Creating the Cloud Arch Panorama

This cloud arch is one of the coolest cloud formations I've seen. The morning I photographed it in Chincoteague, Virginia it started out overcast. What you're seeing here is the cloud cover starting to lift. Often when an overcast sky starts to break up the cloud layer becomes thinner and patches of sky start to show thorough, especially closer to the sun. In this case the cloud cover was staying intact while moving like a blanket being lifted. The arch of the clouds held shape and rose higher and higher into the sky. In the opposite direction the sky was still solid clouds.

Seeing the scene as a panorama actually diminishes the scope of the scene. This pano covers about 180 degrees so while it's neatly laid out in the photo, in person the arch is not as easily seen. The photo allows you to appreciate the totality of the formation. A clue to scope of the photo is in the bottom right corner. This is a continuation of the road that you see in the center of the image. At the far right is the beach, and on the left you see the woods of the National Wildlife Refuge.

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It wasn't until I photographed the scene as a panorama that I appreciated what was happening above me. I had been photographing the triangles created by the two ends of the arch.

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When I noticed the arch I first photographed it using my iPhone's panorama mode.

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Not bad at all! The iPhone did a great job and since the panorama process creates the image from a series of photos, the image quality and size is very good (tech details: the file produced is 7"x33" at 300dpi). Given the file quality I could have stuck with the iPhone pano, but I also shot it with my DSLR.

Using my DSLR I took eight vertical images and combined them using Photoshop's Photomerge feature (same in Elements). Photoshop did a good job, but there was a little weirdness in the arch with one area on the left jutting out unnaturally. I worried that the extreme expanse of the pano was causing Photoshop some difficulty. To see if I could achieve better results I downloaded trial versions of the standalone panorama apps Autopano Pro and PTGui (ever since Photoshop added the Photomerge feature I've always used it for my panos). The result? Worse! Both apps produced panos with weird wavy horizons. Now I'm not putting down these apps because I'm sure they are very powerful and full featured, especially for someone that knows how to use them. I was being lazy and wanted a quick solution with minimal work; I thought they might be "smarter" than Photoshop for a generic initial merge. Photoshop's results weren't horrible so back to Photoshop I went.

I did a bunch of clean up to remove signs, posts, telephone lines, cars, people and even a line of roadside barriers. Content Aware is a wonderful thing. I also had to push up the center as part of the horizon was sagging slightly (used the Warp option of the Transform mode). The most challenging part was shaving off part of the arch edge to clean up the area that didn't line up with the rest. No Content Aware for that, just manual cloning and healing.

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You'll notice the arch is a little different shape in the iPhone and DSLR panoramas. The cloud cover was lifting quickly and the arch wasn't holding its shape. I shot three panorama series with my DSLR, but it was the first series that I used. Here's the second one:

This was shot just a couple of minutes after the first series and the arch is starting to break up. Photoshop didn't do as well with this one, more issues along the horizon. In the third series the arch had stretched even higher and Photoshop couldn't even put together.

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