This is a new series of multimedia posts I'm launching to tell the stories behind capturing some of my favorite images. To accomplish that I'll mix it up with a blend of photographs, audio clips and/or video.
This is the story behind one of my very first digital panoramic images: a 3-frame merger of Mount Whitney in 2005 using my very first DSLR, a Nikon D70. That year was really a turning point for me. I bought both my first DSLR as well as my first backcountry ski-mountaineering gear. I was instantly obsessed with both and this image was the direct result.
It was a huge snow year in the Sierras and my friend Zelig and I decided backcountry ski with camera gear up Mount Whitney's steep Mountaineers' Route. The idea was to drop from the highest point in the lower 48 states to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Death Valley) in one day. Zelig Golden is one of my favorite people on the planet. We met in law-school at Berkeley and became instant friends. Zelig once worked as a biologist living with indigenous tribes in the Amazon. He spent a summer as a roving kayak ranger in Kenai Fjords National Park. A fantastic film photographer as well as a solid mountaineer, Zelig is also one of the best alpine skiers I've ever known.
Carrying heavy loads of winter gear and camera equipment, we spent two days moving slowly up the steep snowy granite canyon to set our basecamp just below Mount Whitney's face. That night as we boiled snow for cooking and drinking water we watched the sun drop between Mount Whitney and Keeler Needle. The sight was incredible. Huge granite ridges to either side led to Mount Whitney's famous outline. The entire scene was framed by the snow below and blue sky above. I went to sleep equally excited about dawn light and the climb and ski descent ahead.
After a cloudless, cold night in the tent, dawn brought no clouds. We had about 10 minutes of warm, soft light as the sun rimmed over the Inyo mountains behind us to the east. I used my old aluminum Bogen tripod with a Novoflex Magic Ballhead and the Nikon 18-70 DX kit lens that came with my D70 to frame up the image below. It was an amazing scene, but I wished I had a wider lens to capture the huge ridges leading up to it from the left and right.
That's when I thought to pan the tripod left to right overlapping the frames a bit to blend in Photoshop. I'd been playing with creating some panoramic mergers of scanned medium format film to capture wider angle scenes, so why not do the same with the new Nikon digital? Not knowing to turn the camera vertical to capture more foreground and sky I left the camera horizontal. I didn't know to capture the images in RAW or to set my white balance to other than auto. To be honest, I thought 'well this might work out' and captured 3 horizontal jpegs with very little overlap. Then we packed our cameras, climbed the route, skied 8,000 feet back down to the car, drove into Death Valley and cooked dinner in shorts in an 80 degree breeze.
It wasn't until I got home and hand assembled the panoramic images in photoshop that I realized how much I liked what I'd captured. That mystery and delayed gratification is part of what I love most about creating panoramics to this day. It's a throwback to the film days where you had to wait to develop the images to really know what you captured.
This scene really inspired me and I have gotten deeper and deeper into panoramics ever since. Until this year California's drought has kept me from returning to ski and photograph Mount Whitney. The drought has broken and this is another huge snow year. This month, I'm so excited to head back to repeat this adventure on Mount Whitney with a great group of friends. I'm hoping that weather and avalanche conditions will cooperate to allow me to photograph it again with increased knowledge and better equipment. I'll miss Zelig who can't break free to join me this time, but I'll see him at his wedding this summer with a new story and new images to share.