Panoramas: Getting The Big Picture

Stunning panoramas are within your grasp with this step-by-step process
This Article Features Photo Zoom
panoramas

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.

panoramas

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

 

panoramas

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.


This Article Features Photo Zoom
panoramas

Camera Settings
When it’s time to shoot, the camera should be on all manual settings. That’s because we’re combining multiple pictures together and want the exposures to match exactly. Manual settings include setting your white balance, aperture, shutter speed and focus. Stay away from any automatic settings as they may change across all your exposures and ruin your panorama.

Correctly exposing a panorama can be tricky, as you may be dealing with a wide range of exposures. You should meter to set one exposure for all the pictures you’ll stitch together. Meter for an “average” shot in your panorama. To do this, set your camera on aperture priority and rotate your camera through your panorama to find a section of your image that’s midway between the lightest and darkest parts of your total image. Check the exposure your camera indicates, switch to manual and set your shutter and aperture to those settings.

To create a top-quality panorama, one needs to plan ahead and work carefully. Using prime lenses, a precision tripod head and shooting with the camera in a vertical “portrait” orientation, Brian Valente and David Skernick have the process down to a science. These images exhibit resolution, proper exposure and compelling composition.

Set the manual white balance for the most uniformity as well. Since you’ll almost always be outside, this usually will be either “Sunny” or “Cloudy.” Remember, you can always tweak the color later in Photoshop. For now, you just want to be as consistent as possible. Be sure that you aren’t on auto white balance, as it will change from shot to shot and ruin your panorama.

Shooting Your Images

Make sure your tripod is completely level. Most tripod heads come with a bubble or you can buy a separate leveling device. Set up your camera in portrait (vertical) orientation. It seems a little counterintuitive, but portrait gives you the best ratio of height vs. width. Remember that you’re shooting a whole series of images that will be stitched together, so it will be plenty wide.

When panning and shooting individual images, try to overlap each image about 25 to 30 percent. It seems like a lot, but it makes stitching almost completely automatic and transparent. We avoid the “click stops” of some panoramic heads. They aren’t calibrated for any particular lens focal length and may not give you the ideal amount of overlap.

Try to avoid shots with wind or movement that would cause blur when combining the multiple shots, such as leaves or flowers in the foreground swaying in the breeze. If you’re shooting waves, you can try shooting at a slower shutter speed and blurring them.

Finally, use a remote release and, if available, your mirror lock-up or delayed shutter release for maximum sharpness.

Quick Fix
Shooting Panoramas
• Make sure your tripod is level
• Use manual settings for white balance, shutter speed, aperture and focus
• Overlap images by 25 to 30 percent
• Use remote release and mirror lock-up, if available

Stitching It All Together
Surprisingly, stitching your images together is the easiest step of all. There are many dedicated programs and plug-ins that do the job—we prefer using the built-in capabilities of Adobe Photoshop CS3.

For Photoshop workflow, first load your images into Adobe Bridge. Next, select all of your panorama images, and from within Bridge select the action Photoshop > Photomerge. Use all the defaults, including Auto-Align for the best results. After a while (and it could be a long while if you have a slow computer or a lot of images), your panorama will come to life in Photoshop. Make sure to crop the outside edges, as even the best panorama will have a few edges that are missing. After inspecting the image to make sure it has stitched together without any seams, we suggest you flatten it to reduce the file size.

That’s it—you now have the big picture!

David Skernick is a professional photographer, owner of PHOTO 24, Inc. stock photo agency and host of Get Lost!, an educational television program on YouTube. Visit www.getlosttv.com. Brian Valente is a professional photographer and the producer of Get Lost! Claims that he’s responsible for getting David to spend all his money on new camera gadgets are highly exaggerated. Visit www.bvalente.smugmug.com.

11 Comments

    Your article is interesting and helpful. I am confused by your recommendation on the orientation of the camera. “Set up your camera in portrait (vertical) orientation.”
    All of the tripod heads that I own or have seen rotate around a single point (center of the tripod) and I thought the idea is to center the camera lens at this point to minimize the shift as the camera rotates around this central pivot point. If I change the camera orientation to a portrait/vertical position, the camera will “hang over” one side of the tripod head and will no longer be centered over the pivot point. The only thing I can think of is that you have an additional attachment that holds the camera in the portrait/vertical position over the center pivot point.

    Harvey,

    I would suggest you look into an “L” shaped camera plate. You’ll be able to rotate from Landscape to Portrait and maintain camera balance.

    Hi Harvey,
    You need to get an L Bracket…….online from Really Right Stuff. The L Bracket….gives you a release plate on the side of your camera…..along with the bottom of your camera. This lets you shoot vertically in seconds……and is the way many pros work. You need to be using an Arca Swiss type ballhead……because that is how the L Brackets work. And Really Right Stuff has great ballheads that have the Arca Swiss Quick release plates that work with their L Brackets. Go to their website and you will see what it is all about. I shoot many panoramas….and this is the way to go. reallyrightstuff.com

    good luck….. scott stulberg

    The vertical orientation of the camera allows more room for parallax errors to be corrected, as you have more overlap on the top and the bottom. I only have PS CS2, and while my father has CS3 and has had a lot of success with it as a stitching tool, we both have found that a plug-in called PTGui is best 99.9% of the time. Thanks for sharing your techniques in this article! I’d love to be able to see your panoramas even larger–for some reason, even with Photo Zoom, they are too small to really enjoy. Thanks, Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld, Portland, ME

    Great article it answered a couple questions i’ve had for a while, thank you. But what got me was i’ve also shot that same schoolhouse. I shot it in July driving back from Yellowstone this year, it certainly is a small world.

    Skenick and Valente certainly make nice panoramas, and I suspect that if I followed their recommendations my panoramas would improve. However, I’ve stitched many panoramas since George Lepp first wrote on the subject in Outdoor Photographer, without using any special equipment other than a tripod and level. Zoom lenses are O.K. if you make sure the focal length doesn’t change. Hand-held panoramas can be stitched successfully, though more cropping will likely be necessary. As far as I’m concerned the two most important factors are manual exposure and sufficient overlap. Of all the stitching programs and modules (I’ve used most of them) PanoramaPlus from Serif is the most forgiving of errors in leveling, overlap, etc. Using the program, I’ve been able to stitch scanned images that were made long before the digital era.

    This YouTube site doesn’t do justice to the photos but I found that slideshow software that does panning really works well with panoramas. In this case, I am using ProShow GOLD>

    Harvey, This is a great article. I travelled around Ireland taking 360 degree images to try to capture the “scenes”. I wish I had also taken some shots to re create panoramas.

    My panoramas are created with a pair of GigaPans which I have been using for about 2 years now.

    My largest images exceed 2,000 megapixels and I have printed them on high resolution plotters up to 22 feet wide.

    I currently have nearly 200 images uploaded to the GigaPan.org server.

    It takes a great deal of patience to use it to full effect but the rewards are worth it.

    FOCUS kicks my butt when I’m trying to do a Pano. I try to do multiple shots of scene to get the high resolution image. I just finished up a 20 shot image and had one picture blur a little bit and it ruined the picture in my eyes. I would think the average person wouldn’t notice it. I just want to know how everyone sets up their focus on these kind of shots? Here is link to the shot on my smugmug in it’s original size. scroll along the to top of the mountain tops. you will see where one stitch is off and blurred. http://dizmangphotography.smugmug.com/popular/1583603490_HZDfZ23#!i=1583603490&k=HZDfZ23

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