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Close your eyes and let me take you to a scene that you have experienced before. You are standing in front of a wonderful vista. It is huge – a sunset, a mountain range, a canyon, a cityscape – and you are blown away by the grandeur of it. After admiring it for a bit you pull out your cell phone or camera to take an image. But alas, your phone cannot capture the image because it extends far out of your field of view. “Not to worry,” you think to yourself as you flip your device into panorama mode to create impactful panoramas.
A few seconds later and your newly stitched image captures the whole scene with one problem: all the things you loved about the scene have been reduced to tiny pixels making it hard to appreciate how beautiful it was out there. In my opinion, you’ve fallen victim to the “panorama trap.”
Paradoxically, wider is not always better for capturing a large vista!
You can up your panorama photography game by carefully thinking about elements of the shot before making it. For instance, integrating close foreground elements using hyperfocal distance or switching to a longer lens can give you a more interesting shot. We’ll go through that and more in this article!
In order to capture a more interesting shot, it is useful to think about why you are using a particular technique. For instance, you might think of black and white photography for shadows and contrast, macro techniques for tiny things (although that’s a rule to be broken), and side-lighting for portrait photography. Each of these techniques or photography genres is meant to maximize the benefit and impact of the elements in the image.
So, why panoramic? Because you want to maximize and impress the viewer with grand-scale elements in the image which you cannot capture in one image alone. Using the mantra of “making a shot” and not “taking a shot” is good to keep in mind for panoramas. To make a more compelling panorama, envision what you want to accomplish and how you want the image to feel or influence your viewer before pressing the shutter button.
Foreground elements are critical pieces to incorporate into your image to grab the viewer. Foreground elements help tell a story, give the image context, and make it more interesting to look at. Since many panoramas get taken with a mid-length (e.g., 50 mm) to ultra-wide lenses (e.g., 12mm), you must walk close enough to foreground elements to give them a presence in the image. You can maximize the impact of a foreground element by using a photography technique called hyperfocal distance.
Hyperfocal distance (HFD) is not a “hyper-difficult” subject. By definition, it is the closest thing your lens can focus on while keeping the horizon at infinity. HFD is influenced by your lens focal length, by your camera’s sensor size, and by your aperture. As a rule of thumb, wider lenses have a shorter HFD than longer lenses, and the larger your sensor is, the shorter the HFD is. Creating a smaller aperture (e.g., f/16 instead of f/2.8) will also decrease the HFD.
Depending on your system and camera settings you may be able to have foreground elements 2.0 feet (0.6m) away and have all elements beyond that in focus! There are many resources to learn HFD from and to calculate it for your camera system. I recommend starting with this article to learn more. As you use HFD more, you will begin to have an intuitive sense of how far objects have to be from your camera to be in focus.
Hopefully, you have made the connection of why HFD will help you integrate interesting foreground elements into your panoramic image. Here’s how you can achieve intriguing panoramas in three generic steps:
I recommend stopping your lens down to f/8, so it is at its sharpest and shooting with a panning tripod head to keep your horizon straight and level. It will make the stitch and final image cleaner. However, don’t be overwhelmed – these techniques take time and patience.
Now that you have learned briefly about HFD, I’m going to tell you to keep in mind that rules are made to be broken! The foreground of your image may be far more important to the telling of that story than the horizon. Having an in-focus foreground element and out-of-focus background is okay too.
The image below has many compelling elements. However, my goal was to bring you into the winter scene by ensuring the hoar-frost-covered Black Spruce in the foreground was tack-sharp.
You may be thinking to yourself “I can’t always get closer to my subject, so what then?” Not to worry – you can make compelling panoramic images by using long lenses to bring the landscape closer to you. When using a long lens of 150mm or more, it is critical that you use a tripod with a panning head. Use a cable release to remove shake in the lens and shoot at a large aperture (e.g., f/20) to get sharp elements.
You can use a telephoto lens to isolate and photograph your favorite part of a scene. Above, I used one to isolate Denali, and below, I used it to isolate a cannery against the large mountains of the Juneau Range.
The steps for making a panoramic image with a telephoto lens are similar to using HFD. You need to:
Experimenting with HFD and long lenses is going to result in some images that you “could have done better on.” Expect to learn from your mistakes!
I’ll share an image that illustrates when my HFD distance estimating was off. I did not achieve a sharp foreground and background. However, I like how the sharp part of the image draws your eyes through the snow-covered trees. So, this image is not a total flop.
As I always say, “pixels are cheap.”
I hope you make tons of pixels while experimenting with panoramic images!