Panoramas- How Big Do You Want to Go?

August 6, 2018

By: Marian Wyse, Creve Coeur, MO

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Iceland, Creve Coeur Camera trip 2018

From the earliest days of photography panoramic images have captured sweeping landscapes, glittering cities, and soaring architecture. Modern digital cameras and editing software make the creation of even large, complex panoramas a relatively painless process.

So, what exactly is a panoramic photograph? Standard photographs are usually produced with a length/width, or aspect ratio, of 2:3. Panoramic photographs combine several, or even hundreds of overlapped standard photographs into a single image, usually with an aspect ratio greater than 1:2, and a very wide field of view. They are usually shot in the landscape, or horizontal format, but are just as effective in portrait orientation [this is especially useful when shooting waterfalls or tall buildings].

Advantages to this merging of many images are:

  1. Enhanced field of view in a final, single image. Panoramas can include extremely large areas of a scene, well beyond the capabilities of wide-angle lenses.
  2. Exceptionally detailed images. The information contained in each component photograph is retained in the final panoramic image. These merged images can commonly be printed in much larger sizes than can single photographs from the same camera.
  3. Equipment requirements are modest. Most panoramas can be produced with a basic camera and standard lens. A sturdy tripod is very helpful, but not absolutely necessary.
New York City skyline, Creve Coeur Camera trip 2017

Production of panoramic images of large, static, primarily distant scenes involves the following basic procedure:

  • Mount the camera on a solid, carefully leveled tripod, if available. The camera will need to remain level as it rotates through the set of images, or the resulting merge will slope down, with substantial image loss through cropping. If no tripod is available, and lighting is sufficient, simply shoot as level a sweep as possible.
  • Mount or hold the camera at right angles to the direction of movement – i.e. if this is to be a horizontal panorama, the camera should rotate from a vertical, or portrait position to maximize the scene coverage.
  • Utilize a standard [i.e. 40-80mm full frame equivalent] lens if possible. Avoid filters.

  • Establish an averaged focus point [usually about a third of the way into the scene].
  • Set a smallish aperture of about f/8 or f/11 [this ensures that the entire scene will remain in focus].
  • Set a shutter speed that exposes the whole scene well without over-exposing the highlights.
  • Utilize the lowest ISO possible for the light available.
  • Manually set a white balance.

All of these settings should remain unchanged throughout the exposures, to maintain the seamless appearance of a single image in the final panorama. Auto anything is usually bad news for panoramic shooting – it is a full manual operation.

Begin shooting the component images, leaving a generous amount of space at each edge for later cropping. Because these images will ultimately be digitally stitched together, with software recognizing matching components, they should be overlapped by at least 30%. If the scene is dynamic, such as during sunrises or sunsets, you will need to take the set of images as quickly as possible, to maintain an even appearance.

If the lack of time and/or patience precludes following the above set of guidelines, many cameras and phones incorporate excellent in-body panoramic capabilities.

St. Cecelia Church, Creve Coeur Camera trip 2018

Scenes with significant foreground components, especially those with straight edges, such as architectural interiors or nearby fences in landscapes, may require specialized equipment to produce ideal stitched panoramic images. This is due to the optical effect of parallax, in which objects appear to be in different positions when viewed from different angles. As a sensor is rotated to view various parts of a scene, closer items will shift apparent position within the group of images. This can result in random pieces of the item floating weirdly around in the final panorama, and can be very difficult to repair. To avoid this issue, the camera must be mounted on a rail that adjusts the camera position to eliminate the parallax effect, or a “shift” type lens can be used. [The above 6-image pano was taken with an old, adapted shift lens]. In the absence of this specialized equipment, it is best to maintain as great a distance as feasible from prominent foreground items when shooting panoramas.

An additional complication in shooting panoramas is subject movement. A panorama of, say, a crowded, busy room can result in multiple poorly stitched areas where people had moved between shots within the overlapped parts of the image. To avoid this, objects in motion should be isolated as much as possible near the center of a single frame, avoiding the 30% overlapped areas on both sides. That said, modern stitching software can sometimes overcome this issue surprisingly well.

(Monument Valley, Creve Coeur Camera trip 2016)

After the component images are taken, they must be stitched together utilizing available software. Software choices include Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as free programs such as Hugin and Microsoft ICE. These programs will merge your images into a single large [sometimes really, really large] image file, and will usually let you adjust some of the overall geometry of the final image. You then will crop and process the image as you would a single photograph. The final image will have the drama, impact, and fine detail that has enchanted photographers for generations, and be ready to grace your wall.