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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.
|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.
|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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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.
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.
• 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.