Spring Panorama at Bierstadt Lake

Spring Panorama at Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Spring Panorama at Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


The winter of 2020-21 was quite dry in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I did not shoot a single winter-wonderland image in the park the whole winter long. Then, on April 19th, nearly a full month after the official beginning of spring, a major storm buried the park in eight inches of fresh snow. Clear skies were predicted for the following morning. It was finally time – I hoped – to shoot a winter wonderland.


My alarm jarred me awake at 2:30 a.m. I was on the road at 3:00 a.m. and hiking up the switchbacks on the Bierstadt Lake trail by 4:30 a.m. When I reached the top of Bierstadt Moraine, just south of Bierstadt Lake, I lashed on my snowshoes and snowshoed halfway around the lake to the north side, being careful not to make tracks in the snow that would appear in my shot. I planned to shoot a stitched panorama extending all the way from Longs Peak on the left to Notchtop Mountain on the right. That would require shooting a bracketed sequence of images starting at the left side of the panorama, then panning the camera just far enough to produce a 25 percent overlap with the first set of frames, shooting another bracketed sequence, then panning again and shooting until I reached the right side of the composition.


I set up my panorama gear atop my tripod and adjusted my 70-200mm lens to 89mm, which gave me a comfortable amount of snow at the bottom of the frame and an equal amount of sky above the highest peak. I glanced at the table of panning angles I’d created, which told me how many degrees I needed to rotate the camera in between frames for selected focal lengths: 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, etc. In my sleep-deprived haze and hypoxic haste, I thought I should use the pan angle for the next shorter focal length. I was shooting at 89mm; the next shorter focal length listed in the table was 70mm. The pan angle for a 70mm lens to produce an adequate overlap of adjacent frames is 15 degrees. With that setting firmly in mind, I was ready to go.


After what seemed like an interminable wait, the sun rose and a spectacular scene unfolded in front of me. Vivid pink light lit up the lingering clouds and the rugged peaks rising above the trees lining the lake. Every tree limb was laden to the limit with fresh snow. I shot several panorama sequences, carefully panning the camera 15 degrees in between camera positions. I was convinced I was creating one of the best winter panoramas I’d ever been privileged to shoot. All too soon, the pink light faded to white, and I started double-checking my settings in preparation for shooting additional panorama sequences when the light reached the foreground trees and interesting tree shadows enlivened the snow-covered lake.


Suddenly my joy turned to anguish. I had looked at the wrong row in my table of panning angles. I had shot at 89mm. Instead of using the pan angle for a 70mm lens – 15 degrees – I should have used the pan angle for a 100mm lens – 10 degrees. The images I’d just shot wouldn’t overlap. I had just blown a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


I lingered at the lake a while longer, shooting some panorama sequences in white light, but I knew they wouldn’t compare to the images I had just lost.


I snowshoed and hiked out, drove home, and started downloading the images. While I waited, I checked the angle of view of an 89mm lens: 15.23 degrees. I had used a 15-degree pan angle, which meant, if I had panned the camera with complete accuracy, I might have a 0.23-degree overlap between frames. I considered manually placing the images side-by-side in a Photoshop file, then trying to use Content Aware Fill to blend the images, but it seemed like a long shot at best. Then I discovered that the very latest version of PTGUI, a dedicated stitching program, claimed to be able to stitch images even if they merely butted up against each other, with no overlap. I loaded the images into PTGUI and ran the software, hoping for a miracle.


It took multiple tries and a lot of manual linking of images, but finally the miracle occurred. I had made a huge mistake, but not quite an insurmountable one. I went over the final image several times, looking for stitching errors, but found none. Against all the odds, I had succeeded in creating one of my all-time favorite winter-wonderland images, never mind that the calendar said spring.