Supersized Panorama Stitching

Brandon Riza’s panoramas are crafted in the spirit of an Ansel Adams landscape. In each one, the mountains are larger than life, and the overall image is richly detailed and built from a series of high-resolution frames.

Looking northeast toward Little Tahoma and the Ingraham Glacier from Cathedral Rocks, Mount Rainier, Cascade Range, Washington.

Garbage in, garbage out. That pretty much sums up Brandon Riza’s theory about high-resolution landscape panorama photographs. His work, above all, is meticulous and precise. He consistently chooses quality over compromise—from the gear he buys to the way he shoots. Here’s how it all comes together, in his own words.

1. The RAW stitched panorama in the Autopano Giga panorama editor...looking a little dull.

Start With The Right Gear
It’s especially important to choose gear wisely when mountaineering. Here’s what I carry: a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Sigma 15mm fisheye, Canon 14mm, 24mm, 50mm prime lenses and the 70-200mm ƒ/4 IS zoom. I take two extra batteries and a Brunton solar charger, an Induro carbon-fiber tripod with a ballhead (the ideal combination of light and sturdy), a Kata rain cover that will accommodate all the lenses, an OP/TECH chest harness and wrist strap, a remote timer, almost 200 gigabytes of SanDisk Extreme III CF cards, Pelican waterproof CF card holders and a Brunton trek pole that doubles as a monopod with a Joby ballhead. All of that adds up to about 16 pounds. That’s a lot to add to a mountaineering pack that already weighs 60 pounds, so I just train harder.

You’ll notice those are mostly prime lenses; I do that for sharpness. I’d rather lug the weight and know that I’m holding the best tools for the job than carry a slightly lighter load and always wonder if I could be getting cleaner originals.

2. The Levels tool. Note the gap in the histogram toward the highlights. This image needs to be tonally corrected; it’s still slightly underexposed, even after histogram editing in Lightroom.

I prefer the 50mm over the 24mm for panos due to the perspective distortion the 24mm produces. It makes faraway things look small, introducing artificiality. Huge peaks looming in front of you shrink into puny insignificance. The 24mm is really pushing the lower range of focal lengths for landscape panos, but for single-shot landscapes on a full-frame sensor, it’s almost perfect. I think a 35mm would be the perfect pano lens, and the Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L is famously sharp. It’s on my list.

I chose the 70-200mm ƒ/4 IS version over the ƒ/2.8 version for weight considerations. The ƒ/2.8 is a bit hefty, and the ƒ/4 with the four-stop IS is a very capable low-light, handheld landscape shooter. Also, for a zoom, that lens is amazingly sharp.

Set It And Forget It
There are a few schools of thought on whether you should set your exposure and focus and never change them throughout the multiple frames that will comprise the final pano. I’ve had the most success locking everything down in manual: shutter, aperture, focus, ISO—everything.

I shoot underexposed because it’s the best way to ensure you’re getting everything with one exposure; darks can be pulled up more efficiently than blown-out whites can be recovered. This method is tricky, though, especially if you’re shooting a really wide pano. The lighting can change drastically from 0° to 90°, so I sweep the camera around and meter the entire expanse before settling on a median exposure. Software can’t correct for a poorly metered frame.

3. The white point adjusted on the histogram.

The same goes for focus. To me, it’s simple: Sharp is sharp. When you’re dealing with pano photography, you have the option of chucking the entire hyperfocal conversation into the trash bin of history and shooting a row of frames of the ground directly in front of you with a different focus. Problem solved. When I shoot panos that include both very far and very near things, I do exactly that. Old-schoolers may call that cheating; I call it technology.

I shoot only RAW and with Picture Style set to Neutral (not Picture Style Faithful, as that will warm the image). Shooting this way strips out in-camera sharpening, contrast, gamma and saturation levels. Basically, the image is as true to reality as possible. That’s also why I never use neutral-density filters, nor do I currently use polarizers. The only filters on my lenses are UV haze filters, mostly for protecting my investments. I endeavor to shoot as accurate a representation as is possible under the current conditions.

Overlap, Overlap, Overlap
Shoot more than you think you need. I shoot most everything with the camera oriented horizontally because I’ve found that shooting vertically can give you some odd squashing in the rendered pano, depending on the projection-mapping type you choose in the software. Using a tripod just makes sense more times than not if your end goal is high quality. The ballhead I use has marked radians, though it’s not entirely necessary with Autopano stitching software because it does such a great job of calculating the stitch points. If you level your tripod and shoot in the proper degrees, you’ll get very predictable results and accurate stitches.

4. A properly gamma-adjusted image, not overexposed, not underexposed.

With simple math, you can determine the proper overlap for any lens. The Canon EF 24mm, for example, has a diagonal angle of view of 84°. That’s 74° horizontally, so shooting every 24° will give you a good one-third overlap from frame to frame. You can do this visually, too, which is what I usually do. I’ll put a lens on, sweep a bit back and forth, and observe how many degrees those sweeps are; then I’ll just shoot those degrees.

That said, I do sometimes shoot from the hip. I’ve come home with panos that would have been great had I not rushed the shots in such a way that I created holes in my pano—areas I didn’t shoot. This happens way more often with zoom shots, 200mm panos and the like, where even with the proper focusing screen pattern it’s easy to get lost in the visual swim and become confused about what you’ve already shot and where you should be picking up the next shot. It has happened to me with all my lenses when I’m handholding, too.

The best rule of thumb may be to shoot for one-third overlap, but that’s oversimplified. The wider your lens, the more distortion is being processed by the software. Very wide lenses are a tall order for stitching apps. With tighter shots (such as the 50mm on a full frame), there’s far less spatial distortion, which means you can get away with far less overlap and the calculation time is typically much faster and far less likely to exhibit stitching errors. With a 200mm pano, you’re essentially placing identical pixels on top of each other and blending them, and there’s very little parallax correction needed.

You also have to work quickly, without rushing. Clouds move, lighting and shadows change, and if it takes you eight minutes to shoot 60 frames for your pano, you now have to deal with odd lighting issues and misplaced ghost-clouds in your final comp. A vista can go from perfectly bathed in stark light to pure soft light bereft of shadow in far less time.

Choose The Right Software
After importing images into Lightroom and running lens-vignetting and chromatic-aberration corrections, I pull up dark areas as needed with the tone curve or histogram tools. I then apply these corrections to all the images in the sequence and export them all as 16-bit TIFF files. Sharpness adjustments aren’t made until after the final pano is created and then only on individually downsized files.

The constituent frames comprising a typical pano and an example of a linear image order of shooting horizontal rows. It really doesn’t matter what order you shoot in, but Riza finds it helps to stick to the same order every time you shoot. Things can get confusing later when sorting through thousands of frames.

The frames then go into Autopano Giga, and I launch the initial detection. I’ve found this software to be faster and more accurate with more options than other stitching applications. It allows for multiple tweaks for fine-tuning the end result. Once the initial stitch is calculated in Autopano, I’ll enter the Editor and make any necessary adjustments. It displays the field of view of the pano calculation and gives you an idea of default stitch accuracy. A high RMS means a bad stitch (more common when the frames are shot with a wider lens) while a low RMS means a stable stitch. These RMS values are the sum total of the accuracy of the control points the software created automatically when the initial detection was launched.

Brandon Riza’s Panorama
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Sigma 15mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG Fisheye
Canon EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L II
Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L II
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS
The following gear is on Riza’s wishlist for panorama work:
A Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L, a Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM and a Canon EOS 7D camera body

Control points can be edited with a high degree of detail and accuracy—this is what makes Autopano unique. In addition, I run various processes that even horizon lines, define verticals or horizontals, define the center point around which the projection mapping operates and so on.

It can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour to build the pano solution. This is the initial number-crunching stage. I usually run about five to 15 panos through the software at a time. I process hundreds of images in Lightroom, export them into their organized and named folders, and feed those folders full of frames into Autopano and run the initial detection on all the panos simultaneously while I’m away. That part of the process can take hours, days, sometimes even weeks. And that’s not counting the renders—which can take minutes to weeks of straight number-crunching. I’m typically dealing with enormous output files, in the 20,000- to 30,000-pixel-wide range, at 16 bits per channel, and the file sizes easily can exceed a gigabyte for a single render.

Once the renders are complete, I open them in Photoshop, crop as needed (though I normally crop the pano data), add my position and description text data as layers, add my saved metadata information and save the final as a 16-bit-per-channel LZW-compressed TIFF file.

Minimize Finishing Touches
I don’t like to do much more to my photographs. I think overprocessed HDR images look more like an artistic interpretation than an accurate reproduction of what the eye was seeing at the moment the frames were captured. I’m not saying this is bad; it’s just not my particular style. I prefer to represent reality, not artificially enhance it based on my own artistic interpretation. I strive to get as close to reality as possible with the tools that I’m using, then correct any aberrations those tools introduce.

To see more of Brandon Riza’s photography, visit


    Odd to find an article on pano stitching without any mention of nodal points. Telephoto stitching may be fine, but how you are stitching and printing large with a 24mm or 50mm? Parallax error would be very large.

    I shoot panos with a 24mm on a full-crop body all the time. The software I use (AutoPanoGiga) has an extensive point editor, but it’s almost never necessary to even use it because it calculates the stitch points and performs whatever projection mapping is needed per frame automatically with a very low error rate.
    Download a trial a try it.

    I’ve been using the GigaPan system to create supersized panoramas of the Canadian Rockies. The GigaPan stitching software seems to work quite well for most images I create without being disk intensive or a RAM hog.
    I’ve also printed them out on an Epson 9900 printer up to 25 feet wide

    I find it hard to believe Pano Stitcher’s copmment on nodal points. While they are necessary for close ups, for distant to infinity images, like most landscape panos, they are insignificant. Overlapping at about 1/3 per image is critical and discussed in the article. For multi row panos, a tripod really makes things easy. for single row, hand holding works, If you forget where you were, look at the last image to recompose.

    I have done film panos with a Super roundshot and digital panos. My comment on nodal points comes from film experience and from the friend who made some of my earlier film cameras.

    I’ve fallen in love with taking panoramas, my professors have compared my photos to Ansel Adams. I agree with alot that you are saying and doing. I also use 50-200mm lens with a Nikon D-3000 camera with a 30% overlap. The only difference is in my processing of my pictures. I use CS-5 photoshop. I tell you, I’ve plugged in up to 20 picutes and it does a great job!!

    Thanks for the inspiration. Now I really need to go shoot another panorama.

    Brandon, if you read this comment; I am a big fan of yours, and attempt to use a similar workflow; however I am still very much at the learning stage. Regarding “Set It And Forget It”, I actually find it necessary to adjust settings, especially shutter speed. I find this particularly necessary when shooting low-light images, when light fades pretty quickly between shots. Do you shoot panos in very low light?

    Brandon: Great article. Thanks for sharing your technique. The panos on your site are stunning. Not sure I’ll ever get up that high but, man, they are awesome. I use a Nodal Ninja 5L panoramic head with Nikon D90 and have found that, yes, the wider the lens, the more distortion that results. I use PTGui which is very popular and works well for stitching, and Capture NX2 for proceessing. Others have always told me to expose to the right side of the histogram but I like your approach better and agree that it is better to pull out the darks rather than try to save the highlights, especially with landscapes. True to life skies look better that way and the dark areas at your feet or in the crevasses of the mountains recover well, IMHO. Thanks again !!

    Brandon, great article. I agree with your observations about hyperfocussing. To which I’d add – if you’re going to include very near and very far objects in a pano then all you need to do is to ensure that as well as having frame overlap of about 1/3, also ensure you have DOF overlap. This means careful choice of aperture, locked across the entire pano, but the aperture must be sufficiently narrow as to ensure an overlap of DOF between each row of the pano. That done, the result is pin-sharp focus across the entire stitched image.

    I own and use Autopano. And, yes, it will project your images nicely to compensate for the incorrect nodal point. I certainly understand the need to minimize weight and not carry pano equip in the backcountry — don’t get me wrong. But stretching the images to get to compensate the nodal errors only softens the images, ruining _some_ of the increased resolution gotten from the stitched pano. Again, a moot point for telephoto work, but for a 24mm or 50mm that has both and near and far objects in the scene, getting the nodal point right has value.

    What is a full-crop body? You mean full frame? Shooting a multirow pano using a full frame camera at 24mm, with critical composotional elements both near and far in the scene, will yield obvious parallax errors. Sure software can stretch to compensate, but why not capture the images correctly?

    Maybe this is just semantics surrounding the meaning of “near”? For the shot above, no nodal slide necessary. But put a tree or flowers in the foreground (say within 50-100 ft), and the situation changes.

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