I haven’t done any really low light outdoor photography in some time, so John and I made our way to Salford Quays in the late afternoon so that we could pick the absolute best time to start taking our photos.
At this point I should say (as most of my photographic friends know) that I hate using a tripod. But for this outing a tripod and a good firm head were required. I couldn’t find the quick release plate for my favourite head, so I had to make do with a ball and socket head, which is not ideal, though it does have a rotation facility and a scale at the bottom, so I could anchor the ball and then rotate the head around the tripod and is heavy and sturdy with knobs to set friction and to lock the ball as well as having a scale to rotate the camera. (Gitzo-G1377M-Magnesium Series). You don’t have to worry about parallax errors when shooting along the horizon. These only become apparent when the features are close to the photographer, in which case it becomes important to have the entrance pupil of the lens above the axis of rotation of the camera (and you would then need a panoramic head). These days I use a carbon fibre tripod for its lightness to carry around, though a heavy tripod is more stable, especially in such a windy place as Salford Quays. To weigh the tripod down, I hung my camera rucksack from the hook underneath the head of the tripod. Seemed OK!
We had chosen our spot in advance then we went off to Pizza Express for a lasagne and a drink, whilst watching the time and the height of the sun. About half an hour before sunset, we left the restaurant and made our way to the viewpoint.
Don’t underestimate the time it takes to set up and get ready to shoot. OK, so I’m not great with tripods and it takes me longer than most, but even so, to get to the viewpoint, set up the tripod, level the head and take a few practice swipes along the horizon, takes time and you don’t want to be rushing. Once the sun sets, the light goes down very quickly and we had about a half hour window to get our shots before the sky became too dark for our purpose.
In each of the three frames making up the panorama, I took 5 bracketed shots, 2 stops apart. This enabled me to retain detail in shadow and highlight areas once the shots were blended together. These days I mostly use Photoshop for my HDR blends. Once all the three panorama shots had been blended in the HDR process and tone-mapped to my taste, I then used the automated panorama function in Photoshop to stitch them together, then cropped as seen above. The panorama gave me more width than I needed, so I cropped down to a composition that I found the most pleasing afterwards. A three shot panorama, with the camera horizontal was fine for this shot, where the detail was on the horizon. For panoramas with lots of nearby foreground detail I would recommend taking vertical shots to include the foreground. A little further adjustment with curves and a little burning and dodging here and there created the finished panorama.
The first panorama (above) shows a little banding of colours in the sky at this size but is fine at full size. Also, there is still a lot of light still in the sky, the sun is just setting behind the buildings and not many lights have come on in the buildings of the BBC, so the balance between the buildings and the sky is probably not the best.
Two further panos were shot over the next 20 minutes.
This is the next one is from the same spot, with a slightly longer lens. In this second panorama, the balance between the ambient light, just a few minutes after sunset, and the lights on the buildings, is more even and the colours are still very attractive, though the burst of yellow light from the setting sun has gone.
Moving along the wharf a little way to our second viewpoint, and about 10 minutes later, came the third panorama. In this one, the warmth of the setting sun has left an afterglow in the lower part of the sky before disappearing completely a few minutes later. More lights are evident in the BBC building, giving more colours to the foreground but maybe the viewpoint isn’t as good. I prefer the proximity of the fan shaped bridge supports in the first two shots. Perhaps I will end up cropping that shot even more.
There is so much technical information out there on the web these days to help us to get better shots. We can use Google Earth to seek out locations, Google Maps to get us there and we have instant weather forecasting and can easily find out the time of sunrise and sunset. One piece of free software for desktop machines that is very useful is the Photographers’ Ephemeris. This last piece of software enables us to see the position of the sun and moon at all times in relation to any given position in the landscape and to estimate the height of the sun and length of shadows. It is also available at a small cost for i-pad and android.