Penman No. 123: The Power of Panorama

Penman for Monday, November 17, 2014


I’M BY no means a professional photographer, but as a fairly frequent traveler and occasional journalist, I’ve had to take my own photographs to accompany my articles and my blog pieces. Not surprisingly, some of my pictures have been good, some bad, although I would hope that I’ve shot more of the former than the latter overall. I’ve been dabbling in photography, after all, since the 1970s, when we learned to develop and print our own black-and-white film, and were ever aware of how much film and paper cost, not to mention the SLRs and the lenses that we lugged around.

Digital photography, of course, has changed all that. I started toting a 2-megapixel Canon Ixus around 2001—costing me what a new iPhone 6 would today—and instantly I knew that there was no going back to dark rooms and smelly chemicals, at least for an amateur like me. (That Ixus, by the way, took amazingly sharp shots, one of which I still use as the wallpaper for my big iMac—proof that it isn’t all about megapixels.) Since then I’ve dealt with a train of other digital Canons, Casios, Panasonics, and Leicas, all of them rangefinders. And then, a few years ago, I switched to a Nikon DSLR, followed by the inevitable and financially excruciating lens chase that every photography enthusiast knows. Eventually I got those I really wanted—a long zoom, an ultrawide—and happily shot away in sorties to China, the US, Israel, Corregidor, Batanes, and many other places worth toting a heavy bagful of gear to.

And then the iPhone 4 came along. All of a sudden, I had a phone whose camera seemed good and sharp enough for most daily uses (night is something else). More and more, I began taking just the iPhone and leaving the bulky DSLR behind. Aside from and because of its small size, shooting with your phone’s camera has its advantages; you can shoot unobtrusively, within seconds of spotting your subject, and you won’t look like you’re begging to be mugged and to have your precious cargo carted away.

Cameraphones, conversely, have their disadvantages. They’re generally not too good for night shots, unless your subjects are brightly lit, and while the digital zoom can make your subjects bigger, the closer you get, the grainier the image becomes. In other words, for best quality and for mission-critical work, there’s really no perfect pocket substitute for the big cameras and lenses. (Other than the Nikon, my favorite standalone camera for many years was the Leica D-Lux 3, which created razor-sharp images in the 16:9 format.)

But that said, for most uses that don’t require more than a 4”x 6” printout or screen image, an iPhone’s camera will do just fine. My iPhone 5s was the only camera I brought with me on our family’s two-week jaunt across Western Europe last May, and it served us superbly in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Venice, Florence, and Paris—all places with fabulous photographic possibilities. Sure, I missed the kind of tightly cropped detail that a telephoto lens is great for, but casual tourism is mostly about scenery, which means that wide-angle or panoramic shots are more useful.

This brings me to my topic for the week, the power of panorama. It’s a power that’s been right there in your iPhone since iOS6 (and very possibly in other smartphones as well), waiting to be unleashed. A panorama is a very wide, narrow picture that covers practically everything before you, and maybe even behind you. The built-in Camera app on the iPhone offers several options for picturetaking: time-lapse, slo-mo, video, photo, square, and pano.

We take most pictures with the “photo” option, yielding a regular rectangular frame, vertical or horizontal. If you’re happy with those pictures, fine. But you should know that, especially when you’re in a spectacular tourist spot and need or want to capture as much of that scene to bring home with you, then the “pano” or panoramic option can be your best friend.

It takes a bit of self-training, and there are many guides online to help you take a good panoramic pic (just Google “taking panoramic shots with an iPhone”). What it basically involves is choosing and standing at a good vantage point, opening the camera, choosing “pano”, pressing the button, then moving on your heels in a semi-circle from left to right, following the guide arrow until the full panorama is taken.

Your first shots will likely be misfires, full of unwanted detail, bodies with missing heads, the same person appearing in two or three different spots, very bright and then very dark bands, and so on. But over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and learn to avoid the pitfalls. For example, you’ll learn to generally avoid scenes with lots of moving figures (although the motion blur and duplication of people can also be aesthetically appealing); you’ll learn to pre-visualize the scene, deciding just how much to cover instead of the full 240-degree sweep of the app.

If you’re careful and lucky (you’ll need to be both), you can capture a scene that’s not only visually breathtaking, but also socially observant, like a Hogarth drawing with a lot of interesting detail in the little corners. That’s what I was going for in my pano shot of an afternoon in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, where an anti-fascist rally literally marched right into the restful mood of other Madrileños in the frame. My shot of the riverfront of Cold Spring in upstate New York seeks to blend natural scenery with human habitation, and that of an early evening in Manhattan’s Bryant Park plays on light and shadow, and the city’s iconic skyline.

Don’t forget that you can and probably should crop and edit the image afterwards, to remove ragged edges up and down caused by uneven shooting (you weren’t following the arrow, tsk tsk), to go for a tighter frame, and to adjust the exposure. Consider, too, other apps like Google’s free Photo Sphere, which yields even more stunning—and seamless—360-degree pictures, for a fully immersive experience approaching virtual reality.

Whether you’re in your office or on top of the Great Wall of China, a good panoramic shot can be your best and most comprehensive reminder of where you were and what it felt like. But you’d have to remember the option. Speaking of the Great Wall, we were there a couple of Decembers ago, all by our freezing lonesome in Mutianyu. Rendered speechless by the majesty, it was only on the van back to downtown Beijing that I realized that I’d been on top of the world—and forgot to take it all in.

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