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Way More Trouble than it Looks

Way More Trouble than it Looks
Flash floods deposited this pile of rocks along a wall in Waterholes Canyon in Northern Arizona.

The story behind “Rock Pile”

This simple scene was surprisingly complicated to photograph. It’s a pile of rocks in one of the lesser-known slot canyons in Northern Arizona called Waterholes Canyon. Flash floods roaring through the canyon over who knows how many years have pushed these rocks together in a spot where the canyon curves, depositing these small boulders in the apex of the curve. The largest of the rocks was about 2 feet square and the entire scene was probably no wider than 5 feet across. The tones and textures of the rocks juxtaposed with the tones and textures of the canyon wall behind them is what attracted me to the scene.

What made it difficult to photograph was a technical issue that rendered inoperable the lens that I would normally have used to photograph this scene. This left me with only with a telephoto lens to  capture a scene just 3 feet in front of my tripod, which was all the space I had in the cramped confines of the canyon. The short distance to the rocks meant that the field of view of the telephoto lens would only cover a portion of the scene and that the focus depth of the lens would be very shallow, meaning I could not get sharp focus from the sand in front of the rocks to the wall of the canyon behind the rocks, in one image.

So, I had a scene I wanted to capture that was both too wide and too deep to capture in a single image with the one working lens I had with me. The solution to this problem was a first for me: the combination of two complicated techniques, one to capture the width and height of the image, and the other to capture the entire depth of the scene in focus. 

A multi-row panorama technique (also called a “stitched panorama” or a “collage”) was needed to capture the width and height of the scene by shooting 4 images: 2 images to capture the top of the scene, left to right, and 2 images for the bottom of the scene. 

In order to capture the full depth of the scene in focus, I needed to do a “focus stack,” when shooting each of the images for the panorama. A focus stack combines images taken at different focus points to make one image with sharp focus from the front of the scene all the way to the back. I calculated that I would need three images for each position in the panorama to capture the full depth of the scene in focus. In total, 12 images were taken to combine to create the finished product you see above.

Oh, and I had to figure all this out before the sun rose high enough to cast direct light on the scene. When I finished, there was direct light hitting the canyon wall just to the upper left of the scene. I finished just in time.

To illustrate the combination of techniques, I created this illustration to show the various images that were combined to form the final piece: a grid of 4 images to capture the height and width of the scene with each image in the grid being shot 3 times to capture the full depth of the scene. The final image was cropped to eliminate the sunlight hitting the canyon wall:

Illustrating the multi-layered approach to creating the image

So what happened to the lens I would normally have used to capture a scene such as this? Well, the previous day, I had been taking images in another, more famous, slot canyon (Antelope Canyon) and I believe some sand managed to get past the weather sealing and into the focus mechanism of the lens. That sand seems to have been enough to cause just the right amount of tension in the focus mechanism which made the camera believe it was malfunctioning, causing the camera to throw an error message on the back screen and refuse to work with the lens. It chose to do this not when I was in my hotel room cleaning my equipment after Antelope Canyon, noooooo, it had to wait until I was in a remote location carrying only a portion of my photography gear. Murphy’s Law strikes again. Fortunately, I have a lot of tools in my tool chest, if not lenses in my camera bag, and I was able to adapt and capture the scene that I wanted.

Stephen Girimont

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