Sunset from Mount Diablo – A quick tip for shooting panoramas

Picture: A panoramic sunset spreads sunbeams out over the East Bay Hills as seen from Mount Diablo State Park, Contra Costa County, California

Image: A panoramic sunset spreads sunbeams out over the East Bay Hills as seen from Mount Diablo State Park, Contra Costa County, California
(Click here to see a larger 1200-pixel version.)

A few weeks ago my daughter had to complete an assignment on shooting landscape photos for her high school photography class. One day after school we went to Mount Diablo State Park, which has great potential for some wonderful landscape photography. Being a typical teenage girl, she wasn’t into getting too much help from her dad, other than me pointing things out and saying “try this, or look at that.” From a parent’s perspective, it’s good that she follows her own muse.

As sunset approached, I noticed these beautiful sunbeams spreading out over the valley below. Having taught Panoramic Photography workshops for a number of years, I quickly recognized this was a perfect situation for shooting a panoramic landscape photo.

Photo Tip: When it comes to creating panoramic photos; Don’t over-think it. I’ve had a number of workshop students over the years who are very technically-oriented, taking exacting care and pains to set up a pano head, figure out nodal points based on focal lengths to avoid parallax, etc.. On more than a few occasions I’ve witnessed these same folks being so focused on getting everything right that by the time they’re ready to click the shutter, the light or situation has gone and they’ve missed the prime shot.

Sometimes you don’t need a tripod to shoot a good panorama. And when the nearest object in your frame is quite a distance away, you don’t have to worry about using a pano head (or rail) or figuring out nodal points. If the light is changing fast, better to try and grab a quick hand-held pano first. Then if you have time and conditions warrant, break out the tripod and take a little more care on your next set of images. Just remember, it’s better to come home with something than nothing.

This panorama was made hand-held, using my Nikon D800 and my 80-400mm lens set at 150mm. Because there was a strong horizontal guideline that I could use as a reference (the base of the clouds) I knew that I could just keep that line centered along a point in my viewfinder so that all the images would line up just fine. I also knew that I wouldn’t need a pano head or rail since the nearest object in my frame was more than a 1/2-mile away, so dealing with nodal points and parallax were non-issues. I further figured out that a tripod wouldn’t be needed because when I checked my exposure for the brightest, most-important highlight (the sunlit sky above the clouds), my shutter speed was 1/1250 @ ISO 100 — way fast enough for me to get a sharp image, even without having to use the VR feature on the lens. Then all I needed to do was make sure I had enough overlap between frames to give the pano-stitching software enough reference points. From there it was off to the races; click, click, click… 20 hand-held frames shot over a span of 24 seconds and this one was in the bag. No fuss, no hassle, no problem.

Don’t be afraid to try a pano just because you think they take a lot of effort and care to create. Sometimes they do, but every so often, it works out far easier than you’d think.



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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.


Image ID#: 160202_MTD-0132




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One Comment on “Sunset from Mount Diablo – A quick tip for shooting panoramas”

  1. Brian Snyder Says:

    Nice article Gary. I did the same thing last year on a trip to Alaska. Taking a tripod was helpful for a couple panoramic pictures, but most of them were handheld from a moving bus, train, and cruise ship. I was really pleased with the way they turned out after processing.

    Brian Snyder



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