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Photography is definitely not a one size fits all art form. Photography comes in many formats including large, medium or 35mm. Non-35mm formats not only offer photographers a variety of display options outside of the standard 3:2 ratio but greater resolution and detail. Many 35mm photographers often think of their layout options as tied to a single standard horizontal or vertical image, but one of the great things digital offers is the ability to create digital panoramic photos by stitching multiple photographs together. Stitching photographs together enables 35mm shooters the ability to mimic larger format display ratios and create custom dimension panoramic photographs. To get you started in stitching photographs for panoramic images there are a few best practices that you should acquaint yourself with that follow. If you have time I invite you to learn more on the subject by listening to my most recent podcast episode EXIF and Beyond: Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography.
Panoramic photographs require a shift in thinking. Normally to squeeze more of a scene in frame you shoot with as short a focal length as possible. Shooting wide is the normal solution, but for panoramic images you’re actually looking to simulate or just create an even wider focal length by stitching together images each with a narrow field of view. To do this you can actually shoot a very wide scene with a longer focal length lens. Often I’ll shoot panoramic images at a focal length of 100-200mm. The added benefit is that the resulting panoramic image will contain even more detail than if I had opted for a single wide angle shot.
Many people cringe when you mention a tripod, but a tripod is going to be your best friend if you’re stitching images together. You’ll end up with sharper images, gain greater control and it will enable you to create work in lower light where hand holding will result in poor quality images. If you don’t use a tripod regularly now I highly recommend it. A tripod combined with a bubble level will help you keep your camera level ensuring your resulting images will be oriented correctly. Having a set of level images to stitch together will result in a final image that will require less straightening and cropping in post-processing.
One of the most frustrating things about panoramic photography for those first trying it out is that you’ll take a series of photos, get home and realize that all the images have different brightness levels. Here’s the trick to avoid this problem. If your camera has a Lock Exposure control make sure to use it when shooting a series of images for a panoramic. If you don’t have this feature make sure you determine the proper settings for the scene and in Manual mode use the same settings for each image taken for your panoramic. The consistency in settings will net consistency in image brightness making for a cleaner image stitch.
Shooting with shorter focal length lenses introduces the the prospect of distortion that will make for an unnatural looking stitch. Many wide angle lenses suffer from varying amounts of barrel distortion. Simply avoid this by shooting with lenses that have a longer focal length. In general longer focal length lenses exhibit less barrel distortion. Another tip to avoid problems with stitching images together is minimizing the use of filters. Polarizers in particular will darken corners and depending on the angle of light will create significant variation in sky color across a scene. My recommendation don’t shoot panoramics with polarizers or use them very selectively with minimal polarization. Shooting with too many filters on your lens can also introduce vignetting, darkening seen on the fringes and corner of the image. Minimize vignetting by minimizing the amount of filters used.
How much should your images overlap to make a decent panoramic? The best practice is 20%. Anything less may create problems particularly if you take short cuts with the previously noted best practices. Overlapping images more than 20% is never a bad thing, but may very well be overkill.
These days a lot of tools are at a photographers fingertips for stitching images together. Many camera makes include photo stitching software and you can easily stitch images together in programs like Photoshop. Read up on the software you own to see what support there is for photo stitching. If you own Photoshop I highly recommend using the Photomerge function (File > Automate > Photomerge). Selecting your images is easily done and the program makes the process almost thought free. The more consistent you are in getting well exposed, overlapped and level images the easier time you’ll have letting programs like Photoshop do the work for you. After getting the hang of these basic best practices you’ll find that there is a new world open to you whether stitching a few photos together to mimic the creation of a large format image or creating complex multi-row panoramics to create mind-blowingly detailed high resolution photos.