big prints, photo merge, epson 7600

A couple of months ago, a long-time photo buddy of mine stopped by my office. He had a proposition for me. No, not that kind of proposition. He’d just made a great deal on a used Epson 7600 printer. It was cheap, since it had clogged jets. He was confident he could fix it, but his home office was too small, so he needed a place to keep it. Now, I have a fully functional large format printer in my office; I use it regularly, he stops by once in a while when he needs a big print.

My other photo printer is another Epson, an R1800. It has a 13″ wide carriage. While it can take roll paper, printing long panoramas on it is a big pain in the backside. If there’s some way to define a custom paper size and use the roll feeder for it, I haven’t figured it out. I’ve spent hours scouring the internet, and discovered that many other people have the same problem. The only “solution” is to define the custom paper size, cut off a length of paper from the roll, and carefully cajole the printer to take the long piece through the sheet feeder. Yuck. For regular sheets, this printer is wonderful. But for panoramas…

The Epson 7600, in contrast, loves roll paper. Plus, it has a 24″ wide carriage, so I can make monster prints. Now, I need images with enough pixels to make nice prints at huge sizes. My camera these days is a 10 mega pixel digital SLR, an Olympus E-510. Carefully taken photos from this camera look really nice at 18×24, and pretty good at 24×36. For the long panoramas, though, I use the photo merge feature in PhotoShop and stitch together several frames.

Around Thanksgiving, Andi and I took a trip from Mendocino to Southern Oregon. I took several multi-frame panoramas on this trip with the intention of printing them as big prints. Here’s one of them, taken at Crater Lake:

Autumn afternoon at Crater Lake National ParkThis is made from five vertical frames. The PhotoShop file is 162MB without interpolating; 22×56 inches at 216dpi. You’ll have to take my word for how it looks printed big. The word is stunning.

The preferred technique for creating these panoramas is pretty simple: I use a tripod, carefully level it, and set an exposure value for the middle of the scene. With the camera on manual mode, I start at the left side of the scene, making sure I remember a landmark near the right edge of each frame so I can overlap the frames by 10-20%. You need enough overlap so that PhotoShop can find details in both frames to align them properly. I always shoot RAW format, to maximize control of the tonal scale and color balance.

Back at the computer, I open the files in Photoshop (I use CS3), carefully processing the images the same way so that their colors and exposures match. Then, I go to file > automate > photomerge. The layout setting I prefer is “reposition only”; the other settings skew the pano in strange ways. Once PS has done its magic, it’s a fairly simple matter to transform the image into a better rectangle, crop it, and make final adjustments for printing.

On the way back from Southern Oregon, we took a walk near the town of Dunsmuir, to a place called Mossbrae Falls. Here, a series of springs send water cascading down a cliff and into a two hundred yard stretch of the Sacramento River. Here’s a pano from that spot:

Waterfall on the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir, CaliforniaThis image was a little trickier to put together, since most of the scene is in the shade, but the ends include areas of much brighter sky. In the field, I took three bracketted exposures of each of the frames. I used the middle series of exposures for the main pano. For the end frames, I combined the dark exposures for sky tones with the middle exposure, then did a photomerge to create the panorama. The result is a 131MB file which I print at 20×47 inches, 205dpi.

All of this creates a new problem for me: now that I have these great big prints, what do I do with them? I have no way of cutting mats big enough for a 22×56 inch print, and the paper is very delicate. It’s difficult to pin them on the wall without making permanent ding marks.

My plan, at this point, is to start printing on canvas. Then, I can treat the canvas prints as paintings, stretching the prints over a wood frame. I’ve printed on some small sample sheets of canvas, and those prints look nice. Over the next few weeks, I’ll work out the procedure for mounting large canvas prints on stretcher frames. Then, hopefully, I’ll have huge prints in a format I can sell and ship.

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