A Step By Step Guide to Making Your First Panorama Photo

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While visiting an art gallery or a photography exhibition, at times you may have noticed certain landscape photographs have extremely elongated fields of view. They seem quite impossible to have been photographed with a standard camera. If you wonder how such elongated photographs are made, you are not alone. I had my first encounter with a panoramic image of the Himalayan mountain range being displayed at Das Studios in Darjeeling, a Himalayan resort town in West Bengal, India. That photograph had a huge impact on me and it led me to searching for ways and means to photograph panoramic images.

During my initial search I figured panoramas were probably made with highly specialized cameras and lenses. But, to my surprise I found that panoramic photographs can be made with any kind of camera at your disposal. All you need is a camera, preferably one capable of shooting in Manual mode. Yes, with certain cameras and Smartphones you can get Apps for recording a panorama in a sweep but I never found the results quite satisfactory. Shooting your own panorama gives you the creative freedom and a sense of satisfaction.

How to shoot a panorama

A panorama is a combined set of individual photographs, in which two adjacent photographs have at least 20% overlapping areas. These two, or more, overlapping photographs are “stitched” with the help of software to produce extremely elongated fields of view. The overlapping is required as the software is able to understand the common areas in two adjacent photographs and hence can eliminate duplication of a scene by stitching the same into a single photograph.

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Before shooting a panorama, you need to plan out well. Here is a list of guiding factors for creating your own panorama.

#1 Shoot in Manual Mode

Since a panorama is shot over a large field of view where lighting conditions can be different, it is imperative to shoot in Manual mode with Manual Focus. This will ensure all the photographs shot have an exact exposure value and focus throughout all the images. Shooting in Automatic, Program or Semi-Automatic modes (like Shutter priority or Aperture priority) will result in different exposure values for each photograph, which in turn may cause the final merged photograph to have varied exposure and color casts in different parts of the photograph.

#2 RAW or JPEG

While you generally want to shoot in RAW, it is preferable to switch to JPEG for panoramas. Shooting in RAW is absolutely fine, but since the photographs will not be edited individually (we will see this at a later stage) and to reduce shutter lag, shooting in JPEG is preferred. A word of caution – as we will be shooting in JPEG make sure the exposure values are correctly adjusted.

#3 Tripod or handheld?

If the weight of your tripod is not a factor, carrying it is always preferable. However on a bright day you can very well rely on your own hands. A steady posture, or using your camera bag or any sturdy object available to rest the camera on, will save you the weight of carrying a tripod.

#4 Horizontal or vertical

We are generally accustomed to shoot in Landscape (horizontal) mode. Shooting in Landscape is fine but the resulting panorama will be short in height, since Landscape photographs will be stitched together. Additionally, during the stitching process there will be a lot of redundant or blank areas (you will see later during the post-processing) which need to be cropped out. This will further reduce the height of the panorama. To overcome this issue you may choose to shoot the panorama in Portrait (Vertical) mode. This will help in achieving a greater image height which can be cropped out as per requirement, say for printing or aesthetics.

#5 Be fast

Be very quick in shooting since light conditions change fast. Additionally if you are shooting a cityscape, a populated beach or a scenario where there is movement, be cautious. If you are not shooting fast enough, you will find moving objects (e.g., people, cars, bikes) will be duplicated across the frames. You would not want to see the same object twice across the panorama.

# 6 Plan it out well

Stand at the selected spot and plan the number of shots in advance. This will help you in keeping a control of the number of shots rather than shooting randomly. Be sure to do a mock round without actually shooting.

When you are ready, start shooting from left to right. Make sure you have at least 20% overlapping areas in two consecutive photographs. An visual estimate will suffice. Look through your viewfinder and shoot. Do not look at the individual photographs on your LCD screen until you finish shooting. Before leaving the scene turn on the LCD screen and review the photograph series. If you are not happy, shoot again.

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Stitching your panorama

The sext step is stitching your panorama. There are plenty of panoramic stitching software available on the internet. I will put a list of links to some of the best software at the end of this article. The stitching process is similar across software but as of now we will use the standard photo editing tool – Adobe Photoshop. The stitching process in Adobe Photoshop is fully automated.

Since you may have shot more than one panorama series, for the purpose of identification it would be easier to store each series in a separate folder. You may have shot in JPEG or RAW but make sure you do not edit individual photographs.

Steps to stitch a panorama:

  1. Open Photoshop
  2. Click File > Automate > Photomerge
  3. “Auto” is the default Layout option. Photoshop analyzes the source images and applies either a Perspective, Cylindrical, and Spherical layout, depending on which produces a better Photomerge. Choose “Auto” if it is not selected by default.
  4. Check “Blend Images Together”
  5. Next Click “Browse” and locate the separate Folder where you have put in your panorama series. Select the series and click “Ok”

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  1. Depending on the number and size of the photographs, it may take a while for Adobe Photoshop to stitch together the images.
  2. After the stitching process is completed you will find a roughly shaped panorama (with a few redundant spaces). Refer to the image above
  3. Right click on a Layer in the Layers panel and click Merge Layers
  4. The next step is to use the Crop Tool to trim out the redundant portions of the panorama
  5. After the final touches you are done with your very own first panorama

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Links to panorama stitching software:

If this is the first time you are creating your panorama, I would love to receive your feedback or to share your panorama in the comments below.

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Soumya Shankar Ghosal is a street photographer based in Kolkata, India. He is a MBA in Finance and a Management Consultant by profession. He has received awards from CGAP World Bank, Nikon, Fujifilm, Olympus and his work has been published in NationalGeographic.com, National Geographic Traveller India, 1X.com, Life Force Magazine, Camerapixo, DNA, The Times of India and several other publications. He conducts street photography workshops and writes for Epson Fotoflock.

  • Mayhem1906

    Thank you, I’ve wondered how to do this.
    So if I understand correctly, if I need to correct white balance etc., I should first import and merge the raw files, and then edit the resulting jpeg? (I have lightroom and elements, but I’ve noticed a photomerge option in elements.)

  • What a timely article! I’m assigned to do a panorama for my photo class this week- thanks for the great tips!

  • YoGi

    I haven’t used other software options mentioned at the end, but between Photoshop, Hugin & Microsoft ICE, I found ICE to hit perfect balance.

    Photoshop was the slowest, didn’t offer enough options to tweak the way panorama is stitched and in general nightmare to work with if your workflow is RAW oriented. It took me once 30+ minutes to stitch 35 x 24mp RAW files into photoshop, on a pretty high-end machine.

    Hugin offered lot of options to tweak and it was a great experience (like a boy getting a new robot as toy) at first, but in regular workflow it can get really overwhelming.

    Microsoft ICE, is as simple as it comes while still offering decent curve to adjust the way your panorama stitching is handled. It offers enough important options to tweak without overwhelming users and it was the fastest of the bunch in my experience. The same 35 x 24mp RAW files took less than 3 minutes to stitch (and about 14 mins to write the final uncompressed TIFF).

    Generally, I do basic processing on the RAW files first in LR, which is sharpening, noise reduction and lens profile correction etc., plus very small color tonic and white balance adjustments. Export as TIFF, stitch them in ICE and export the final as uncompressed TIFF… and all final grading back in LR. This ensures maximum quality is retained and I still get enough editing headroom on final file back in LR. It can get bit resource intensive, but really, a small price to pay for maximum quality.

  • Good overview and instructions for shooting panoramas.
    However, I disagree with your recommendation to shoot JPG instead of RAW. I would recommend shooting in RAW, as the resulting photos contain a lot more detail than JPG, then use Photoshop to merge the RAW images. Alternatively, you can use ACR to open all RAW images and apply the same adjustments to them all, before merging.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, for complete image exposure control you can always shoot RAW instead of JPEG. But if you shoot in RAW all you need to do is open all the RAWs in ACR (preferably) with exact similar adjustments and convert the output in JPEG and perform the necessary merging in Adobe Photoshop. I look forward to your panorama soon.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks. All the best for the assignment. I would look forward to your panorama here soon.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the detailed analysis. Yes, I agree with you. Adobe Photoshop is slow compared to Microsoft ICE. I have used Microsoft ICE and it was comparatively easier to use and faster. But in most cases people connect to Adobe Photoshop easily and probably has a better control over the post processing. Again, it depends on the individual preference whether to stich using software like Microsoft ICE and later post process with Adobe Photoshop. Hugin was too good!

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the feedback. This article is intended for beginners. Yes, for complete exposure control we must always shoot in RAW. As I have already mentioned “Shooting in RAW is absolutely fine”. But again beginners would find it difficult to edit RAWs together. Advanced, users will definitely get a clue from your feedback. Cheers!

  • Katrin

    Thank you for this guide. What I’m always wondering is what is the best focal length for a panorama to avoid too much curving of the horizon? Is there a recommendation?

  • Phogropathy

    I don’t know I think I agree with Martin. I’d argue that it’s preferable to shoot in RAW if you’re comfortable doing so and suggest that JPEG is a fine alternative if you’re not – not the other way around.

    I wouldn’t say that it is ever preferable to shoot JPEG over RAW (you could argue for time-lapse situations maybe to allow more frames quicker and on a single card, but even that’s questionable IMO).

    I do see what you’re trying to do with the suggestion, by making it easier for the beginner photographer, but I just think it’s misleading someone who’s still struggling with the RAW v JPEG question.

    The rest of the article is, as Martin said, pretty much spot on for getting started with panoramic shots.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, you are right regarding the distortion. However, I guess there would be no best focal length perfectly applicable in all situations. If you are photographing a scene – landscape / cityscape which is quite far off from you – a shorter focal length like 18mm works fine with less or no distortion. The closer the scene being photographed, more is the distortion with shorter focal length. Again if the if the scene is closer it would be easier to photograph with a shorter focal length, else if you increase the focal length to avoid distortion, you may need to use a technique called Matrix Panorama. To avoid distortion you may go ahead with 50mm, however this is just a suggestion. From my experience I found even shooting at lower focal lengths like 18mm creates distortion but while you post process using a stitching software mostly it is taken care of, however you may (mostly) need to adjust the horizon tilt. I hope this somewhat clarifies your query.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, you are right regarding the distortion. However, I guess there would be no best focal length perfectly applicable in all situations. If you are photographing a scene – landscape / cityscape which is quite far off from you – a shorter focal length like 18mm works fine with less or no distortion. The closer the scene being photographed, more is the distortion with shorter focal length. Again if the if the scene is closer it would be easier to photograph with a shorter focal length, else if you increase the focal length to avoid distortion, you may need to use a technique called Matrix Panorama. To avoid distortion you may go ahead with 50mm, however this is just a suggestion. From my experience I found even shooting at lower focal lengths like 18mm creates distortion but while you post process using a stitching software mostly it is taken care of, however you may (mostly) need to adjust the horizon tilt. I hope this somewhat clarifies your query.

  • Good overview article, but I might add a few points. Under Manual Control you stress the need to keep exposure the same, but don’t say how: it is imperative to set your ISO, aperture, shutter, and white balance before stating and do not change at all as you capture the entire panorama. I would also suggest using a small aperture and setting manual focus at the hyperfocal distance so that the image will be mostly in focus, otherwise as you rotate the camera the plane of focus will cut diagonally through different parts of the scene in each shot. Lastly, I would emphasize the importance of keeping the camera level so that perspective does not distort shot to shot. It is also fun to try a vertical panorama by shooting in landscape and tilting the camera from nadir to zenith.

  • Subhajit Dutta

    Thank you dada for this excellent post i am a beginner just a novice… so it is very useful to me. I am from Berhampore, Murshidabad, Westbengal India. I am very glad to see a bengali posting here you know how typically crazy we bongs are. Please keep posting and helping us. Thanks a ton 🙂

  • Good tips thanks for sharing. Have you read this on doing them vertically? http://digital-photography-school.com/hdr-vertorama-photography-create-mind-bending-images/

  • Yes I did Darlene! I thought that was a great article, he addresses the problems with parallax effect too, which is kind of what I was getting at with keeping the camera level. Those are some gorgeous interior shots.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Subhajit, thank you for the feedback. Not too far off from Behrampore you can get wonderful scenic landscapes to try out panoramas especially during monsoons. Look forward to your work. Cheers!

  • Santanu Chandra

    Well …this is the Panorama of the famous lake called Lakhota Lake of Jamnagar, Gujarat, India. I took total 4 series of bracketing shots( 3 shots in each series with -2ev, 0ev and +2ev ), made 4 HDR shots from them and then stitched them in Photoshop. I studied a bit on this and then applied the best tips among them for creating this panorama. As I am a novice till now I urge your comments ( positive or negative) on this. I keep my fingers crossed!!

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Santanu, Thanks for sharing. It looks perfect. Cheers!

  • Santanu Chandra

    Thank you Dada…

  • Nate Cochrane

    No mention of the nodal point?

  • Barry E Warren

    Thanks for sharing, now all I have to do is go out and do it…..This is a Great read.

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the generous feedback. I would love to see your first panorama here.

  • Michael Owens

    People have been saying to keep ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed identical, which is of course, ideal. But, if you are shooting in RAW format, you can always fix any changes in light during your shoot.

    So long as you have planned yours shots, and are competent with your camera, it shouldn’t be a problem.

    I love Panorama’s personally. Especially for cityscapes. Gorgeous outcomes at night for instance.

  • Barry E Warren

    That’s an amazing Panorama. Fantastic Job.

  • Ranjith

    It was great article ! 🙂 Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Soumya Shankar Ghosal

    Thanks for the feedback. I look forward to your panorama here soon 🙂

  • Santanu Chandra

    Thank you very much Barry……Glad you liked it…

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Microsoft ICE is free but yet better than photoshop cs and PT GUi, IMO

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  • Anirjit Guha

    Thanks a lot dada

  • Anirjit Guha

    Outstanding

  • Santanu Chandra

    Thank you …..

  • romina

    I think the way layer masks work is easy to forget if you only use it
    once in a while, I’ll be bookmarking this article for sure, well done!
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    You can search, but how do you pull them out?)
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  • ???? ?????? Khaled Soliman

    Great Article .

  • julian

    You should mention the nodal point, and point out that Lightroom 6 can stitch panoramas in RAW. Apart from that: Very good.

  • Indian

    Can you explain how you soot step by step

  • Azwad Anjum Dipto

    Here’s one that I shot a few months back.

    Something I’d like to add:
    01. While shooting in JPEG, don’t keep your White Balance setting at “auto”.
    02. If your lens has a vignetting issue, try to keep more than 20% overlapping areas (specially at night)
    03. Keep the rotating plane parallel to the horizon, otherwise you will end up with an image that has to be cropped a hell lot to become usable.

  • gregory.kanyanta

    Very useful article for me; I have been wondering how this was done!

  • jumbybird

    I remember doing panoramas on film and gluing the photographs together and then mounting and framing…

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