Panoramic photographs are my favorite way of expressing my photographic vision because this is how I tend to see the world – in these long, horizontal panoramic strips of scenery. There are so many places that I visit where I have a broad vista in front of me and there’s no way to really express the awe-inspiring beauty well in a standard, “small” rectangle of an image. I frequently use a wide-angle lens in my work, but I often get more sky or background or foreground in my image than I really want. While I could take my wide-angle images and crop them to create a panoramic image, the final image size is still relatively small and I (and my clients) can’t print it to such a size that it creates the impression that I (and we) want.
Many simple digital and cell phone cameras have a sweep panoramic mode built into them and they can create some truly remarkable photographs! My older son has outdone me on more than a few occasions with his phone while I’m using my digital camera. But, he isn’t able to print a great big photograph, so that’s the benefit of my approach.
A panoramic image is, by definition, a picture that has a minimum dimensional ratio of at least three to one (3:1). That is, the width is at least three times the height. Thus, for example, for a 36” wide image to be considered panoramic, then it’s maximum height would be ~12” and it could be less than 12”. When I first started creating panoramic photographs, I used a Fuji 617 film camera and the negatives that this camera created were 6 cm tall and 17 cm wide (yes, not quite 3:1). That camera was a bit of a bear with which to work as it was large, moderately heavy and slightly unwieldy. That camera also limited me to that 3:1 ratio and it wasn’t readily possible to make a wider panoramic image. I sold this camera several years ago because it became easier, more flexible and cheaper to create panoramic images with my digital cameras, but there was a learning curve involved. I hope that this tutorial will help you to reduce your learning curve.
First of all, there are several different ways to go about this process. I’ll try to be flexible in my description, but I’ve honed my process to be most successful with my workflow. That is, from beginning to end, all of these steps contribute to my creation of a digital panoramic photograph. The process that I’m going to describe requires that you:
- are competent user of a DSLR;
- have a tripod; and,
- have at least a modest understanding of Photoshop.
While it may well be possible to use my approach without using Photoshop, I can’t describe those steps because I am not familiar with them. For example, there are other photography software programs available that can be used to create panoramic images (e.g., PTGUI, AutoStitch), but I’m not sufficiently familiar with them to be of much help to you. The camera process that I describe may work well for you if you modify it to fit with your photography software editing process.
My typical equipment starting point is my digital camera and my tripod. My second consideration is my lens choice, which also is extremely important. My primary lens for making panoramic photographs is a wide-angle lens. My main digital camera for panoramic photos is a Pentax 645D, and I like to use an older Pentax 67 55mm f/4 lens. This lens is equivalent to about a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera, so it’s considered a moderate wide-angle lens. It’s also one of my sharpest lenses. Another consideration here is that since this is a wide-angle lens it is easier for me to hand-hold the camera and shoot decent images (but not always). I also use an even wider angle lens (Pentax 645 35mm, equivalent to a 21 mm lens), but I get more image distortion if I use this lens. I also like to use normal and telephoto lenses for subjects that are further away, but these lenses of have the problem of shaking if not handled well, which results in blurred frames that make for an unusable panoramic photograph.
Starting with the camera, lens and tripod, my shooting process is pretty basic – the K.I.S.S. principal in action. I’ll first evaluate my situation with my eyes to determine what I think should be the left and right margins of the subject for my panoramic photo. I might also heft my camera and look through the view finder to get a sense of what the camera will see with that particularly lens and move the camera from left to right on my expected scene. Composition is as important with a panoramic photograph as it is with any photograph. At this stage, I’m also checking the shutter speed on my camera so that I can consider how the shutter speed will affect my image, and whether I can shoot the scene handheld. Usually, though, I have my tripod available and will use it. Through experience (i.e., mistakes, rushing myself), I know that I’m less likely to create a decent photograph of any kind if I hand hold my camera. And, I’ll level my camera in my hands or on the tripod.
Camera Orientation: Here’s one of my specific issues – I shoot the large majority of my panoramic photographs with my camera in a vertical orientation. I do this because it gives the greatest possible height in my final image since that is a limiting factor. Why? The great majority of my panoramic photographs are crafted from a single row of individual images. Second, I can always shoot as many photographs as I want from left to right to create my panorama, but the height of my panorama is limited to the angle of view of my particular lens. The exception to this is if my lens is unable to take in everything that I want and then I’ll shoot two or three rows of images. And in these situations, I know that the likelihood of creating a successful panoramic image is greatly reduced – more variables and chances of error are being introduced.
Frame Overlapping: The other major issue that has to be considered at this point is how I overlap my individual images to create a decent final image. There are a few schools of thought on this issue, but the minimum overlap that is usually suggested is at least 25%. If I’m shooting from left to right, then my second frame overlaps my first frame by at least 25%, and each subsequent frame you do similarly. In this approach you’re only capturing about half of the frame with the subject, while the left and right quarters represent the overlap. (You may “click” on the following image to for a larger view in a separate window.)
In practice, though, I overlap my frames by at least 50% and sometimes more. With digital cameras and cards, I have a practically unlimited supply of “film.” And, from experience, I know that some of my individual frames might not work. There might be evidence camera shake (blur) in the photo if I’m hand holding and I’ve too frequently shaken my camera even when it’s on my tripod. The more that I overlap my frames, then the better chance that I can eliminate a bad frame(s) and still create a decent panorama. Most of my panoramas are created with a minimum of eight individual frames in a single row, and I commonly create panoramas from twenty and thirty frames. My limiting factor in the number of frames is the slow write speed of my camera to the memory card (after about fifteen frames my memory buffer is overwhelmed) and the fact that really wide, narrow panoramic photographs (e.g., 10:1 width to height ratio) are less appealing to me than 3:1 to 6:1 panoramas.
So, that’s the basic, straight-forward approach. Sounds easy, right? It’s not.
Movement/Motion: One problem with blending multiple images into a single final image is how subjects might move between those individual frames – people walking, cars moving, trees and flowers blowing. In those situations, it’s hit and miss. I usually try to gauge the “flow” of objects in my scene and work to photograph the scene in the opposite direction so that I know that something moving in or through the scene is captured at least once in the middle of a frame. So, if people are mostly walking from left to right in my scene, I’m more likely to shoot my scene from right to left so that an individual is less likely to appear in subsequent frames. Or, if I’m shooting a landscape on a windy day (not an ideal situation) and there’s a tree in a particular part of the scene, then I’ll make certain that that tree is centered in at least one frame. Panoramic scenes with movement are not easy to successfully create, but it is possible. I have successfully created panoramic photographs that involve waves and moving water at the shore, but it’s not common. You have to experiment to understand the limits of your technique so that you know when and where to best use it.
Light Variation: Another major issue with creating panoramic images is how light changes across your scene. A scene that encompasses 90 to 180 degrees of your field of view can have a significant variation in the amount of light from one edge to the other. If you’ve used a wide-angle lens then you should have experienced this issue. With a panoramic photograph, light variation/gradation can be further magnified. This is not an impossible situation with which to work, but it does take some care and practice to overcome it.
To accommodate light variability across your scene, you need to wisely choose your camera mode. Most digital panoramic photo tutorials will recommend that you shoot in manual mode (i.e., strictly setting the aperture and shutter speed and leaving them set). In this approach, I try to choose a middle area of my subject and use my camera’s light meter to determine the shutter speed. (If I have my hand-held light meter available, then I prefer to use it, but I seldom carry it any more.) From there, I’ll manually set my aperture and shutter speed, and then shoot all of my frames across my panorama with the same manual setting. This approach works, but it takes more thinking and patience, and I’m not convinced that it’s more effective. You can still see significant light variation across your final image that will need to be fixed in Photoshop with grad filters.
My typical approach is to set my camera mode to aperture priority and then let the chips fall where they may. There is a method to this madness, though. First, it’s easy – K.I.S.S. Shooting in aperture priority mode my shutter speed is likely to change across the frames and scene, and I will see some light variation across my individual frames. However, since I’m overlapping my frames by quite a bit, I feel that the light variation is less noticeable in my final panoramic photograph. This is because in the Photoshop Photomerge stage (see Part II of this tutorial), Photoshop is choosing relatively narrow sections of each frame, so the light levels across all of the frames is fairly consistent.
Polarizers: If you’d like to intentionally introduce light variation and “banding” into a panoramic photograph then use a polarizer, particularly on a wide-angle lens. Polarizing filters can be used to create a panoramic photograph, but they must be carefully and judiciously used. If you create your digital panorama with a wide-angle lens, then using a polarizing filter will greatly reduce the likelihood of obtaining a satisfactory final image. A polarizing filter on a wide-angle lens nearly always yields significant light variation across the frame, particularly if you’re photographing a clear sky. It’s best to NOT use a polarizing filter with a wide-angle lens when you’re creating digital panoramas. It is possible to use a polarizing filter with normal and telephoto lenses, especially if you overlap your frames by more than the minimum and the subject represents a relatively small portion of your normal frame of view. But, using a polarizer is one more way to reduce the likelihood of creating a satisfactory digital panorama. Thus, I rarely will use a polarizer on my wide-angle panoramas and may use a polarizer with my normal and telephoto panoramas.
Levelers and other tripod attachments: If you have experience creating panoramic images or have performed some research on the issue, then you’ll likely notice that I’m not using special adapters on my tripod to level my camera or keep it from creating an arcing image. Again, K.I.S.S. and the whole of my work flow. However, if you aren’t going to employ the whole of my panoramic workflow with Photoshop, then these devices may well be worth it to you. You’ll just have to keep reading to make that decision.
So, there you have it – my initial camera workflow for creating a digital panoramic photograph. In summary:
- Keep it simple;
- Wide-angle lens to telephoto lens;
- Vertical camera;
- Lots of overlap; and,
- Aperture Priority.
In the second part of this tutorial, I take you through my steps with Photoshop to yield the final digital panorama, so I hope that you’ll keep reading.
‘Til next time, this is 43 N MSN/Illuminata signing off…