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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Panoramas: Getting The Big Picture

Stunning panoramas are within your grasp with this step-by-step process

This Article Features Photo Zoom

What is a panorama, and why would you create one? Although panos have been around for a long time, advances in tripod heads and software have made creating excellent panoramas much easier. How do you know when you have a panoramic opportunity? If you’re looking at a scene, scanning back and forth for that perfect shot, and everything else seems good—it may be a candidate for a panorama image. You know the shot is there, you just can’t single it out.

Panorama photography gives us a new canvas on which to create our photos. As photographers, we’re stuck with the traditional, constrained shapes that our cameras provide. For example, 35mm translates to a 5x7.5-inch print. A panorama, however, could be five inches tall but 30 inches long.

The only sure thing about the size and shape of a panorama is that it’s going to be long and rectangular, or tall and narrow. How long? It’s up to you. There’s no right answer to how many shots should make up your panorama image. We’ve shot anywhere from two to 16 separate images for a single panoramic image. It’s up to you to decide how wide an area you want to document. Size and shape can help you make a distinctive statement.

Best Conditions For Shooting Panoramas
The best candidates for panoramas are scenes that have a single subject and whose broad surroundings serve to enhance that subject. In the lighthouse example, the surrounding scene helps to show the isolation and treacherous sea conditions. The old schoolhouse example serves to provide a context of a farming community in the surrounding fields. Sunsets and sunrises also can be great panorama images, though they’re trickier to expose (see the Quick Tip below).

It’s also best if you can find scenes to photograph from a higher vantage point. Because your camera has to remain level during a panorama, a higher vantage point often will give you a more interesting foreground. We’ve spent a lot of time standing on top of our truck just to get up higher.

Quick Tip
Scenes That Work Best For Panoramas
• One subject and lots of surrounding “context”
• A location where you can shoot from a high vantage point
• Sunsets and sunrises

Choosing Your Equipment
The truth about photography is that to do the job right, you need the right equipment. For panoramas, any camera can be used as long as it has manual white-balance and exposure capabilities. Panoramas need to be consistently exposed across all the shots, so you need your camera to stick with one exposure and one white-balance setting.

We find that the ideal setup is a D-SLR with a prime lens. Prime lenses have a single focal length and don’t zoom. They’re better for panoramas because the lens’ entrance point doesn’t move as it does in zoom lenses (see the Quick Tip below). This setup creates a panorama that stitches together better, eliminating parallax, and also loses less of the image around the edges. Prime lenses also are very sharp—always an asset. We prefer to use lenses with focal lengths in the area of 28mm up to 50mm. Keep in mind, with panoramas, we’re already shooting extra wide and will be shooting portrait orientation, so it’s important to choose a lens that has minimal distortion and good edge sharpness. We use the relatively new Zeiss ZF 28mm ƒ/2 lens that delivers excellent results on the Nikon D300.

Quick Tip
Entrance Point Of A Lens
The entrance point of a lens is where the camera must rotate to eliminate problems when images are stitched together, sometimes referred to as the “nodal point” of the lens. If you don’t rotate around the nodal point, your images may not stitch well together, will be ragged and will need to be cropped to clean up the edges, resulting in some loss of content.

You can achieve the best results by using a dedicated panorama head—one that’s designed to allow you to adjust your camera’s position so you rotate around the entrance point of your lens. While it’s possible to use a regular tripod head or even do it handheld, it’s a lot harder to stitch the frames together.

There are many panorama heads available. We use one made by Really Right Stuff, and excellent results can be had with just about any other dedicated panorama head. Yours should come with instructions on how to set it up for your lens’ entrance point. Keep in mind that you’ll need to determine this for each lens that you use. Typically, we only use one or two lenses for panoramic work, and you only need to determine the entrance point once for each lens.


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