine bottles that you use for this exercise is not important, but choosing one of your favorite beverages does make the end of the day a little more enjoyable.
Once we got everyone dialed in with the specific no parallax points for their lenses, it was time to put all of that hard work to use. The crew piled into the Aperture Academy-mobile, and before long, we were making our way to Tunnel View, which is one of the most iconic views in Yosemite. It also happens to be a perfect subject for panorama photography.
When we arrived, the sun was nicely placed in the western portion of the sky, creating dramatic shadows on El Capitan. The group unloaded their sturdy tripods and got to work setting up. Since this group was composed of all-star students, everyone had the right tools for the job!
First, we instructed everyone to shoot a single row panoramic sequence of images, and with a little bit of guidance from the Aperture Academy team, everyone was up and running, shooting what would soon be impressively high resolution photographs that could be printed larger than anything most of the group had ever shot before.
The next task was to attempt a double row panorama, which is a little bit intimidating to some folks, but we knew that with some guidance, everyone would be on their way from shooting megapixels to gigapixels in no time.
Next stop, Glacier Point. It’s about a forty-five minute drive from Tunnel View, so we loaded back into the van in order to catch the last rays of light gracing Half Dome. We arrived just in time to set up for a spectacular display of alpine glow on the high sierra.
After running a few panos, the sun was setting and we were losing light. Since it had been a long and rewarding day for the group, it was the right time to race back down to the lodge and catch a late dinner. Some of the group mingled over a warm meal and cold beverage and then it was time for bed. We had a big day ahead of us in the morning.
Fast changing light is the bane of any pano photographer’s existence, so rather than battle with the light gods in the morning, we decided to get a few extra hours of sleep so we could be well rested for the day to come. After breakfast, the crew hopped in the van for round two of our pano extravaganza.
The first stop was El Capitan meadow, which offered some unique challenges because of our proximity to the rock and trees, but this eager team was up for the challenge. We spent about an hour in the meadow before we headed up highway 120 east and were high country bound.
The high country of Yosemite is one of the Aperture Academy team’s favorite places to shoot. Some of that may be due to the fact that Phil and Mike used to live in Yosemite and have spent a great deal of time up there, but it's also because there are truly spectacular vistas to view.
Tenaya Lake is an impressive blue lake nestled between the granite domes and high peaks of Sierra Nevada wonderfulness. It’s actually hard to pass a lake so beautiful, so we climbed out of the van after an hour drive up the 120, and traversed across a grand slab of granite to a spectacular vista above the lake. The students eagerly set up for the shoot, and with a little less help and a little more confidence from the previous day, began to capture, frame by frame, the epic vistas of Yosemite high country.
Next on the list was Puppy Dome, which just happens to sit right behind Kitty Dome. We thought this area would be a fantastic location for a panorama. Turns out we were right!
The hike to the dome is short, but at nearly 9,000 ft. above sea level (at the top of the dome), it can take your breath away pretty quickly... from the lack of oxygen as much as the breathtaking views.
Clouds had started to build over the peaks and were moving at an incredible rate. Aware of the conditions, the group was encouraged to waste no time once they started their sequence of images. Too much time fumbling around with equipment could mean uneven light, or even worse, stitching problems in post production, but once again the students demonstrated their growing competence with the gear they were using. Some of my favorite images of the workshop were captured at this location.
The high country is a long way from the lodge, where we were staying, so the only down time we had on day two was for lunch, one of my personal favorite times of day! Especially since we were heading down the beautiful Tioga Pass to the Mono Lake basin, where a famous Mobil gas station sits.
Within that gas station is a true gem of the sierra Nevadas, the Whoa Nelly Deli. The fish tacos are a favorite among many, but I’ve never been let down by anything I’ve ordered there. I could go on for a few more paragraphs about the Whoa Nelly Deli but I will spare your valuable time and maintain the course. (No pun intended.)
After our delicious lunch, we made our way back up the pass, through the meadows, and parked at Olmstead Point (named after Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Center Park). The vistas from the parking lot are truly amazing, but the Aperture team took the group on a short hike for an even more spectacular vista point... where we had the entire place to ourselves!
With the students feeling confident in their gear, the instructors no longer needed to walk the students through all of the steps, and we were simply there to answer questions by this point. It was great to see everyone overcome the learning curve and get so comfortable with their gear!
Before long, we realized it was getting late in the day, so we decided to head back down into the valley to shoot sunset at Valley View. By the time we arrived in the valley, most of the clouds that had been lingering in the air had dissipated. Exhausted from the day, a few folks ran panos, but many decided just to relax. Then we heard the sound of helicopters.
As the group looked up, we saw President Barack Obama’s helicopter fly overhead towards the Awahnee Meadow, where he and his family would land. The first family was on vacation celebrating their daughter Malia’s high school graduation.
On our way back to the lodge we pondered how they got the Chinook helicopters from Washington to Yosemite. (Later, Stephen would discover that they actually disassemble them and transport them on trucks.)
The third day is a moment of truth in this workshop, and the day when everything comes together.
Just like in the days of film, there is no instant gratification with panorama photography, even being digital. You have to wait until you upload your images into your computer before you can see the end results. Excited, but a little nervous, the group met up at 8am to plug in for post production. Stephen powered up the PowerPoint for a brief refresher and instruction, and then it was time to transform those megapixels into gigapixels.
Some students had never used Photoshop before, but this wasn't a serious hurdle to overcome since most edits could be executed in Lightroom after the panorama was stitched together. There was a sigh of relief when the students found that most of their images stitched together without too much difficulty.
Post production wrapped up at noon, and the students left with images that could be printed the size of their living room walls in high resolution! The only problem with printing something the size of your living room wall is that you have to upgrade to larger living room walls.
The panorama workshop is a very rewarding workshop to teach, because we watch people go from being confused and bewildered to actually getting the hang of it and putting their gear together on their own. As I mentioned earlier, this group was full of all-stars, and I think the feeling is mutual when I say, it was truly a wonderful workshop!
Until next time,
Stephen, Phil, Mike, and the entire Aperture Academy team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.