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Back in the days of film cameras, creating a panoramic photograph meant either buying a particular, expensive camera or hours in the darkroom stitching images together by overlapping exposures onto the finished photo paper.
Panoramic photos were the realm of the professional with the time and funds to create gorgeous super wide angle shots.
But now, in the digital age, it’s not only simple to create panoramic images on your home computer, it’s become increasingly easier thanks to advances in software. There are still some general guidelines to follow to help you increase your odds of producing great photos because remember, you can’t fix everything in a computer after the fact. I’ve made a number of mistakes over the years in learning about panoramas and it’s my hope that these guidelines will help shorten your learning curve and give you a head start in creating stunning panoramic images.
Most point and shoot cameras beyond the most basic model come with a little used mode for creating panoramic images. This mode serves a couple of functions. First, it will use the display on the camera to show your last picture taken and then a live view of the next picture. This is done to help you line up you images and overlap them(we’ll talk about the importance of overlap in a minute). It also adjusts the camera to NOT change exposure settings in between shots as it normally would. This helps create even lighting through all the pictures, making stitching in the computer a lot easier (although a number of modern programs will also level exposure fairly well). The image below was created while using the Panorama Mode (Stitch Mode on some cameras) and taking over 25 images with an older Canon SD630 point and shoot.
Overlapping is one of the important areas in creating a panoramic image. Just one slip with not enough overlap can ruin an attempt at the grandest of wide angle shots. No one wants to see pictures of the Grand Canyon with a bar of white down the middle because of the failure to overlap properly. I overlap by 30% each time. Sometimes more. Most people say 15% works just fine. Experiment with your particular camera to find the sweet spot of overlap. Increasing the amount of overlap helps reduce “flaring” that happens when the software is forced to use all of the image frame, including the corners which may show distortion depending on your lens selection.
Keeping your camera level becomes more important as you combine more images. If you’re shooting four or five images there isn’t much your need to worry about. But if it’s a monster 40 image shot, it becomes more and more important to keep things on the level. Think of it this way; your lens is a curved peice of glass. When held level, all parts of the scene in front of it come in and hit the sensor and roughly the same angle. But if you point that camera down, say 45 degrees you now have distant objects, like mountains in the background, coming in at a much sharper angle than foreground objects. For a single picture, this isn’t a problem, but for a panorama it creates a fan effect which is not so easily fixed in the computer. What this means is as you pan the camera left to right, the distant objects will fan out and may not have ample overlap. Further, they will be more distorted and curved because of the angle their light enters the camera.
This is best shown in my own example below, taken at Bryce Canyon, Utah, back in 2005. I attempted to point my DSLR down too far in order to catch more of the canyon. But what happened instead is the distant horizon became naturally distorted as I used a 16mm lens. This distortion was too much to over come in the computer afterwards and the result was the choppy image you see here. The foreground detail lines up right, but not the distant horizon.
Here’s another lesson I learned the hard way. If you are using a DSLR or other camera that doesn’t have the nifty Panorama Mode, you’ll want to set your metering mode to manual. Otherwise you’ll end up with an image like this.
Can you see the difference in exposure in the skyline? The computer was able to adjust well enough to the foreground canyon, but failed to even out the sky all the way. Had I set the camera to manual, this would not happen. It’s also important to even out your metering, meaning scan the entire scene making note of the aperture and shutter speeds your camera is suggesting, then pick one pair of settings in the middle, or slightly darker to make sure any sky details is preserved. With those shutter and aperture settings dialed in, it’s time to shoot away.
Movement in the scene can be a thief of what would otherwise be a grand shot. Sometimes the blur, or doubling up of people, cars, planes or other moving objects is acceptable. But too many blurry spots (caused when the computer finds parts of the overlapping sections where things don’t line up) can ruin the shot. It may mean you need to take the images very quickly. And sometimes, that movement is just unavoidable.
Referencing the image in #3 above again, my second mistake in that image was using too wide of a lens. If I had gone with something closer to a 50mm lens and made multiple passes at the scene, the distortion in the distance would have been lessened and perhaps the shot could have been salvaged. A great wide angle lens does not always produce great panoramic shots. Sometimes it’s better to let the stitching software do what it does best and make multiple passes of the same scene, with ample overlap, to create your masterpiece.
With new software you are not limited to just a single pass from left to right to capture your desired image so don’t be afraid to make more than one pass. Start with the initial pass from left to right (or top to bottom) and then move up or down to grab more detail and make another pass. Remember the overlapping rule above and how it will now pertain to not only the sides of the shot, but also the top and bottom overlaps. Keep it tight and your image can have the added quality of extra skyline or foreground features previously missed.
Vertical shots are often overlooked. The same principles apply to verticals shots as do horizontal images. It may help to turn the camera on its side or you may find keeping the camera in a horizontal orientation works. Experiment a little with buildings and waterfalls and then start looking for other verticals you can shoot.
These are just a few of the basic guidelines to help you not make all the mistakes I have made in learning how to shoot panoramas over the years. You don’t need fancy, expensive cameras to create nice panoramic images, just a little known how and practice.
Do you have any particularly helpful panorama tricks you’ve learned? Share them in the comments section below and feel free to link to examples of great images as well.
UPDATE: Check out Part 2 of this post where we show you 20 examples of great stitched panoramic images.