Sometimes a landscape vista is just too large for one frame or lens to capture. Sometimes you want to capture the scene with more megapixels. When you find yourself in these situations you need to learn how to shoot and stitch a panorama photo. Literally named because you are "panning" through the vista.
So what exactly is a panorama photo, or panoramic photo? Some call it a wide format photo, some call it a photo with a wide field of view. Either way, it usually shows a HUGE area, and it needs to be stitched together with software. Can you imagine printing a pano from film?
This panorama of the Red Rocks in Arches National Park was taken in mid December. It uses 8 images stitched together in Photoshop.
Panoramic photography is a technique of photography, using specialized equipment or software, that captures images with elongated fields of view. It is sometimes known as wide format photography. The term has also been applied to a photograph that is cropped to a relatively wide aspect ratio. While there is no formal division between "wide-angle" and "panoramic" photography, "wide-angle" normally refers to a type of lens, but using this lens type does not necessarily make an image a panorama.
Best Gear For A Panorama
- Digital Camera – as far as the camera itself, any camera should work, as long as the exposure (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) can be locked. Ideally, you want a digital camera that can shoot in full Manual mode (preferably a DSLR).
- Lens – I find zoom lenses to be the most useful for panoramic photography. You can certainly photograph panoramas with fixed/prime lenses, but being able to zoom in and out will give you more options and versatility, especially in difficult conditions where your movements are limited.
- I’ve had good luck with my 24-105mm, 24-70mm, 16-35mm and my 100-400mm lenses
- Lens Filters – Don’t use them. Even if the sky looks like it want’s a Polarizer, it won’t work in a pano.
- Tripod – a tripod REALLY should be used. I’ve done one great pano over the years without a tripod. Make sure you’re able to keep the head level as it swings.
- Also, if you’re really serious, get a nodal slide.
- Cable Release – optional, but recommended for capturing shake-free images.
- Panoramic Setup – a full panoramic setup is ideal for best results, but it is very expensive ($500+). Not recommended for beginners due to complexity of use, but a must-have for professionals that want to sell their images.
- Recommended for professional results, not required for learning the technique.
- Panoramic stitching can produce artifacts and ghosting by default without any adjustments to the panning point of the tripod.
- If fact, the way to achieve perfect panoramic stitching is to make sure that the lens is centered over the panning point of the tripod. The point of the lens that removes the parallax effect is called the entrance pupil or nodal point.
- To achieve perfect panoramic stitching, I recommend using a nodal slide.
- Shoot in “Manual” mode – the most important thing in panoramas is consistency of exposures and consistency of focus. It is imperative that no matter how bright or dark parts of the scene might be, your images must have the same exposure. If your camera allows locking exposure, you can certainly shoot in other modes, but I suggest to shoot in Manual mode to prevent possible accidents. I have screwed up many panoramas, assuming that I properly locked my exposure, after which I started shooting exclusively in Manual mode for panoramas.
“The largest mistake I have made in shooting Panorama photographs is shooting them in Aperture Priority Mode”
- Set your lens to Manual Focus – if you have a DSLR, focus your lens on a distant object (infinity or near infinity), then switch to manual focus. You do not want your camera to change focus every time you take a picture.
- ISO – make sure that “Auto ISO” is turned off and set your ISO to the the setting that is needed for your exposure to be clean and crisp.
- I have shot some as high at 2000 in fast changing light.
- Aperture and Shutter Speed – for panoramic images, you want to have everything in focus. Therefore, make sure that your aperture is set to a good number that will put everything, including any foreground elements, into perfect focus. Depending on your lens focal length, you should set your aperture to at least f/8, preferably f/11 - f16. Once you set the right aperture, set your shutter speed based on the meter reading as explained below.
- Metering – in terms of metering, do not meter off the brightest or darkest areas of the scene, but rather try to find a “sweet middle” and set your shutter speed based on that area for the entire panorama. Take a couple of pictures and make sure that the images are not too overexposed or underexposed for the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.
- A good trick is to use Av Mode to start your metering, then move to Manual.
- Lens Focal Length – ultra wide and wide-angle lenses below 24-28mm typically have heavy distortion and vignetting issues that can make it difficult to properly align and stitch images.
- Again, I’ve had best luck with my standard landscape lens and my 100-400mm for longer panos.
- Shoot in RAW – I always recommend shooting in RAW for best results.
- White Balance – set your White Balance to “Auto” when shooting in RAW and change later, if necessary.
- Also, remember to correct for lens distortion when you bring your images in to LR or ACR.
- Identify the area of coverage.
- The first thing you need to do, is identify what you want to capture. The best candidates for panoramic images are overlooks, i.e. standing on the top of a mountain or hill, or looking down from an elevated area with no near objects. Avoid shooting panoramas with trees, bushes and other objects in the foreground, unless you have special calibrated panoramic equipment. If you are shooting a scene that is far away from you, the panorama will stitch perfectly, because the software will not have to deal with parallax errors.
- Watch for wind and other moving objects. Wind can move tree leaves, grass, water and sand in different directions, which will spoil your panorama. Only shoot in windy conditions when the wind strongly moves everything in one direction.
- Set your tripod on a firm surface and level it. Once it is leveled, mount your camera on the tripod horizontally or vertically and firmly tighten it. Make sure that you can freely pan the camera from one side to another without letting it change any angles. Try to watch for alignment errors by matching the lines in your viewfinder with the horizon.
- Conduct a test run of the pano. Try to do this using “Live View” so as to see what the coverage area will be.
- Set your focus during the Live View swoop!
- Bracket your exposure and then set it in Manual
- Be sure not to crop too much in camera. You want to over compensate a bit. I've overlapped images by as much as 50% to make sure I got all the detail.
- Choose a way to make note of the beginning and end of a pano shot series. I usually shoot a picture of my hand, or cover the lens to get a dark shot.
- Shoot from left to right.
- Repeat (your shooting digital)
- Take care not to touch the zoom function on the lens.
- Now, review one of your shots in camera. Zoom in to see if the detail is in your focus point.
- For horizontal panos, shoot vertical (portrait mode)
- Yes, even for an iPhone!
- Overlap your images
- 25% for simple subjects, 35-50% for intricate
- Ensures stitching integrity