How to Shoot and Stitch a Panorama Photo

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Sometimes the landscape is just too big. Sometimes, just one image won’t do the trick. Then it’s time to create a panorama!

How to Create a Panorama photo

I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time in the grand landscapes of Alaska. But often, camera in hand, I’ve stood there, unable to create the image I wanted. There was just too much going on, or things were happening in a way that just didn’t match a typical single-image format. I was photographing along a gravel beach near Haines, Alaska this winter, while the alpenglow was lighting up the peaks across the inlet. The glaciers and spires were painted in peach light. Going super wide to capture it all, with my 14mm, made the mountains too small and distant, and left too much empty space. I wanted the details in the

I was photographing along a gravel beach near Haines, Alaska this winter, while the alpenglow was lighting up the peaks across the inlet (see image above). The glaciers and spires were painted in peach light. Going super wide to capture it all, with my 14mm, made the mountains too small and distant, and left too much empty space. I wanted the details in the mountains while maintaining a sense of the vast landscape. A panorama was the only way to go.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Panoramas are hardly a novelty, Smartphones and many point and shoots can create them in-camera. But stitching together images from a DSLR or other high-resolution camera will yield better results if you do it right. Sadly, panoramas are easy to screw up. Here are a few tips for making an effective panorama from a series of images.

What lens to use to make a panorama

Making a panorama isn’t the time to use a wide angle lens. The optical distortion inherent in these lenses tends to mess with the process of stitching them together. Pick a standard lens or a short telephoto; something between 40mm and 100mm will work well, though I’ve occasionally gone as high as 200mm if the situation warrants.

How to Create a Panorama

Remove all filters from your lens, especially polarizers. They can cause gradations across an image that are impossible to work with later, so get that thing off your camera.

Cameras and settings

I shoot all panorama images in RAW format. This allows me greater flexibility in post-processing to make sure that exposures, white balance, and other settings match from one image to the next. That said if you are careful in-camera, and manually select all your settings from ISO to exposure and white balance, you can get by with JPGs.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Exposure

Take a few sample shots of your subject. If you are shooting a landscape that varies in tones, meter off the brightest part of your scene and make the image as bright as possible without blowing out the highlights. Take note of those numbers (exposure settings), then using Manual Mode set your aperture and shutter speed accordingly.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Focus

Turn off autofocus. As you pan across your scene, you don’t want your camera grabbing a new focus point each time. Set the focus so that your subject is sharp, then don’t touch it again until you’ve finished the series.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

White Balance

There are two options for white balance. The first, and easiest, is to set your white balance in camera, using one of the presets. Don’t use auto white balance, because the camera may decide each image varies slightly, and the colors will shift within the final panorama. Pick something appropriate and stick with it. The second option is to set the white balance of your RAW images in post-processing (see below).

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Making the images for the panorama

Composition

Almost all of my panoramas are created using vertically formatted photos (i.e. the camera is oriented vertically). First, this allows me to stitch together a greater number of photos for the same scene. Second, it allows me to compose with more negative at the top and bottom. This dead space is important to allow for cropping later.

Here is a series and final image to show you how I took the shots:

Notice how there is overlap from one image to the next, and they are all shot vertically. So nine images were stitched to make this final panorama image.

Shooting

How to Create a Panorama Photo

A level tripod is very useful, but not absolutely essential. If you are using a tripod, level it. With a level tripod, as you pan, your camera’s angle will not shift up and down. If you are hand-holding be very careful to keep your camera level as you move across your scene shooting your images for the panorama.

Start a full frame to the side of where you expect your final image to begin. This assures that you have some negative on the sides of the image. Then begin making your series as you pan right or left. Overlap each shot by between a third to one-half of the frame each time. The overlap is what allows the computer to detect which images go where and line them up, so make sure to leave plenty of overlap.

Move across the scene making as many images as necessary to fully capture the landscape. Take a breath.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Post-processing your panorama

Continuity

In the computer (I use Lightroom), go through each your series and confirm that the white balance of each image is identical. If you shot in RAW, assuring white balance continuity is as easy as checking that they each have the same color tone. Check the numbers, if they aren’t all exactly the same, change them so that they match. If you set your white balance in camera, you can skip this step.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Don’t edit the images separately, leave your photos as they are out of the camera (except to make sure the white balance is the same). Any additional post-processing is best done once the panorama has been created.

Stitching

There are many programs that can create panoramas. These include specialty programs like PTGui, which is designed to create enormous images involving hundreds of individual photos. However, both Photoshop and Lightroom have merge to panorama capabilities which work great in most situations. As an example, I’ll go through the steps in Lightroom:

Select your images by clicking the first one in your series, pressing and holding the Shift key, then selecting the final image. All the ones in between will now be selected as well.

Right-click (PC) or Control-Click (Mac) and select Photomerge > Panorama.

How to Create a Panorama Photo
A preview window will pop up offering three options; Spherical, Cylindrical, and Perspective. For most simple panoramas, Cylindrical will work, but feel free to click back and forth between these options to find the best option for your image. Click Merge.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

The stitched image will appear in your Lightroom Library, or as a new image in Photoshop. The result will likely have some jagged edges from your base images not quite lining up. Select the crop tool and cut the jagged edges away. (This is why the negative space I noted earlier is so important.) Note: you can also check off “Auto Crop” in the panorama popup box and it will be done automatically for you. 

Once you’ve got your image cropped you can post-process as you would any other photo in your collection.

How to Create a Panorama Photo

Conclusion

Panoramic photos, while definitely not the best option in all scenarios are a great tool to keep in mind for those moments when a landscape is just too big, too dramatic, or too epic to be captured in a single photo. When I first started shooting panoramas many years ago, I regularly overlooked simple things like remembering to remove my polarizer, or failing to assure the same white balance from image to image. Screw up a setting or forget a filter and the final image just won’t work, and there is nothing you can do about it. Pay attention to those annoying little details and you won’t miss your chance to create some epic panorama images.

Do you shoot panoramas? If so, show them off below, or share some of your own tips for success.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photo workshop in March of 2018, and a bird photography expedition in June 2017. Find out about  the aurora workshop and other tours, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • Norm Levin

    The author gives many great examples of landscape panos. One of the readers added a vivid interior to the discussion.

    Here’s an example of the stitch-in-time adds nine method I used to show the scope of an outdoor bar mitzvah, of all things. It was taken at a lakeside restaurant with some 300 guests in attendance. No way to get all of them into a singe frame! This image combines six individual ones. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0ef1c5975853256c4bd2c714e2c016f9822b17a90512455c8d12d8464545f134.jpg

  • David W. Shaw

    I like this tip! A great way to keep track of your series.

  • David W. Shaw

    Very cool! I like the way the pier tapers through the image.

  • David W. Shaw

    It never hurts to have more overlap. 1/3 at least, but I sometimes will shoot as much as 50% overlap. That is some serious tumbling glacier by the way!

  • David W. Shaw

    Hanging a big panorama is a challenge. A friend here in Alaska is a glaciologist and he uses images stitched from hundreds of individual photos to document glacial retreat between years. (He can use the images to look very precisely at how the glacier has changed, but when he prints the photos they stretch down entire hallways! Hard to find a place to hang something like that.

  • David W. Shaw

    That is beautiful! Great reflections. And Handheld panos can work just fine, but you have to be more careful about leaving extra space around the edges.

  • David W. Shaw

    Impressive that you got it from a boat while moving. Aside from a slight blur in the water, you’d never know. I took the ferry home to Alaska this winter after a road trip through the lower 48, my first time doing the whole thing. Made me want to come back in summer and really put some effort into photography.

  • David W. Shaw

    Ah Yosemite, what a place. I like this perspective!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks for the tip!

  • David W. Shaw

    Hmm, not sure. I’ve never had any trouble. LR does sort them by date created sometimes, so it may have dropped your image at the end of your LR catalog.

  • David W. Shaw

    Great color and good use of the trees for the foreground. What was your focal length?

  • David W. Shaw

    Good one! I like the city-scapes in panorama.

  • David W. Shaw

    Great tip!

  • David W. Shaw

    Good idea!

  • David W. Shaw

    Those are some dramatic mountains! Well done.

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks, glad you liked the article! And a good tip about tracking focus points.

  • David W. Shaw

    For a photo you did wrong, it came out great. Good job with your corrections, that’s a tricky thing to do, particularly when you have so much sky. Nice job!

  • David W. Shaw

    Very nice sky indeed! Love those whispy cirrus clouds, they set off the water nicely.

  • I learned that the hard way too. Lost some otherwise great panos because of gaps in the image. A good tripod is more weight than I usually want to carry when I’m backpacking so I’ll sometimes take two rows of vertical shots to make sure I don’t miss anything. It provides a lot more flexibility when cropping the final image.

  • Nelson L

    no worries.

  • I either use my hand or just shoot an image of the ground before and after. That works great!

  • Very informative David. The best suggestion you gave is to shoot vertical. If you shoot horizontal images, you will have to crop a lot off the top and bottom. Both Lightroom and Photoshop have a tool to help this somewhat. Another good suggestion of yours is not to shoot with a wide angle lens. If you only want to merge 2-3 images, it can be done but you’ll have to zoom in a bit because you will get some barrel distortion fully wide angle with most lenses which will mess up the panorama.

    Here’s one I did of the Windows at Arches National Park in Utah back in 2014. It is 16 vertical shots at 60mm each. The detail is incredible if you zoom in. In one cave, you can see a bunch of people sitting down and dangling their feet off the edge. On the right side, you can see my friend taking a shot to give you some perspective. If you want to see and explore the full image, please click on this Flickr link and then click on the download button on the right and either download the image or select “view full size” and then explore it. I love doing very large panoramas!
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/53665936@N07/14197921941/in/album-72157642638092203/

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/721ca24833787855cad42a4f11a4d604c454c25243e5c5ba631b4521c1acbc03.jpg

  • sofarsogood

    I also used an ultra-wide on my first pano. I won’t do that again. Thanks for the tips! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3aa56932db39aa70118170fdc08d99ca39dc5200e41fcf2f81a0de16d42f60db.jpg

  • https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b1d1eac80f3e01d23773e5b4c8b09acdc36b62cb044222704d75ed6ca664f35e.jpg In addition to the author’s brilliant use of Lightroom’s panoramic tool, there are many other situations where it can be used to great effect. But only if that effect is to improve the message, not just for effect’s sake. This one was done for the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah when the entire scroll (Old Testament) is unrolled and is begun to be read from the start.

  • sofarsogood

    I’ve a question regarding your tip on focus: When shooting for a panorama, by design, sometimes the subject can be fairly close ( say, a tree to frame the scene on left and right ends ) as well as quite distant; say the mountain on the other side of the large lake. Focusing on the near and using even f/22 won’t do it and focusing on the far won’t get the foreground sharp, either. What exactly is wrong with allowing the camera to focus sharply as it moves? I just tried some on a trip to the NW coast, and found about half of my scene isn’t sharp enough.

  • David W. Shaw

    This is a very good question, and one that will haunt any image of the landscape whether it is a panorama or not. In the case of your example, if you change focus mid-way through a pano series, the resulting image will have strange differences in focus. Depending on how dramatic the focus change is, some software may even have trouble stitching them. I’d ask yourself which part of the image is more important to be in focus, and then select for that whether it is your tree in the foreground or the scenery behind. But I wouldn’t try to switch focus mid-way through. That said, if you do try that, I’d be curious to see the result.

  • Great article. I frequently shoot both horizontal and vertical series for everything from trees to vast landscapes. I often use 100mm+ & shoot more than one level. The files can be huge up to 2 gig but the detail available is fantastic. I shot a large moving herd of elephants on both wide angle and zoomed in and merged. The wide angle produced pixilated ele’s. The merged shot could have been printed 2 mt long with sharp individuals. I also sometimes merg running animals. I choose say 1 in 4 shots being careful not to over lap animals. Result merged background with all the animal action in one image.
    I also discovered the limitations of merging too many shots. I was selected for a climate change exhibition. The resulting image combined many different messages. Even if the image was printed 2mt long the height was less than 20cm. It would have looked like a stripe on the wall from a distance. I cropped it down for impact. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9ef7f8919f943418f9d7df0cce80a337f905a0b56d455fb29d08f91995b0d349.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c2538f9f1662862d8fd26e3c602d160f6a8910cc5085c7225aef088d7e64d466.jpg

  • David W. Shaw

    I too find 100mm to be just about right for panoramas shot in vertical format. It’s amazing how big you can get panoramas, and still retain staggering detail. I had a client purchase one shot printed nearly 3m long. The final image was beautiful and crisp. I’d be really curious to see some of your running animal photos done in a pano. Sounds like an interesting technique.

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