How I Created a Four-Story-Tall Print of One of My Photographs

Elowah Falls, Oregon

It’s fun to print big, but when a client recently asked me to create an image more than four stories tall I have to admit it was really outside of my usual perspective.

This particular request also came with some unusual conditions. They wanted an image of a waterfall to fit in the open stairwell of a new ultra-green apartment building in Seattle, and they wanted a continuous image that would flow from the top to the bottom of the stairwell—at least 40’ tall but no more than 6’ wide!

I went to view the site and soon decided that this could be a really fun project—provided I could get past three initial challenges. First, I had to find a very tall, but very, skinny waterfall. Then I had to crack the compositional and image capture challenges of photographing it. And finally, I needed to consider the kind of print material that would work best for the site, keeping in mind that it would be no easy task to mount an image onto a wall when there’s a drop of at least 40’ below the top installation point.

Since the developers of the building were emphasizing sustainable design and regionally made building materials, I’d hoped to find a waterfall that is part of the Northwest landscape—something would exemplify the area’s natural surroundings.

Like all good projects, I started with a lot of research: looking online, talking with hikers I know and reading outdoor guidebooks. Eventually I narrowed my search down to three possible waterfalls in Washington and Oregon that were all over 200’ tall and no more than 25’ wide. I hoped to capture an entire falls from top to bottom, and I figured I needed something with at least an 8-to-1 height-to-width ratio in order to have proper proportions for the installation site.

Now that I had some actual targets in mind, I began to think both about what equipment I’d need to capture such an image and how it would be printed. I decided to work backwards since the quality and resolution of the print would determine what I would need to capture the image.

After looking at various options, I decided that printing on fabric would be an ideal solution. Other materials would significantly raise both the cost and the weight of the final print, and I had to consider both of these issues. I quickly warmed up to the idea of printing on fabric after realizing that the right kind of material would move slightly in the air currents of the vertical shaft and, I hoped, provide just enough motion to give the effect of water rippling down the surface.

Elowah Falls, Oregon

I’d previously worked with a local printing firm called StellaColor, and I thought they would be perfect for this project because they print large banners for the sides of stadiums and office buildings. An added bonus with their company is that they have expertise in unusual installations and agreed to do this one without hesitation.

They provide many print fabric options, but one stood out because it was both classified as fire retardant (an important factor in a stairwell) and could be run through a dye sublimation printer. Dye-sub printers (as they’re known in the business) provide great color stability and longevity, and the print can actually be washed if it got fingerprints or other dirt on it over time.

One factor that’s inherent to printing on fabric is that overall image resolution is reduced due to the weave of the fabric. It’s not possible on most fabrics to show fine detail, and the effective DPI is about 200 rather than the more common 300+.

After viewing the site again, I decided this would not be a problem since the print would hang about 3’ from the viewing areas on the stair landings, and at this distance the perceived detail level would be fine even at a lower resolution.

Elowah Falls, Oregon

With all of these points in mind, I began to select the gear I’d need to capture the image. I knew I’d have to stitch together multiple images to create a file large enough to print at this size, even with the reduced resolution. I decided to err on the side of too much detail, thinking I may be able to use some segments of a waterfall to produce stand-alone prints for use elsewhere.

With that in mind only one camera came to mind: the Nikon D800. With its 36.3MP image capture, I felt sure it would give me everything I need even if I were limited to only a few shots of a waterfall. Because I wasn’t sure how close or far from a waterfall I would be, I chose the Nikon 80-400 f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens because of the versatility it provided and its highly rated sharpness.

I didn’t own either of these pieces of equipment, but fortunately I was able to rent both of them from a local camera shop for a reasonably inexpensive day rate. I combined them with a Gitzo Mountaineer tripod and Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead I already owned and was ready to go.

After making day trips to the first two sites I identified I started to get worried. At the first waterfall there was no way to photograph it in its entirety without a lot of tree branches in the way; the second site was more open, but the waterfall itself was against a plain gray rock background for its entire vertical distance. While it had the right dimensions, the resulting photo lacked enough contrast and was fairly boring as a composition.

Fortunately, the third site I went to two weeks later was ideal. Elowah Falls, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, is a huge, beautiful falls with contrasting green, yellows and browns in the background. It’s at the end of a narrow valley, and there is a large outcropping about 100 yards from the falls that allowed an almost unobstructed view from top to bottom.

Elowah Falls, Oregon

Photographing moving water is always tricky because you never know exactly what the exposure will look like until you see the image. I knew I wanted the final print to capture the beauty of the scene but also to suggest the power of the moving water. From past experience, I knew that a high shutter speed would not show the water’s movement and that too long of an exposure would remove details that I thought would be necessary for viewers to feel like water was cascading before them.

Since I had plenty of data cards with me, I took about two dozen different series of details at various focal lengths and exposures, ranging from 200mm at 1/10 of a second up to 400mm at 1/500th of a second. For each exposure I captured a small section of the entire waterfall, with the plan in mind of stitching the various images together later in Photoshop.

It really helped that I was blessed with wonderfully even Northwest overcast lighting for the several hours I was there. I reviewed my work on an iPad before I left the scene, and I felt sure I had the best possible RAW images to make this a successful project. Back in my office I began to tackle the challenge of assembling some of the individual images I took into a single coherent print.

It’s difficult to try to translate what a photograph will look like once you take it to a giant size, and even with a 30” monitor it’s a big leap to understanding what the viewing experience will be like when the print is four stories high.

Initially I selected 24 individual images to combine in Photoshop’s Photomerge function. This automated function is an amazing time-saver, and within a few hours it gave me a general idea of how the final print might appear. I spent several days playing with various combinations of images and exposures.

Elowah Falls, Oregon

One of the oddities of this project is that no one would see all of it in normal proportions. On the upper stair landing one could see about the top 15’ of the image, on other landings another 10-12’ would be visible, but only by looking straight up or down would you see the entire image.

After thinking about it from that perspective I decided to add images taken with faster shutter speeds at the top, where more natural light would fall on the print, and add images with gradually slower speeds toward the bottom. This matched my experience at the falls, where the water fell in big, slower moving globules as it first came over the cliff and then spread into a fine, watery mist at the bottom.

Elowah Falls, Oregon

Elowah Falls, Oregon

It took another few days to tweak the blending between the various layers (working with an 8GB file tends to slow down even the best computer), but in the end I had exactly what I’d envisioned from the start. Printing and installation of the final print came off without any major problems.

The entire piece is anchored only at the top and bottom, leaving it to waver in the natural air flow of the space. I’m very happy with the final work, and, most importantly, so is the client.

The next time someone tells me to think big, however, I can truthfully say I know how to do that.

About the author: Tim Greyhavens is a Seattle-based fine-art photographer. Visit his website to see more of his work.

  • Mantis

    That is beyond sweet. Love it!

  • Tim

    Nice bit of work, problem solved the right way.

    But: `storeys’, please.

  • JonathonWatkins

    Fantastic work. Thank you very much for sharing this. Inspired to have a faster shunter speed for the top of the image and slower for the bottom. Very impressive.

  • Michael Comeau

    Very impressive!

  • Brian

    Came out phenomenally well. It’s amazing how much time and effort there is found in the backstory. Hope he got paid a few grand to do it.

  • Bastiant

    good work, well.. I shoot leica m8 – 6mp camera and sometimes end up with 12 gb ps files for my fashion photography. But then again I almost repaint my photos.

  • Vatsal

    wow! what an inspiration

  • Ian

    Amazing work and even more incredible installation!

  • Sterling

    Great article! I enjoyed reading about the logical thought put into this project.

  • CrackerJacker

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your process. I agree with others — great inspiration to mix up the shutter speeds!

    I’m actually visiting Seattle in a couple weeks — is it in a publicly accessible stairway?

  • Christos

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  • MT Nature Photog

    That’s Awesome!

  • Ralph Hightower

    That is incredible work! Absolutely stunning!

  • harumph

    This is Murica! We got stories. Keep yer fancy shmancy “storeys” on your side of the pond.

  • harumph

    It seems like it would’ve cost a few grand just to print it. I too wonder what he charged for this.

  • cjsv

    That is so amazing, what an excellent article!

  • kgelner

    Very interesting, I like to print large also but have never done a large pano.

    I really like the idea of doing a waterfall pano with sharp water at the top and soft at the bottom. Great idea!

  • Lee

    I have made some vertical pano as well… my question is where did he get his print done?

  • Kevin Purcell

    They coyly unnamed apartment building (why?) is in Ballard next to the library on 20th Ave NW between NW 56th and NW 57th St

  • koko

    How do you do a vertical panorama without it looking like you were shooting at an angle (pointing the camera all the way or all the way down)

  • harumph

    StellaColor. It’s in the article.

  • BlTZy

    Amazing piece of work. I applaud you…………..Bravo!
    I’ve never been a fan of long/soft exposures of water but sometimes, have to admit, It just Works. Great thinking outside the box.

  • BlTZy

    Distance from subject. He was using a an 80-400mm lens. Distortion and Perspective Controls.

  • Mario Lima

    What a cool project with excellent results – great job!

  • Joey Miller

    That’s why he was using a long lens. He could shoot from a distance for better perspective and without having to worry about getting the camera wet in the mist.

  • Spy Black

    First, I want to say that this is an awesome project, and you did a fantastic job. However, this piece is a bit interesting:

    “…but one stood out because it was both classified as fire retardant (an
    important factor in a stairwell) and could be run through a dye
    sublimation printer.”

    Whatever the fire retardant properties of the fabric are, they were negated by the dye-sub process, as it is the a wax-transfer technology. You’ve essentially coated that entire fabric with wax. However, I won’t tell if you won’t tell… ;-)

  • AdamB

    about 10 years ago, I was in grand format printing. We would sell it for about $10-12 sq/ft. We’d go down to about $6-8 if it was getting resold or we had a really large job (like rebranding multiple malls)

  • James Thatcher

    What a good article and series of solutions! Congratulations! Also really like the ground floor segment–works very well as an individual image!

  • Doug L

    Very cool! Beautiful image. . . I have one question for you – using fabric as your medium, will it stretch over time? Will it bunch up at the bottom after a couple of years?

  • Nana Rominger

    Incredible, both the work and the mind that conceived it.

  • Daniel Thomassin

    Bonjour cet un Superbe travail et je ne pensé pas qu on pouvez faire de tel formats.
    Impressionnent;Je vous souhaite une bonne journée à vous et vos collaborateurs.


  • fashion is for ugly people

    stop shooting such ugly people and you wouldnt have a need to repaint those photos :P

  • Harbeer

    Hi, Pardon my candor, but how much did you charge for this whole project, if you don’t mind me asking??

  • Jan Liska

    Very interesting to read, great work, thanks for sharing!