Gadget Bag: Tools For Panoramas

Accessories to improve your success photographing wild animals

Gadget Bag: Tools For Panoramas

Panoramic photos, created by stitching together multiple images taken while panning across a scene, enable you to capture the full impact of awe-inspiring landscapes, far beyond what a single wide-angle frame can record. While it’s possible to get good results without specialized gear, for the best image quality (and easiest, most accurate stitching), these are the key accessories to have in the field. To understand why this gear is helpful, we’ll also cover the basic technique.

Use A Standard Focal Length
For the smoothest stitching and best detail in your final panorama, you want to capture the individual frames with as little perspective distortion as possible. A standard focal-length lens of 50mm (equivalent) is a good choice.

Shoot Vertically
Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s best to shoot the individual frames for your panorama in vertical format (assuming your final panorama will be horizontal). The reason for this is that when you stitch the frames together, you’re going to want flexibility to crop the top and bottom edges of the frame—shooting vertical images gives you that flexibility. An L-plate lets you mount your camera vertically, and also enables you to easily switch between vertical and horizontal orientations.

Gadget Bag: Tools For Panoramas
Prime Standard Lens
We recommend using a standard focal-length prime lens like the Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM ($1,349) for panoramic work. A prime lens simplifies identifying the nodal point of your camera and lens combo, and keeps weight and size down. The standard-perspective focal length will capture images without perspective distortion. usa.canon.com

On The Level
When shooting panoramas, you want to be sure your images are perfectly level. To do this with precision, use a panning base with a built-in level in addition to your tripod head. Set up your tripod, attach the panning base to your tripod head and adjust the head until the panning base is level. With your tripod head locked down, the panning base allows you to smoothly pan the scene as you capture the individual frames for your panorama, knowing that every shot will be level.


Tripod
A lightweight, sturdy tripod like the Manfrotto 057 Carbon Fiber 3 Section ($759) will provide a steady base for your panorama work while minimizing the weight of your setup. A ballhead makes it easy to level your gear. manfrotto.us

Eliminate Parallax
With your camera attached to the tripod directly above your panning base, the center of rotation is your camera, not the lens. As you rotate your camera to capture the individual frames, your lens views the scene from a different perspective in each shot, shifting the visual relationship between closer and more distant objects. These shifts in perspective are a challenge for your stitching software and require it to do more interpolation to attempt to align elements in your panorama when stitching the frames together. You can eliminate parallax by finding the nodal point, or “no parallax point,” of your lens using a nodal slide. The slide lets you move your camera and lens backward until you find the nodal point for your camera and lens combination—the point at which, as you rotate to pan across the scene, relationships between near and distant objects don’t appear to shift. Note that if you’re using a zoom lens, the nodal point will be different for each focal length in the range. Prime lenses simplify this, as you know you’ll always be shooting at the same focal length. Nodal slides are engraved with a scale. When you’ve found the nodal point for your camera and lens combo, you can record the position on the scale and be ready to go for perfect panoramas whenever you’re using that lens-camera combo. We recommend determining the nodal point for your setup at home so you don’t have to figure this out in the field.


L-Plate
To mount your camera vertically to your panning base, use an L-plate, also referred to as an L-bracket, like the Kirk BL-D800 for Nikon D810 ($135). kirkphoto.com

Put It All Together
Now that you’ve shot the images for your panorama, it’s time to stitch them together with software. Both Adobe Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC have the ability to do this. In Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Photomerge. In Lightroom, you’ll find this under Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama. If you’ve used the accessories recommended here, and your images are level and parallax-free, either program should do a fine job. If you’re working with less than perfect images, which aren’t precisely level or have some parallax, specialized software like PTGui (ptgui.com) may render better results. There’s a free trial version of PTGui available to see if you prefer its results to what Photoshop or Lightroom produce from your images.


Panning Base and Nodal Slide
A panning base lets you smoothly pan the scene, keeping every shot level, while the nodal slide enables you to correct for parallax with your camera and lens combination. Really Right Stuff offers these separately, or together in the Pano Elements Package with Lever-Release ($380). reallyrightstuff.com

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