By Joseph Thomas
If ever there were a place that cries out for use of stitched panoramic photography, it would have to be the magnificent landscapes of the American West! Views here are commanding and expansive, and there is no better way to convey the epic grandeur than with a panoramic image. But like many endeavors in your photographic journey, your first efforts at making panoramic images might turn out to be, well, disappointing, to say the least. So here are some tips to help you make beautiful panoramas that you can be proud of.
The first three things you should consider when making a panoramic photograph are composition, composition, and composition! Yes, it’s that important! Just like any other photograph, composition is the most critical aspect of a successful image. You can do everything else perfectly, but without a strong composition, the image falls short.
When first learning to shoot panoramas, it’s easy to become overly enamored with the ability to cram the entire scene around you into a single image. But just because you can include everything in the picture, doesn’t mean you should. Composition is just as much about what you leave out as it is about what you include. So take some time to evaluate which visual elements are essential, and exclude everything else. Do your best to have strong foreground elements, geometric interest, and an overall balance of subject matter.
Visualizing the composition can be difficult because you don’t see the final image until you get home and stitch it together. One technique that helps is to pan across the scene while looking through your camera’s eyepiece and stitch the image together in your mind’s eye. With practice, you will get better and better at visualizing your panoramic compositions while you’re still out in the field.
Tripod and Head
You’ll want to use a sturdy tripod with independently adjustable legs. When shooting for panoramic stitching, mount your camera to the tripod in vertical orientation by using either an L-bracket or a panoramic tripod head. Not only does this enable you to capture more of the scene from top to bottom, it also gives you more pixels from top to bottom, which results in a larger file size and a larger maximum print size.
A simple L-bracket can be used for panoramas if your foreground elements are farther out and/or you are using a telephoto lens. However, if you are very close to your foreground elements, or if you are using a wide angle lens, a panoramic tripod head might be helpful. This is because of a type of distortion can occur during panning known as parallax. Parallax can make it difficult or impossible to stitch your component frames together in Photoshop. But with a panoramic tripod head, the camera will pivot at the nodal point of the lens, eliminating parallax. The panoramic head that I use is by Really Right Stuff.
Workflow in the Field
- Once you have determined your composition, level your tripod. The post must be vertical, not tilted.
- Attach your camera to the tripod. Make sure the horizon is level by using the built in camera level or a hot shoe bubble level. To accommodate the composition, the camera may be tipped forward or back a little, especially if the foreground elements are not too close.
- Set the camera to full manual mode.
- Adjust the aperture and focus distance for the desired depth-of-field for the entire scene. Make sure your lens is in manual focus mode so that it won’t refocus between frames!
- Determine exposure. Pan the scene while watching the light meter in the viewfinder. When the brightest portion of the scene is identified, use that portion to meter for the entire panorama. Adjust the shutter speed so that the highlights record as desired. Do not change exposure settings between shots. It’s a good practice to auto-bracket your exposures just to ensure you bring home a properly exposed image file.
- Turn off Auto White-Balance and set it manually. Usually choosing the “daylight” or “overcast” preset works well. I recommend shooting RAW so you can adjust white-balance non-destructively in post-processing.
- Do not use a polarizing filter. It will cause stitching problems and uneven colors, especially across the sky.
- Shoot the panorama from left to right. Start the panorama one or two frames wider than needed and finish one or two frames wider than needed. Overlap each frame 25% – 50%. It’s better to overlap too much than not enough. Wider lenses and close foreground elements require more overlap. Long lenses and distant subject matter require less overlap. You might want to leave extra room at the top and bottom of each frame. This will allow for cropping if necessary after the component frames are stitched together.
Stitching the Frames in Photoshop
You’ve done the hard work in the field, and now you’re ready to stitch everything together in Photoshop (this part is so incredibly easy). Just go to file>automate>photomerge. Then browse and open all of the frames for your panorama. Choose “Reposition” from the “Layout” menu, and check the “Blend Images Together” box. Now click “OK” and wait for Photoshop to do its magic. Once your panorama is ready, you can crop the image as desired and process it as you would any other photo.
Note: if the “Reposition” layout mode doesn’t properly stitch the frames together, the “Auto” Layout mode will probably do the trick. While Photoshop will do a fantastic job stitching most panoramas, certain panoramas that confuse Photoshop (extreme wide angle, or low detail images, for example) may require the added power of a stitching plugin like PTGui.
Where to Go
Of course, the best way to create amazing panoramic photographs is to put amazing scenery in front of your lens. A great way to do that is by registering for a Rhapsody in Light photography workshop. We’ll bring you to breathtaking locations and provide friendly personalized instruction. Visit https://www.rhapsodyinlight.com/p/gallery to see the full workshop schedule.
Joseph Thomas is a Denver-based landscape and wildlife photographer and the director of Rhapsody in Light Photo Workshops.