Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Sunset adds drama to the clouds above Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona.

This is the story of the largest image I’ve taken to date. The image above is the result of a collage of 62 images taken with a Fujifilm GFX50S camera, my new 51 megapixel medium-format digital camera.

Horseshoe Bend is in Northern Arizona, just south of Lake Powell and the town of Page. The Colorado River flows from Lake Powell, through a series of canyons which includes Horseshoe Bend, before reaching the Grand Canyon and hence on to the waters of the Gulf of California.

I currently have only two lenses for the Fuji camera: a 63mm f/2.8 (equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full-frame DSLR camera), and a 120mm f/4 macro lens. Consequently, I didn’t have a lens wide enough to shoot this scene in one image. But even if I did, I likely wouldn’t have used it because I prefer to assemble¬†wide-angle scenes by stitching multiple images from a normal or short-telephoto lens when I don’t HAVE to capture everything in one shot. (Based on previous images I’ve taken of Horseshoe Bend, I believe the field-of-view of the scene I’ve recorded here would require the equivalent of a 12mm to 14mm lens.) So, I decided that I would photograph the scene using my multi-row panorama tripod head and stitch the scene together. I wanted to also test the quality of the Fuji camera and lens as well as see how far I could push the processing power of my laptop computer (a 2015 Macbook Pro). Stitching a multi-row pano image from 50 megapixel files is not for the faint of heart nor the slow of computer!

I based the exposure on what would be required to capture all the color and detail in the sky, knowing that the interior of the canyon would be quite dark, so this would be a test of the shadow recovery capabilities of the camera files as well.

I started photographing from the upper right and captured the images for the clouds first, because I knew that in the time it would take me to capture the full scene, the color would be gone from the sunset, so I definitely wanted to capture that as fast as I could and focus on the canyon afterward. Turns out that was a good plan because the light level dropped so low during the 6 minutes it took me to finish capturing all the images, the canyon images were almost completely black with no detail at all. The files from the Fuji have incredible shadow recovery capabilities, as you can see in the image. From black with no detail to amazing amounts of detail. I was very impressed.

Why 62 images? Well, quite honestly, the light levels dropped so fast that I had trouble seeing the scales on the pano head to know how far to move the camera with each image, so I erred on the side of caution and undoubtedly shot images with more overlap than was absolutely necessary.

The result, after final cropping, is a 356 megapixel image. Look carefully at the image above. See that black dot in the river to the right of the central monolith? It’s a boat:

And at the base of the monolith, to the lower left, there’s a campground:

This technique has given me a digital image that’s roughly equal to the detail available in a drum-scanned 8×10 film transparency without the hassle of trudging through the landscape with an 8×10 film camera. The total exposure time would have been about the same as well. It took me just over 6 minutes to capture all the images for the collage (each individual exposure was just 0.5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 400) and an 8×10 exposure of this scene using, say, Fujichrome Velvia 50, would have taken somewhere over 1 minute, at least, to photograph (I would have shot this scene at f/45, at least, with an 8×10, which means, between the lower ISO and the smaller aperture, a 6 stop difference in base exposure. Then I’d have used a graduated neutral density filter on the sky and a longer exposure for the darker canyon, so I’m figuring at least a 2- to 3-minute exposure would have been the minimum, most likely worse). In the 8×10, the clouds would be streaks (which could look really cool, depending on their direction), and the boat would have certainly moved and blurred out of existence.

I actually expected Lightroom to crash when assembling the final image, but it came through like a champ! It was slow, don’t get me wrong, but it did it! The final TIFF file is 2.14 GB in size. The resolution of the file means I could print a 44×62-inch image at full native resolution on an Epson printer with no interpolation needed. Wow.

Details of the image: Taken with a Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format digital camera and the 63mm f/2.8 prime lens. 62 separate images, each at 0.5 second @ f/16, ISO 400.

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