• September 22, 2014

Aerial Panoramas: Stitching Together Moments Captured in the Sky

Peter Essick

Like many photographers who learned their craft shooting film, I will never forget the moment in a high school darkroom when I made my first black and white print. It was like magic watching as the image emerged on the prints in the developer tray, and it was the beginning of my love affair with the medium.

On a recent National Geographic magazine assignment to photograph the effects of the drought in the American West this past spring, I had some similar moments of discovery. This time I wasn’t standing in a darkened room full of smelly chemicals lit by a red safelight, I was sitting in a hotel room with my laptop, digitally stitching together vertical aerial images to make panoramic photographs. The joy and satisfaction of seeing the finished image appear, however, reminded me of how I felt making those first prints back in the day.

Picture of the individual photographs of the Shasta Dam, which will be used to stitch together a panoramic image
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience. Nine individual photographs of the Shasta Dam.

The assignment to photograph the ongoing drought was an important one, and I needed to make dramatic photographs of places that had been depicted many times before. I came up with the idea to do aerial panoramic photographs to illustrate the sites where the reservoirs were at half capacity, where there was a light snow pack in the mountains, and of the desert cities dependent on an ever-dwindling amount of water.

Picture of a panoramic aerial created from nine individual photographs, the dam as seen from above is surrounded by green mountains
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience.Panoramic image of California’s Shasta Dam created from nine vertical photographs.

The first stop was to Shasta Dam. The reservoir behind the dam collects snow and rain runoff from a huge watershed in Northern California. This water is essential for farmers in the Central Valley and the southern cities. I scouted the best location on Google Earth, which has become a great resource for photographers doing research, and determined that the scene would get the best light at sunset. I could even tell from Google Earth that the best eye altitude was about 2,700 feet. As the pilot hovered a piston-engine Robinson R44 helicopter at the selected location in clear skies and low winds, I shot the photos from the left back seat with the door removed. I made nine vertical photos, each with a 50% overlap with a 24mm lens mounted on a gyro stabilizer.

Picture of the individual photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which will be used to stitch together a panoramic image
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience. 17 individual photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

After we landed I went back to the hotel, made the TIF files of all nine images, and used PhotoMerge in Photoshop to make the panorama. It took several seconds for my computer to crunch all the data, but after those moments of anticipation the panoramic image flashed on the screen. Just like in the developer tray, the result is either a joy to behold or a time to come face-to-face with your mistake. In this case, the images all stitched together seamlessly and the nice light on Mt. Shasta was the exclamation point. The panorama took in about a 160-degree view with little distortion, a viewpoint not possible with a single capture. This type of digital photography opens up a whole new way of viewing the world. It’s a great time to be a photographer!

Picture of panoramic aerial of the Sierra Nevada mountain range lightly dusted in snow , with a pink glow from the sun
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience.Panoramic image of Sierra Nevada mountain range created from 17 vertical photographs.

Next, I drove south to the Owens Valley in Eastern California and found a helicopter operator at the Mammoth Lakes Airport. An important photograph for the story was to show the light snowpack this year in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I used a similar approach to make the panorama, except this time I needed to hover at around 12,000 feet. This requires a more powerful helicopter. Fortunately, an experienced local pilot, Ed Rosky, had just purchased the perfect machine for the job, a Robinson R66 turbine helicopter. I made 17 exposures to take in a view of 240 degrees, so I had to direct Ed to rotate the helicopter while remaining at the same position and altitude. This is not a task for a beginning pilot.

Picture of 13 individual photographs of Sun City, Arizona, which will be used to stitch together a panoramic image
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience.13 individual photographs of Sun City, Arizona.

A final stop was in Phoenix to photograph the sprawling Valley of the Sun in the midst of a severe drought. This metropolis in the desert is only possible because of water diverted from the Colorado River. On Google Earth I scouted some housing developments in Sun City that had a circular pattern from the air. I photographed at dawn looking east into the rising sun from a small but robust Enstrom helicopter. The exposures were 1/15th second at f1.4, right on the edge of what is possible with the optical and vibration limitations of aerial photography. When this panoramic appeared on my laptop screen it was perhaps the greatest moment of the assignment. The photograph actually looked better to me than the actual scene, a reminder to me of the process of magic and illusion that is sometimes called photography.

Picture of a panoramic aerial image of Sun City, Arizona created from 13  individual photographs, the photo shows the development of the area at sunset
Click to enlarge for best viewing experience.Panoramic image of Sun City, Arizona created from 13 vertical photographs.

See more images from the October 2014 feature story, “When the Snows Fail.”
See more of Peter Essick’s work on his website.

Related Story: A Day to Remember in the Ansel Adams Wilderness
Related Story: Peter Essick’s Journey into Environmental Journalism

There are 26 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Cody Campbell
    April 7, 2015

    this was an amazing picture would like to see more.

  2. Viral S
    February 15, 2015

    Every photo is incomparable to each other
    All are best ever

  3. Terri
    February 7, 2015

    Your pictures are amazing, the reality is frightening, as I sit here daily waiting for the rain and snow In the fabulous Lake Isabella, CA. Now empty and the town once fibrant with people nearly a ghost town and closed shops every where you look. Sadly, repairs to the Dam that were to be made hastily were delayed by engineers who still have no real start date.

  4. Subi Bhandari
    January 23, 2015

    Wow. 🙂

  5. sudarshan
    January 2, 2015


  6. John
    October 16, 2014


    October 16, 2014


  8. うすゐ さだむ
    October 15, 2014


  9. marmareh
    October 9, 2014

    Its really very marvelous,but it has its weakpoints

  10. paul
    October 8, 2014

    Indeed nature is good but human beings are enviromental destroyers.

  11. Herren Thomas D’souza
    October 5, 2014

    1st I like nat geo the most. It is the greatest educational channel & it’s every content is stabilizing.

  12. Vimal
    October 4, 2014

    Very nice. , . . . . . . . . . . And i want to know how to post my photographs . , . .am 20 male from india . , am intrested in photography . . .so i request you to guide me. , contact me through

  13. zahra
    October 2, 2014

    wow…it’s really awesome!

  14. Rahul Krishnan
    October 1, 2014

    Amazing Arizona!

  15. Adwet Elvis
    September 30, 2014

    what a scene… surely nature holds a lot of beautiful stuffs its our responsibility to discover

  16. Sukanta Kalai
    September 30, 2014

    Technical and Detailed imagery.

  17. Samuel wealth
    September 28, 2014

    So inspiring. .lovely pictures..am also learning..wishing you all the best..

  18. Samuel wealth
    September 28, 2014

    So inspiring…lovely pictures. ..am also learning…all the best…

  19. Vivian Nunez
    September 27, 2014

    Amazing-jaw dropping

  20. Mahesh
    September 27, 2014

    that is fabulous……

  21. Graciela Miranda
    September 26, 2014


  22. brent
    September 24, 2014

    yeah wow that is really quite something. Thanks for sharing!

  23. A. J. Molino
    September 23, 2014

    To think I envy the 1.4f lens. 20,000 plus feet and gyro stabilized in a chopper indeed.

  24. Anna
    September 23, 2014

    This is so cool! As an amateur photographer currently in highschool this is inspiring.

  25. Shruthi V
    September 23, 2014

    Awe-struck..!! 🙂

  26. lalita pradeep
    September 22, 2014


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