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Staffa—Position Is Everything

How do you take a panoramic photo from a bobbing boat in pitching seas? Photographer Jim Richardson attempts the impossible in Scotland.

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

With the towering basalt columns of the Isle of Staffa still looming overhead, ace Zodiac driver David Cothran gave me a gift.

David had already provided a fantastic boat ride into Fingal's Cave. (It's the dark cavern on the right in my photograph.) David even had motored us to the rear of this fabled cave! Yet he turned to me as we headed back to the National Geographic Explorer and asked, "Anything else you'd like to do?"

Well, yes, actually there was. "Can you take us to that tip of that rock outcropping and hold the Zodiac there long enough for me to take a panorama shot?" I asked. "No problem," he said. I figured David, the Explorer's seasoned underwater specialist, could do it if anyone could.

The chance to put a camera in that position on a beautiful day does not come along often—maybe once in a lifetime. Probably never. Years ago I had seen a beautiful picture of Staffa from the Victorian era taken by some intrepid photographer from this very outcropping looking back into the cave. I've never seen a rival to it. So, paying homage to that photographer, I wanted to have a go at it myself.

And I had grander intentions. I wanted to do a panoramic photograph from that position. I would need to shoot seven or eight photos sweeping the scene—from a bobbing Zodiac in pitching seas. (Usually photographers attempt panoramas with a tripod.)

One last thing: I wanted to do these shots with a perspective control lens shift up so that the famous basalt columns would stand straight and true instead of appearing to lean backward.

Making panoramic photos has become easier in recent years because the software to stitch them together has become so adroit. Photoshop has a command called Photomerge that carries out the process incredibly well.

Still, a couple of tricks by the photographer can generate a better result. First, set the camera on manual exposure. You don't want variations in exposure that any autoexposure setting will inevitably introduce. Next, shoot vertical frames and overlap each frame a good 30 percent from the previous frame. The software is going to try to extract the center area of each frame, which is the least distorted part of the image.

Also, keep the horizon as level as possible from frame to frame and positioned at the same height in each frame. I usually try to pre-identify landmarks in the scene as quick focus spots in my viewfinder. These are reference points as I move across the horizon from frame to frame.

Finally, practice. By the time I got to this spot, standing there in a pitching Zodiac, I had done hundreds of pans. I could pull off a sequence of eight shots, lining up everything as I went, in about four seconds. Any more than that and David could not have held the boat in position.

In the final count, I got off about five pan sequences as David jockeyed the boat around the rocks. For the photograph you see here, I waited for another Zodiac to come into view on the left while the National Geographic Explorer could be seen on the right. This pan is about 140 degrees wide. More importantly, this photo montage reflects the island's upright grandeur that is so central to the experience of seeing Staffa.

Thanks, David. I owe you a martini.

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