Panoramas – How to and More!
Ever get the urge to just throw your arms around a scene in a great big bear-hug and try to stuff it into your camera as if it were a packing crate? When you are literally surrounded by so much beautiful imagery that no single frame can capture it all. From this overwhelming need to bring your audience directly to where you’re standing and convey to them the complete picture comes: the panorama. Mountain ranges, urban plazas, wide interiors, and many other scenes lend themselves to being photographed in panoramic style. Follow the rules and your panoramic segments will fall into place like a winning game of solitaire. However, if you forget or start cutting corners, be warned: you’re gonna have a bad time.
While there is no hard-set rule on how to shoot a panorama, there are lots of little rules which you should follow to get your final image looking its best and to make your life easier while putting it all together. What I’ve done is broken these rules down into a simple checklist which you can consult before attempting to shoot your panorama and kept the rest as a list of good to have whenever possible tips.
The basic theory behind shooting a panorama is simple, you want to capture several images while maintaining identical settings for each, thereby allowing them to be brought together seamlessly later. So auto-anything (exposure, focus, white balance, etc) is out of the question. Here you can either go full manual, or do the following trick: press the shutter halfway down to get auto exposure and autofocus set, then lock these settings in on the manual mode. Before we even get into that, let me preface it with the following: shoot in RAW whenever possible. It will give you greater editing flexibility later on.
- White Balance: Turn off Auto. You can set it manually or use a preset (like daylight, cloudy, etc) but turn off Auto. If you’re shooting in RAW you can still even out the Auto WB setting in post, but why go through the trouble, lock it in while shooting. Failure will result in uneven color casts across your panorama.
- Exposure: Switch to manual and set your shutter speed and aperture settings and keep them set for all the shots in the pano. If you’re unsure, autofocus and read what the camera suggest, then lock it in on manual. Failure will result in bands of light and dark across skies and distinct edges where your photos are stitched together. For aperture changes, failure will result in sections coming in and out of focus across your image.
- ISO: generally this will not fluctuate but if you have an Auto-ISO mode on your camera, make sure to turn it off. So set to an appropriate level and leave it set. Failure will result in changing noise levels but more importantly, will affect exposure (see above).
- Focus: Auto-focus on the subject or set to infinity for landscape photos, then set your camera (or lens) to manual focus. Failure will result in varying sharpness and blur across frames and may make them un-stitchable to your software.
- Orientation: turn your camera sideways to a portrait orientation. You’ll take more shots but you’ll get a greater vertical range in your pano and prevent lens distortion towards the edges. Failure will result in sections inflating across the middle and you having to crop tighter than you would like.
- Overlap: make sure to overlap each frame by 20%-30% to ensure that Photoshop (or other capable software) can then blend the edges together seamlessly. Failure will result in software throwing its hands up in frustration.
- Tripod: I’m gonna let this one straddle both lists because if you’re careful and only shoot a small 2-frame pano without one (more on this later), you might just get away with it. For most other situations, it’s indispensable. Failure will result in misaligned frames and you having to crop out large portions of the scene.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s go over a few more tips which will serve to make you life easier throughout this whole process.
- Tripod: use it and make sure it’s a good one. A cheap or shaky tripod is as good as not having one. If the situation doesn’t allow for one then just plant your feet as firmly as possible and rotate at the hips as you take your pictures.
- Shutter release: if you do use a tripod, a remote or shutter release cable is an indispensable tool. It will save your fingers from having to shake the camera as you press the shutter button. In the absence of either of these, just use a timer, 2 to 5 seconds will do.
- Preview the scene through your viewfinder: I know the scene looks glorious to you but take your camera and pan through it before you set your camera and lock the tripod in. This will give you a better idea of how much your camera will capture in the end.
- Mark your segments: finally, an acceptable reason to stick your finger over the lens! To make your pano frames easier to find later on, mark the start and end by sticking your hand in the frame before and after all the shots (after the manual settings have been locked in).
- Keep your horizon level: even a small tilt in your first frame can skew the entire panorama as you move across the scene. Use a virtual horizon if your camera offers one or get a bubble-level to mount on top of your camera. Otherwise, just do your best to “eye it”, keeping in mind that roads and buildings are often slanted in reference to the actual horizon.
- Work fast: clouds move, light changes, and objects come in and out so no checking Instagram between shots!
If you followed the tips above, you should have a stellar set of images ready to be fed into your computer. If not, the panorama will act like a spurned villain in a bad thriller and oh yes, “you’ll pay.” Now fire up your computer and open your software suite of choice. There are several which work well so I won’t focus on too many specific settings since most will do a pretty good job of aligning the images automatically. I will say this though: in my opinion Photoshop is not the best tool for this. There are many free alternatives which will do the job faster and give you more control over the final outcome. But since we are all familiar with it, let me explain.
Open Photoshop. From the file menu, under Automate, and choose Photomerge. Leaving the pano setting on Auto will work 99% of the time and PS also gives you some features like vignette and distortion correction. Leave the “align” setting checked and off you go.
If you’d like to try an alternative, Hugin is a popular tool dedicated solely to panoramas available for Win, Mac, and Linux.
I can also recommend Microsoft Image Composition Editor. For once, MS did something right! It’s free and it’s wonderful (if you’re a Windows user).
There are lots of other tools available for you to try out including plug-ins for GIMP. I can’t possibly try them all so I’d be curious to hear about your experience.
More Panoramic Goodness
So now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about a few more things you can do with a panorama.
This whole time we have been talking about a single-row sweep to cover the entire scene. Sometimes even this won’t be enough to capture everything. When you’re really pressed tight, capture the scenes in several rows panning left-to-right and downward like reading lines on a page. It won’t always be a sweeping landscape that you’ll be shooting. Sometimes to capture a scene where your lens isn’t quite wide enough (like a tall building or a wide object without having room to back up sufficiently) you can shoot a quick 2-frame pano. This is typically where you won’t have a tripod on hand, so heed the above warnings.
Also, this multi-exposure technique gives you a chance to really get creative between frames. You can use a timer and sneak yourself (or multiple selves) into your panorama or capture motion across each frame.
Finally, if all else fails, just fake it by cropping down a normal landscape.
So now the world is your oyster, go out there and remember what you’ve learned.