Open wide

Great Fete, July 31, 2011 6:24am. Photography by Mark Lyndersay

I stumbled into doing panoramics, not as a cool thing to do or as a specific frame for a body of work. The first image simply presented itself to me as the solution to a problem my client didn’t know they had.

It was around fifteen years ago, and I was standing on a metal platform overlooking the Caroni-Arena Dam. I had a Mamiya 6x7 in my hands, a tripod and a landscape that absolutely defied the format of the film I was shooting. I took a couple of photos from some decent vantage points and then decided to go for it, trying my first panoramic.

That first image needed more overlap, in retrospect, but there was enough there to make the image and the experience made it clearer to me what was necessary to pull a good panoramic together (lots of photos with lots of overlap).

I had the prints made at 8” x 10”, asking Noel Norton to maintain the consistency of the colour across all the frames. I scanned them at 300dpi and began the business of merging them. There was no PhotoMerge command in Photoshop in those days, but mercifully there were layers and, as it turned out, a surprising upper limit on the number of pixels that could be in a Photoshop document (no large document format either).

That first panoramic image took six hours to pull together and I needed to call in my retouch buddy, Peter Shim, to straighten out some issues with eddying water close to the bottom left of the image that absolutely defied my skills at the time.

I did two more panoramics for that WASA project, but to the best of my knowledge the client never made any use of them. I finally printed that first Caroni-Arena image at half size and mounted above the doorway to my studio.

A true panoramic, an image in superwide format not a traditional photo cropped at the top and bottom, is a tricky beast. It’s usually large, all my panoramics are more than 300MB and tend not to make sense until they’re printed really large. My intent with that original Caroni-Arena image was to convey the staggering scale of the dam from that viewpoint, the impossibility of taking it all in until you pivoted from left to right to see the entire scene.

Panoramics make no sense on the web and only marginally less so in the average publication, where they just seem skinny and insubstantial, the exact opposite of the impact that any photographer hopes for in making them.

With that fate awaiting them, it should come as no surprise that I wouldn’t do another panoramic image until 2009, when I stood on the stage at Great Fete in Tobago that year and looked out on a massive, surging crowd at sunrise that put the “no” in going home.

Again, there was nothing there that a single photo could capture, even with the widest lens in my bag. So I scanned the surging crowd, the wavelets of swaying hands and undertow of wining hips and mentally crossed my fingers before slamming out a quick series of handheld images, pivoting as smoothly as I could to capture the vista before me.

This time I depended on Photoshop’s PhotoMerge automation command to pull together a rough “cut” of the three takes, surprising myself with two reasonable successes.
When I sent off the best of the two to be printed (one’s on my wall, the other is owned by Great Fete promoter Kevan Gibbs) the printer called to tell me that there was some funny stuff going on with the crowd in a couple of areas.

That’s one of the issues with a stitched image. In a landscape, the wind may shift leaves around a bit, but at a party, dancing people sometimes move quite some distance even in the minute or so it takes to slam out a good series for a panoramic.

In 2010, I made a vague effort at doing another panoramic at Great Fete, but the crowd wasn’t as impressive and really, I was utterly exhausted. The images didn’t justify the work involved in finishing them, and I was willing to write off 2009 as the best I’d do on the project.

That was before this year’s Great Fete,
and the remarkable performance of Vybz Kartel who entertained the crowd for almost two hours, ending the set with his Empire at dawn on the Pigeon Point beach.
Inspired by the enthusiasm his energetic performance had infused the crowd with, I decided to try another panoramic of the stunning and apparently fatigue-proofed crowd.

A lively crowd makes for complications. Three early efforts at the image pan failed as people kept running onto the stage and into the image area. At least one effort collapsed at the last minute when a photographer drifted in front of me, and I, not to put too fine a point on it, lost my mind.

The three groupings of images also made something clear after the event. All the images gently tilted to the right. I’d stumbled the night before going up some steps, and the cant of the images left me suspecting that I’d thrown my inner ear balance with the loud music.

I’d also slightly overshot the panoramic elements, and each of the photos I ended up with a scattering of half people, disembodied hands and heads and at least one person appearing twice, side by side with themselves.

I imagine that third party software designed this sort of image stitching would handle it better than Photoshop does (the gap between Photoshop’s HDR and third party software designed to do that is quite vast), but this is a rarely used tool for me.

It’s easier to just layer in some corrective image parts to put things right in the final images.
All that remains now is to figure out what, exactly, to do with an eight foot panorama that, like all its brethren, just looks weird on the web.
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