Road Trip USA – The Big Picture: Panoramic Photos

In the fifth of a series of articles on travel photography, Senior Travel Expert Photo Editor, John Esser, gives advice on how to get great panoramic photos, illustrated with pictures from his recent road trip in the USA.

The prospect of spending almost a month travelling through some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet was both exciting and daunting.

Panoramic: Picture Rocks glowing in the early evening light. Saguaro National Park (West).
Picture Rocks glowing in the early evening light. Saguaro National Park. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

Where to visit, what to take, the winter weather, how to balance photography with the holiday expectations of my travel companions were just some of the factors that had to be taken into consideration.

Saguaro National Park
View from Saguaro National Park (West) Visitor Centre. We arrived late afternoon when the light was perfect for landscape photography.

As senior travellers, we also had to make certain we were not overdoing the driving, as we planned to cross almost the whole way across the south of the USA, from Memphis to Las Vegas, via New Orleans and Tucson. However our Road Trip USA was planned carefully and proved to be a very enjoyable adventure. A few days in New York were included to break our flights from Las Vegas to the UK.

View over the Sedona Valley, Arizona. The early evening light has brought out the colour, texture and depth of the rock formations. Many photographers had gathered hoping to capture the ‘red flash’ which briefly appears just before the sun sets.

Had photography been the prime reason for making the trip I would probably have packed a couple of SLR cameras, assorted lenses, filters and a sturdy tripod. However, as the trip was a holiday, not a photographic assignment, I confined my gear to a Canon EOSM compact system camera, standard and telephoto zoom lenses and a mini tripod.

Petrified Forest
View over the Blue Mesa landforms in the Petrified Forest Nationl Park. The blue sky provides contrast to the white ‘moonscape’.

I chose the EOSM because it is small and contains the same sensor as its big brother the Canon EOS 650D SLR.  I also packed the excellent Canon Powershot G16 compact as a backup camera. These all fitted nicely into my airline friendly LowePro backpack, allowing room for books, travel documents, sandwiches etc.

Canyon de Chelley
View over Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelley. This photo was taken midmorning when the sun was quite high – not ideal light, but the rock columns are fully illuminated, unlike late afternoon when deep shadow obscures the lower parts of the columns.

By way of an introduction to our travels through the ‘Big Country’, I have selected a few panoramic images to provide a sense of the grandeur and diversity of the scenery we experienced.

Monument Valley
Totem Pole Formations, Monument Valley. The late afternoon sunshine and blue sky have set off the colour and texture of the rock formations.

The images have also been selected to illustrate the importance of quality of light to successful travel photographs. Shooting in good light provides the photographer scope to do full justice to the subject. Early morning and late afternoon are usually the times when the light is at its best, as with the Saguaro National Park pictures. When the sun is low in the sky colours tend to be more saturated and texture and depth are revealed.

Grand Canyon
View of the north rim of the Grand Canyon from the Bright Angel Trail. The perspective compression created by the lens combined with the directional light and have resulted in a dramatic image. Well worth the walk.

Satisfying images can also be obtained when the sun is overhead, particularly when the sky is blue, as with the Petrified Forest National Park picture. Twilight can be ideal for cityscapes as the lights are coming on and there is still detail in the sky.

The blue sky and white floating ice set off nicely the iconic Manhattan skyline.
The blue sky and white floating ice set off nicely the iconic Manhattan skyline.

The panoramic landscape images featured here can be easily created using free and commercially available software packages e.g. Gimp, Photoshop Elements, etc. To avoid a long, very thin final image I find it best to confine myself to no more than three overlapping  pictures when composing a panoramic.

See also the first article in this series by John Esser which gave advice on equipment the senior traveller should take to get the best photographs when travelling abroad, the second article Photographs in Languedoc, the third article Photographs from Tuscany, and the fourth article Photographing the Locals – Smiles from Around the World.

Full details on my road trip USA are given a series of eight articles starting with: Road Trip USA: Memphis to Las Vegas via Houston – Planning.