Making Great Panoramas


There are often times when you come across a scene that is so vast and magnificent that it’s impossible to capture the essence of the place with just one shot. In such cases, even the widest of lenses fail to capture what lies before your eyes. In such cases, Panoramas come to your rescue.

Panoramas are multiple photographs stitched together to show a wider perspective. They may be shot horizontally or vertically.

One of the most magnificent vertical panoramas I have ever seen is a shot of a 1500 year old 300 ft. tall tree by Michael Nichols, a National Geographic photographer. The photograph enables the viewer to see the tree in it’s entirety, which isn’t even possible from ground level. This magnificent panorama was a combination of 84 images shot by 3 remotely operated cameras that were suspended on ropes using a pulley system. Click here for the making of this panorama video.

However, not all panoramas need to be that complicated to execute or involve those many frames to make. Modern day software has made the process of stitching multiple photographs together almost automatic. Seamless blending happens with a click of a button. Hence, achieving great panoramas mostly depends on the shooting process itself.

Many new consumer-level and prosumer-level cameras come with inbuilt software that stitches frames together on camera. However, this article focuses on achieving great panoramas using a digital SLR and stitching together the images on a computer using editing software such as photoshop.

Camera Settings:

While shooting the different frames for a panorama there are certain camera settings that need to stay constant so that the images blend fluidly with one another to create a single vertical or horizontal panorama.

  • Focus: You need to select a focus point and lock the focus so that it doesn’t change with each frame of the panorama. You can do this by using the focus lock button or by switching to manual focus after focusing.
  • Aperture: For a panorama you require consistent exposure through all the frames. Exposure can be modified by either changing the aperture or the shutter speed. Changing the aperture will result in differences in the depth of field (the range of area that is in focus), which is undesirable for smooth blending. Therefore, it is best to be in Aperture Priority Mode and set the aperture to a particular value depending on the situation. The shutter speed may vary for each of the shots, which has less of a noticeable impact.
  • White Balance: Manually set the white balance for the scene either using one of the camera presets (such as daylight, cloudy, etc.) or by setting a custom white balance with a gray card as reference. Another option, which i prefer using, is shooting in RAW so that white balance can be adjusted later during post processing.
  • Turn Off All Variables: These may differ based on your camera model. For example, one such variable is what Nikon calls “Active D-Lighting” or Canon’s “Auto Lighting Optimizer” or the on camera noise reduction, etc.

Taking the shots:

The key to a successful panorama is to have equally spaced shots with sufficient overlap. I would say about 50% overlap from one frame to another.

The position of the camera should also remain constant between shots, only the angle of the camera should be modified horizontally or vertically depending on the type of panorama. Hence, using a tripod gives you better results. Tripods that have angle markings on them help you further to get the shots equally spaced. For example if I want to capture a 200 degree view of the scene and I need to take 10 shots for sufficient overlap based on the lens I am using, I would take a shot every 20 degrees.

If you don’t have a tripod (most of us don’t have one around all the time) you can ensure overlap using objects in the frame as guides such as mountains, boulders, rivers, buildings, etc. In such cases, take as many shots as possible to divide your view, ensure that your body stays firmly planted with the height of the camera in relation to the ground remains unchanged. For horizontal panoramas use your hip and upper body only to change the angle of the shot keeping your hands as close to your body as possible.

Putting it all together:

Below is the workflow that I usually follow:

  • Apply uniform White Balance, Contrast and Exposure changes in a RAW Processing software such as Lightroom. In the case of Jpegs – apply whatever post processing changes you want uniformly on all the frames
  • Open Photoshop. Navigate to menu – File : Automate : Photomerge
  • In the options set Layout to Automatic (Photoshop brains are really good… let it do the work for you). Ensure you have ‘Blend Images Together’ checked.
  • Click Browse and navigate to the folder that contains the individual shots and select the files. That’s it – hit OK and let Photoshop do it’s magic.
  • If a panorama is clicked well, you need not do anything else as photoshop will get it right 98% of the times. In case it doesn’t you might need to go into some layers and modify the masks subtly by using the brush tool.
  • Clean up the image by zooming in to observe any noticeable blend lines or errors and correct them using either the Clone-Stamp Tool or the CS5 content-aware fill feature (Make a selection of the problem area and hit Shift-Backspace brings up the fill options window – select content-aware and set blend mode to normal)
  • Cropping the image: The final step is to crop the image eliminating the white areas that have no image data.

Finally, Viewing a Panorama:

I believe that our small computer screens (even the biggest ones) are incapable of displaying a panorama as it’s meant to be. A Panorama is best viewed printed, to a size that immerses the viewer in the situation. If a computer screen is your only option, stay away from viewing it in the fit-to-screen mode as that makes everything too small and insignificant. Instead view it full-screen with the image filling the screen and scroll through the scene vertically or horizontally depending on the type of panorama to reveal the magnificent details you have managed to capture.

I hope this post helps you with your panoramas.

I will leave you with some that I recently clicked on my trip to Ireland – they are not the most perfect or technically sound – all clicked without a tripod. But these shots helped me realize my mistakes and helped me improve.

Slea Head Drive, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland (Click for Larger View)

Cean Tra, Dingle, Ireland (Click for Larger View)

Conor Pass, Dingle, Ireland (Click for Larger View)

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8 thoughts on “Making Great Panoramas

  1. Very Well Put post. I would point of that locking the focus point might be problematic compared to just manually setting the focus. However I would be more worried about metering, using Aperture mode is absolutely right. What do you recommend for an Fstop? F11-22? Where in there?

    • Hi Tobias,
      Glad you liked the post. I would say the f-stop value would depend on the situation. For a landscape I would use a smaller aperture somewhere around f/8-f/16. I would also keep a close eye on the shutter speed if I plan to shoot something handheld or if there was some sort of moving object in the frame.

      regards,
      Sunil.

  2. I love the way you have explained it in simple language. It actually makes me want to try my hand at shooting panoramas.

  3. I like your Conor Pass panorama- great work. Did you have to do a lot of post-processing to get so much detail in both the sky and foreground? I also take a lot of panoramas because I often feel as though a single shot does not capture the feeling in a landscape- you should look on my website at LukeParsonsPhoto.com.

    • thanks Luke… I did some basic recovery and exposure tweaking in Lightroom for that particular shot… but yeah i do feel that often for landscapes multiple exposures are needed to capture what you are seeing more realistically… to get details in both the sky, the sea and the land… you could also use a graduated neutral density filter instead of taking multiple shots…

      regards,
      Sunil.

  4. hi.. very good informative review.. does the same thing apply when u r making 36 degree spherical panoramas.. i have tried a couple of them .. but always end up having a hole in the sky..

    • yes you can use the same method for making 360 degree spherical panoramas.. in that case you would need to probably click 3 rows of images to ensure you cover 180 degrees vertically and 360 horizontally. In photoshop you would probably need to stitch each of the rows separately and then merge them vertically after performing crops to remove the transparent bits (in case photomerge gets it wrong when you try all images at once)… the key is to maintain good overlap vertically and horizontally between the shots… a wide angle lens helps as it covers more ground

  5. Really nice post… u hv explained it so well and in such a simple language
    ur posrt makes feel like giving a try to the panoramic effect… :) :)

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