In the spirit of February, the month of love, I set about developing an idea for the monthly challenge, “Love”, given by the Charlotte Photography Meetup Group (CPMG). This also posed as a perfect time to try out one of the many new things I learned at the Carolinas’ Nature Photography Association (CNPA) Annual Meeting which I attended a few weeks ago.
One of the speakers at the meeting was George Lepp, who discussed various techniques, one of which was panoramas. Now, panoramas are nothing new to me. I have made them before, including multi-row, primarily for landscapes and some architectural work. I wasn’t exactly aware of such sites as gigapan.org and the robots available to generate them. I was enthralled when Lepp presented a GigaPan image of one of my hometowns, Cripple Creek, Colorado. Most interesting to me though, was the idea of creating macro panoramas. Lepp presented one of his with flower petals as his subject. He also presented a macro GigaPan image of some beautiful orchids.
Time for experimenting! With “Love” as the theme given in February, it’s impossible not to think of Valentine’s Day. The iconic symbol of Valentine’s Day to me is the candy heart. They were quite the popular Valentine’s candy as a kid and I don’t think I could ever resist reading before eating! A perfect subject for a macro GigaPan, right?
Of course, once I conceived the idea and actually put it into motion, Valentine’s Day had just past, and now I am left with my perfect Valentine’s image being created after February 14th. There is one advantage to this dilemma – candy hearts are 50% off! A very good thing considering I needed to buy a lot for this project.
In order to achieve the somewhat random look I was going for, I needed to spend a lot of time organizing the hearts. Just dumping them out of the box would never have worked, especially since only about 8 out of every 25 hearts was legible and not broken! This process took 2-3 hours, while I separated the good from bad and then proceeded to organize the good ones. The good ones needed to be placed somewhat sporatically, which I found the easiest to do after organizing all of them alphabetically into the groups of different texts. (Picture of this posted below.) Once this was done, I could then lay out all the bad texted hearts upside down and start covering them with the good hearts.
The big issue to figure out for my setup was how to securely suspend my camera above the candy hearts since I do not own the proper equipment for this. I do however own an arm meant to hold a reflector so the solution was to attach my tripod to the arm using gaffer tape. Attaching it was a bit annoying, since the camera was so heavy. I had to readjust the whole thing several times to ‘guess’ how much the arm would give with the weight of the camera.
Next up was lighting. I tried several things before I came to what gave me the most pleasing results. Since I don’t have a ringlight, I had to find angles for the speedlights so the camera wouldn’t cast a shadow on the hearts. I ended up using shoot-through umbrellas since this softened the shadows, which I couldn’t completely get rid of. Shadows were minimized by balancing the two lights. The settings I ended up using were 50mm zoom 1/4 power for the 580 EX II camera right. Camera left was an SB-27, 24mm zoom at 1/2 power. Both were triggered manually using a Pocket Wizard MultiMax.
Once I was happy with the lighting, next came the focus. I used a Canon 50 mm f/1.8 lens with an 20 mm Kenko extension tube. At this point there was a colossal failure: during my focus test shots, I realized that the manual focus on my Canon 50 mm f/1.8 lens is broken. This was definitely a bad thing since manual focus is essential to lock focus so all images can easily be stitched together. Auto focus still worked reasonably well, so I just decided to go with it. I considered using my 17-40mm lens since it was the closest possible length, but I’m not big on using the extreme ends of zoom lenses when any amount of distortion could be a problem. I just decided to stop down the aperture to f/13 in the hopes that it would be enough depth of field that focus wouldn’t be too much of an issue.
I was then ready to start shooting, so I confirmed my spirit level (very important!) was right and began shooting. The camera stayed in one place while I used a solid metal ruler that came with my mat cutting kit to keep the candy hearts in a straight line as I moved the board they were on. I moved the board an inch at a time, taking 14 photos across. Then I moved the ruler and board with hearts for a 2nd and a 3rd time for each new row of 14 images.
There are a few things that I would have done differently during the shooting process:
1) Shoot tethered. There’s really no reason why I didn’t do this other than it completely escaped my mind. If I had done this, I could’ve checked focus better and dealt with my ‘broken’ lens issue better.
2) Overlap the images by less, perhaps around 35%. I overlapped by 50% which I think resulted in some of the stitching problems I had.
3) Lighting — A bit of shadow helps give depth but I’m not a big fan of the amount of shadows in the image. Ideally, I think a ring flash would’ve improved the lighting if I had one. Since I don’t, maybe adding a third flash could’ve helped.
4) Use a smaller aperture or focus stacking. I wasn’t ready to try focus stacking this time with all the other things going on, but it would’ve helped the focus if a smaller aperture wouldn’t have been enough.
In the end though, the setup worked fairly well for what I was trying to do. Here’s what it looked like:
First things first, I researched how to optimize my computer & software in order to handle the amount of processing it takes to stitch 42 images together as well as what it takes to handle the large file once together. I allocated as much memory as possible in the Photoshop settings menu and I turned the clipboard export off. I also dropped down my history memory to about 4. I can’t say any of this was enough because I still got numerous errors and lock ups in Photoshop during editing. This usually happened whenever I tried to save the image, which resulted in losing all recent changes. Very frustrating! I need to look into this issue more because I have a computer that should be able to handle this (MacPro 2 x 2.93 Quad Core with 12 gb RAM). Especially when I see that people are dealing with 100+ stitched images, mine was only 42.
Stitching itself was a very daunting task, especially for being my first gigapan image. In the past, I have done panoramas using PhotoMerge in Photoshop. It usually does a decent job, though it’s best to check all the stitches to find any bad alignments since there always seem to be some. I have heard of various stitching panoramic stitching software, but I thought to myself, “I don’t need any special software, Photoshop can handle this!” Boy, was I wrong. I spent hours trying different PhotoMerge options only to get errors like “Some images could not be automatically aligned.” I think this was a combination of the focus issues as well as using the 50% overlap. It confused poor Photoshop. Time to resort to a more powerful program…
I ended up using AutoPano Pro to stitch the full image. It was the first time I used this program and it was quite nice! It compiled the image in less than 10 minutes, let me review it and then took another 10 minutes to render out. During the review process, it gave me a lot of information, which I need to look into more. One was “Global RMS is poor.” I don’t know what this means yet, but I’m assuming it has something to with either the focus problems or the parallax created since I was moving the subject instead of the camera around a nodal point. It also gave me a very long list of issues, all of which I went on to fix in the almighty Photoshop CS4.
Fixing all of the pano issues in CS4 was a long and tedious process, but it was managable at least since I recently learned how to use the rotate sample option within the Cloning Stamp panel. Without this tool, it would’ve been impossible! On a few occasions, I did have to go back to the original images to patch up sections of the final image.
The real fun came in at the very end – my original idea of this macro panorama was to not just present it ‘as is’. I wanted to turn it into a puzzle of sorts, where the viewer has to figure out which candy hearts have original text and which have digital altered text. That makes the image that much more exciting to read and look at!
Which brings me to presentation…
So, how do I share such a fun image with everyone and turn it into a challenge that people can do? That’s where GigaPan comes in! I have uploaded the image to their website using their GigaPan Uploader and here it is to share with all of you.
The challenge now comes: Can you find the 16 altered hearts? If you think you can, you should click here to participate in the contest to win a canvas print of the image!
Here is the link to view the GigaPan of Candy Heart Puzzle: