A funny thing happened to me on the way to New York City. The Big Apple was buried under 2 feet of snow and I became stranded in Chicago for the night. New York sounds like it would be amazing place to photograph during a blizzard so I was more than a little disappointed with this development.. Still, it is important to seize opportunities when they come along and in the end I was able to make a photo I had been thinking about for a few years.
One of Chicago’s classic views is from the Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront. From the river side of the building you can see straight down the Chicago River all the way to Wolf Point. Some of the city's most iconic architecture and engineering is on display along this stretch of the river. It's a cool spot full of photographic possibility.
Several years ago I was able to take a few quick snapshots from the hotel but I was never really that happy with them and always knew that they could be improved. As soon as my flight to New York was cancelled that's exactly what I set out to do.
It is important for every image to tell a story. Sometimes the image can be metaphorical or more symbolic but other times a simpler, more direct approach might be in order. In this case I simply wanted to showcase the amazing beauty that modern cities possess. I love the built environment and the way humanity has joined together to maximize its own potential. There are still a lot of problems out there in the real world but that doesn't diminish the point that cities are one of mankind's greatest inventions and should be celebrated far more often than they are. By bringing people together and organizing the chaos society has been able to learn, innovate, and improve the world faster than it ever could have if we had remained a bunch of nomadic tribes. The collective knowledge we gain from being near each other has made the world an amazing place to live and that's a fact the I love to celebrate in my photography. From the core idea that cities, in this particular case Chicago, are amazing places I am able to start imagining what my images may look like. I want them to be vibrant and full of life. That's my experience in cities and that's what I want to share with my viewers. Color is a fun element to work with when ever a little extra zing is needed in an image so I started to think about ways to incorporate more color into the scene. The scale an density of the city is impressive to view from this perch so that needs to come through in my photograph too. What's the best way to impart that feeling onto the viewer? With these initial thoughts and questions I was able to start transforming my concepts into actions.
Google Earth is nothing short of amazing. It has become an essential tool when I am planning photoshoots in either familiar or unfamiliar locations. It saves me an incredible amount of time by eliminating guesswork. Google Earth has the ability to place you anywhere in 3 dimensional space around the world, have a look around, and can help you determine which lenses you might want to use in a given situation. Whenever I’m traveling someplace new I’ll make a map of a lot of possible shooting locations and sort them out by time of day or neighborhood depending on where I may be going. Don't become a slave to the map because it’s important to be spontaneous and allow new possibilities to happen along the way but having a map can help maximize your shooting time when you are out on the run.
At the hotel in Chicago I had a few questions before I booked my room. How much would the view change if I was shooting from the left side of the building or the right? How high up in the building did I want to be? What kind of lens captured the scene most effectively?
As it turns out the height mattered a bit more to me than the north – south configuration.The angle of the river looks more dramatic from the higher floors. There is more separation between the bridges and the lines along the river aren't flattened as much as they appear to be from a lower elevation. The lower floors can provide a great vantage point since you’d be able to incorporate more of the nearby Wabash Bridge into the shot but that shot will have to wait for a return trip. The higher views were going to help me tell my story just a little better than the lower floors could.
Once the height of the shot was determined I started to think about lens choices. How much of the city did I want to show? Google Earth’s default view approximates a 35mm lens on a full frame DSLR. Changing your field of view should be a built in slider in Google Earth but unfortunately right now it is not. You can go into a KML file and update the field of view values for certain placemarks so I've basically made a list placemarks with different fields of view for all the lenses I own. With this list it is very easy to switch back and forth between these virtual lenses to see how much of an impact lens choice will have on your image. After considering the different options I liked how images in the 14mm to 24 mm range were going to look.
One problem came up during the shoot that I didn’t anticipate. The angle of the window is on a 45 degree angle offset to the scene I was trying to capture. This meant that the left side of the window frame ended up blocking off one of the buildings I was hoping to include in the final shot. Oh well. There was still plenty of the city left to shoot.
Here you can see what some different options could have looked like. A 200mm lens seems to be the limit of how far Google Earth can zoom in but it's kind of crazy to see how far Google Earth can zoom out. Does anybody have a 2mm lens I can borrow?
I arrived in the room during the late afternoon. The sky was cloudy and the world outside the windows looked flat and gray. At least it would have been gray but the windows in the hotel have a weird greenish blue tint that is actually difficult to completely remove (see the 2009 image from earlier in the post). Like I said, it’s weird and a pain that I wasn't looking forward to dealing with again. That plus my desire to make the city look more alive helped me decide to shoot during the golden and blue hours.
As the sun begins to set the colors of any landscape will begin to shift. The idea of the artificial lights mixing with the colors from the sky was intriguing. Plus the blend of colors would actually help me disguise the tint from the window and look much more vibrant and alive.
Whenever I need to figure out when or where the sun is going to be in the sky I use PlanIt! Pro on my phone. With the app it took me about 20 seconds to find out that golden hour was set to begin at 4:11 that afternoon and blue hour would end around 5:35. I used to use The Photographer's Ephemeris for these types of calculations but find that PlanIt just does so much more than TPE used to. It's an amazing app that is easily worth the $6 I paid for it.
Single image or panorama?
After looking at the virtual images from Google Earth it was clear that something like a 17mm TS lens would be perfect. It is an excellent lens and specifically designed for architectural scenes like this. Looking out the window I realized that I wanted to capture every last bit of detail I could. I wanted to see the individual rails on the neighboring balconies, I wanted to see the people walking down the street, the individual ice sheets, and the cracks in the sidewalk. I wanted to see everything. I wanted to feel the grit and texture of the city in my shot. The best way to express the feeling of standing there wasn't to simply make a small image. For a scene like this I want the viewer to get lost in the scene and forget that they are looking at a photograph at all. The best way I have found to impart this sense is to print large and let the viewer get really close. I want the viewer to feel like they could walk into the scene and get lost in the city.
Shooting this with a wide lens would give me some flexibility to play around with longer exposures and maybe incorporate some more light trails into the shot. But this would really limit the size of any print and diminish my ability to capture as much detail as I had wanted. In the end the benefits of using a wide angle lens didn’t seem like a compelling argument so I decided to shoot a panoramic array instead.
Shooting a panorama involves combining multiple rows and columns of images into one large composite. It is a bit more involved than taking a single shot but the benefits are an increase in resolution and sharpness, more control over individual elements within the actual scene, and more flexibility down the road. It takes longer to make an exposure, requires some specialized gear, and the file sizes can be monstrous but in many cases it is worth the extra headaches. The choice was easy this time.
The 17mm virtual image was still what I wanted the final composition to look like but shooting a pano meant that a different lens would be used for the actual shooting. The desired size of the final print, the viewing distance, and how much time there is to shoot are all factors that need to be considered when selecting the right lens. An 10’ x 7’ image that would look tack sharp from a relatively close distance would be great. That’s an insane place to start but that’s just what I do. With those desired outputs in mind it will take about 750 megapixels to make a 10' x 7' image. On my Canon 6D that translates to about 72 images which includes some overlap between pictures. Once the number of shots is determined it's easy to figure out that a 105mm lens would suit my needs perfectly. You can see the one version of my spreadsheet off to the side. It's ugly but it gets the job done.
The light can change very quickly while the sun is setting. Taking 72 shots instead of just 1 can be a disaster if the light changes too much. Can you make 72 exposures before the light changes too dramatically? From past experience I I know that 72 images will take about 8 minutes from start to finish. That’s on the outside edge of where I normally feel comfortable. However in this scene most of the drastic changes in exposure would be confined to the areas near the sky and would have limited impact on the lower portions of the scene. The sky would be captured within the first couple of minutes and that helped put my concerns at ease.
It is important to lock every setting down when you are making a panorama. Any change in color, exposure, focus, or zoom between shots can be disastrous. Manually focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene (here I focused on the Marina Towers). I use live view to set the focus and then physically tape the focus and zoom rings in place to insure they don't move during shooting. Spot metering is useful to gauge the exposure in the darkest and brightest parts of the scene. Average these values and shoot in manual mode. If the difference from bright to dark is pretty wide I will also bracket my shots. The light was changing quickly here so I captured a -2, 0, and +2 stops exposure for each individual shot. It turns out that I didn’t need them here… but it’s always good to have a little insurance just in case. I shoot in RAW so I wasn’t really worried about the white balance but if you are shooting JPEG it’s important to lock this down too. Just use one of the presets on your camera and don’t ever use auto white balance when shooting a panorama.
If you are going to shoot a lot of panos it is important to use a special tripod head designed for panoramic shooting. This helps keeps all of your images aligned and eliminates parallax errors from creeping into your scene. It is essential if there are any foreground objects in the scene. If everything is far enough away you can get away without using one.
Once your camera settings are locked it is time to start shooting. Shooting sunsets can be tricky. You never can be quite sure when the peak moment will arrive. It can happen 10 minutes before the sun goes down or 20 minutes after. Sometimes a sunset is a life changing experience but oftentimes it is a bit of a dud. The moment is highly unpredictable so be in place and ready to go so you can make your best image quickly and efficiently. I started shooting about 30 minutes before the sun set. I shot sequence after sequence making small adjustments to the exposure as the lighting changed. The best sequence of images came just after the sunset but I kept shooting anyway. I’ve seen a lot of photographers shoot a sunset, think they have nailed the moment, pack up their gear and miss one last, incredible burst of color. I hate being that guy so I kept shooting for a while.
Lightroom is my photo organizer of choice and an essential part of my workflow. Start by selecting the sequence of images that has the most potential to meet your vision. This will be the one that feels closest to the original thoughts and concepts which began this entire process. For this image I selected a series that had the largest variance of color between the sky and the street. Those contrasting tones weren't quite fully formed straight out of the camera but the potential was certainly there and it wouldn't take much to make the scene fully come alive. The sequences just before and after that time frame simply felt a little flat or too monochromatic.
From there find one image within the sequence that has the widest dynamic range or one that is fairly representative of the sequence's overall range of tones. Make your adjustments to the exposure, color, and other settings on this single image. Copy those adjustments and apply the changes to the rest of the images in the sequence. Spot check some of the brightest and darkest frames, tweak any necessary settings to avoid blowing out highlights or blocking off shadows and then recopy any changed settings to the rest of the images.
From there I use an app called PTGUI to reassemble my images. I’ve been using PTGUI for about 15 years and it just never lets me down and gives me an incredible amount of control which is something that Photoshop or Lightroom cannot do. It’s largely automated these days but I will go back in and remove some erroneous control points and force some lines to be vertical some horizontal lines to be perfectly level.
This is an exaggerated view of how the images are laid out before they are blended back together.
Once all of the images are aligned I export an enormous 4GB file into photoshop. The size can cause some issues especially with some third party plugins. But in general those kinds of issues have faded over the years as computers have gotten faster, more powerful, and added memory. In the end PTGUI produced a monster sized image 32,000 pixels wide that I’ll continue to work on in Photoshop as a 4GB PSB file.
My overall editing philosophy in Photoshop was to make the skies look a little more dramatic by adding some contrast and some color. While I was able to capture the “peak” moment of the sunset the colors in the sky never quite materialized so I warmed them up a little in post production. Beyond that most of my time was spent tweaking the color balance in specific areas. The cool tones that showed up on the buildings and in the river played off against the golden artificial light from the streets quite nicely so not much needed to be done with the overall tones. In the end the edits I made were to service the vision I had at the beginning of the project. I originally wanted the city to look electric so emphasizing the blue and gold tones helped establish a vivid color palette. Working with files of this size can be time consuming because everything slows down. In the end I was left with an almost 16GB file before I started merging all of the different adjustment layers and masks.
Once the edits are complete I flatten the image and save it in a variety of sizes for different posting and publishing needs.
That’s essentially how I work. Conception and pre visualization are essential components to my workflow. Life is short and I do not like wasting time during the shoot. There are always technical issues to consider before I start shooting but it is always important that they serve the story and not the other way around. Far too often I'll see images that brag about hitting a certain resolution or were captured using some special technique. While I always admire the effort people put into their work far too often the images simply aren't that great or don't have a point beyond technical wizardry. We can all do better than that if we let our storytelling guide our decisions throughout the process of making photographs.