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21 February 2012

Shooting Panoramas

written by: Don

Panoramas are great for capturing breathtaking sceneries, e.g. mountain-scapes but also urban images. With the many easy-to-use automated tools out there, you will soon start to wonder why you are not taking pano's all the time!


Figure 1: Skyline of Rio
Panasonic Lumix FZ38
f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 80

Intro

How often did you walk up to a landscape scene or a mountain summit, or even to a city harbour, and thought: "this is such a fantastic view!" I would imagine this happens often enough, and most of the time, this is because the field of view is so grand and wide that this gives us a sense of freedom.

To capture this feeling in pretty difficult when you are confined to just a 4:3 frame of a regular photo, because that is nowhere near the natural wide-angle of our vision. Luckily, panoramic shots solve just that problem.

In the old days of analogue camera, making panoramic images is a very tough job, if not impossible - not only because of the shooting, but also because of the stitching afterwards. Nowadays, however, unknown to surprisingly lot of people, there are tons of automatic stitching softwares out there that does a fantastic job for you, so as long as you get your shots right, you are bound for glory. So let's get cracking.

Equipment

  • A camera with a fully manual mode of operation
  • Ideally a tripod (optional for day time)

A few words on the tripod: while it is always recommendable to use a tripod, you will often find that handholding your camera is perfectly fine as long as you are shooting in broad daylight (and strangely, most panos are shot in broad daylight, probably because that is what induces this feeling of liberty in us). Your shutter speed will need to be high, i.e. shorter than, say, 1/30sec. I for my part have done most of my panos hand-holding the camera. Nighttime panos will require a tripod, nonetheless.

Technically speaking, using a tripod does not give the merging software any real benefit over handholding. For pictures to align perfectly, you will need to rotate the camera around the nodal point of the lens, and not around the tripods axis - and definitely not around your own hip. So, it is fair to say that the quality of alignment is not improved by using a tripod. Obviously, all the other benefits of a tripod still stand, particularly in terms of the sharpness.

Composition

Panoramas live off the grandeur of the scene, so all you need to make sure is that the scene is interesting. It could be a city skyline or a mountain-scape, a lake or a waterfall, anything you fancy. Often enough, you do not even need to worry about foreground and middle-ground, because the width of the image will compensate for their absence. In fact, a foreground object may distract the viewer from taking in the width of the image, but confine his attention to a corner at the front instead, and that is really not what we want to achieve here.


Figure 2: The Southbank, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, UK
Canon EOS 550D, Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
f/11.0, 2.5s, ISO 100

So before you shoot, there are just a couple of things you should pay attention to:

  • Make sure that there aren't any major moving objects traversing the scene (e.g. a boat or a bus), or you might find it reappearing several times in your final image.
  • Be aware of the horizon, compose your picture in a way that the horizon runs along the upper or the lower 1/3 line. This rule forces you to decide whether you want to emphasis the ground or the sky. In other words: never put the horizon into the middle of the frame, unless you really really want to use this as a composition feature. (This rule actually applies to all landscape photos, not just to panos.)

Camera Settings

The notion of panoramas is to shoot several pictures that you can stitch together seamlessly afterwards. Obviously, you will have to make sure that the camera has the identical setting in all the departments for every single shot - so manual mode is the way to go. Anything that carries the word 'auto' is a no-go. The following list should be taken as recommendations that apply to most cases. There are some special situations where you might have to try something else, and an example is given later.

Aperture: The aperture should be in the medium range, around f/8 to f/11, to give you a good depth of field (i.e. to have sharpness across a good portion of the depth of the image).

Shutter Speed: There is no general rule for the shutter speed per-se that would apply to all panos. Just like with any other regular shots, you have to pay attention to the brightest and darkest parts in the scene and expose accordingly. The difference here is that the brightest and the darkest parts are most probably not in the same frame. In fact, they are rarely in the first frame. So don't determine your setting based on a single section of the pan, always check the entire pan before you start shooting. Simply make sure that you are using the same shutter speed for all the shots.

ISO Speed: As always, try to keep the ISO speed as low as possible, preferably ISO 80 or ISO 100 depending on your camera, in order to minimise colour noise.

Focus: Again, you have to make sure that the focus remains the same across the entire pano, so auto-focus is a no-go. However, you can use it just before you start to shoot. Just focus on your main object in the pano and then switch to manual focus to prevent your camera from re-focusing.

White Balance: Just like the other settings, make sure that you do not use auto white-balance (AWB), or you might have trouble realigning your colours afterwards. Ideally, you should set the correct white balance manually on the spot before shooting. However, as long as you are shooting in RAW format, you can get away by using any built-in WB setting other than AWB and correct the colours afterwards during post-processing.


Figure 3: Skyline of Hong Kong
Canon EOS 550D, Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
f/3.5, 0.8s, ISO 400

Special cases: There are instances where you might have to deviate from these recommended settings. An example is given in Figure 3, showing a night-time skyline of Hong Kong taken on the harbour promenade. Here, I have chosen a very wide aperture of f/3.5 (and a slightly higher ISO speed 400) to keep the shutter speed moderately fast (0.8s). This was because I wanted to keep most movements in the scene frozen and sharp, e.g. the water surface, the clouds, but most of all the rocking ship on the right. The wide-open aperture only works in this case because there is nothing in the foreground.

Obviously, there are many other situations where part of the above list may not apply, so please just take it as a guidance, not as set in stone.


Figure 4: vertical panorama of the interior of Granada Cathedral
Canon EOS 550D, Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
f/5.6, 1/20s, ISO 3200

Execution

Once you have verified that the chosen setting will give you an evenly exposed pano (i.e. across the entire pan), you can start shooting from one end to another. There are no rules which way to pan, you can go from left to right or right to left, the choice is yours. In fact, you can also pan vertically. While this type of panos are less common, they can give you some very interesting images, e.g. when shooting the interior of a cathedral with the typically high arches. I have included an example here in Figure 4. The pan reaches from the benches all the way up to the dome. Again, I had to handhold because a tripod was not allowed inside the cathedral. Given the dim light typical for the inside of a church, I chose a very high ISO speed and a fairly wide aperture to achieve short exposures. 1/20s was just short enough here because of the image stabiliser of the lens I have used.

The only rule you have to keep in mind while panning is that you have to make sure there is enough overlap between each frame for the computer to work with later. Generally speaking, having roughly 1/3 of the frame overlapping is sufficient. So when you pan from left to right, try to find something you can easily recognise close to the right side 1/3-line, say, a tree. Once you have shot the first frame, pan to the right just so much that the tree is now on the left edge of your next frame. I have included an example in Figure 5-a, where the dotted lines mark out the overlapping area. The dotted line in the left image is essentially the left edge of the centre image. Repeat this process until you have finished panning.


Figure 5-a: Original images taken for a panoramic shot, Zillertal, Austria


Figure 5-b: Final panoramic image of Zillertal after photomerge and post-processing
Canon EOS 550D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM
f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO 100

Post-Processing

Once you have imported the individual photos onto your computer, you can go ahead and merge the photos with any software you like. There are many out there, e.g. AutoStitch or DoubleTake. The list is endless and certainly constantly evolving. Any list provided here would be outdated pretty soon, so I won't even try to but ask you to google for it instead.

Since Photoshop is the most common (and I guess it's safe to say that it is also the most recognised) photo-editing software, I will provide a very short guide on its use here:

  1. select File > Automate > Photomerge... from the menu.
  2. select all the source photos, either by choosing the files individually or by choosing an entire folder.
  3. select a layout option. I always found that the cylindrical option provides the best results, as it provides the least amount of distortion towards the outer ends of the pan. Perspective, in contrast, produces a pano that kind of resembles the normal human field of vision, in which the centre of the image is in focus but the outboard sections are more distorted. I rarely find the outcome convincing.
  4. you can generally leave all other settings on their default values or experiment with them.
  5. once ready, click OK and wait a while, and voilą!
  6. once Photoshop is done, before you crop anything away, take a good look at the horizon and make sure that it is flat. Rotate the image if necessary by drawing a line along the horizon with the ruler tool, then use Image > Image Rotation > Arbitrary... from the menu. The angle of rotation should have been automatically entered by the ruler tool, just click OK.
  7. crop your image to the desired frame using the crop tool.
  8. you can now save the image and either reopen using Camera Raw or use Photoshop directly for any post-processing work.

So that's it! It really isn't difficult. All you need to remember is to switch everything to manual mode, and you can't go wrong. If you have any thoughts on this guide, please leave me your feedback below. Happy shooting!

 

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