First of all, what is a panorama?
Per Wikipedia, a panorama (formed from Greek πᾶν "all" + ὅραμα "sight") is any wide-angle view or representation of a physical space, whether in painting, drawing, photography, film/video, or a three-dimensional model.
Panoramic photography is one of my favorite 'formats'.
I love panoramic photography because it allows me to display a broader, but still focused, view of the beautiful world around me. Now, as a landscape photographer working primarily in Alaska, that is the subject matter you'll find included in this post. However, the tools and techniques that I use can easily be adjusted to practically any panoramic photography - be it urban cityscapes, portraiture, or commercial work.
In Alaska, we have some exceptional landscapes. Because of how extraordinarily huge our state is, and how limited the road access is (at least in most areas), you can find yourself at a decent distance to many of our landscape subjects. Many times, a 'traditional' framing/composition (3:2 ratio on a digital slr sensor) works just fine. However, the standard format can be very restrictive. Especially with a wide angle lens, photographing mountains. You must either find a complimentary foreground, or a dramatic sky that fills the upper portion of the frame. As a side affect, the mountains appear shrunk or minimized in the process - and they don't get the visual prominence that they deserve.
Several years ago, when the c-41 process exploded in popularity and 1-hour color print labs opened across the country, it was still difficult to find a frame to display your 4x6 inch prints. 8x10 or 11x14-inch frames were all the rage - primarily because that was the format that portrait photographers used. With the advent of digital printmaking - whether you print at home or use a custom lab - photographers are no longer restricted by standard formats.
But art (nor a scene) should not be constrained by such pesky things as formats or ratios. Or bulk frame designers.
Your photograph should only be constrained by two factors: the composition that you desire, and your imagination.
Panoramic photographs can really stand out from the crowd, and most likely you can create them without buying any additional equipment. That being said, there is some fantastic equipment available that makes it much easier. In this tutorial, I'll run you through the kit that I use.
First up - my kit:
- Mine is a Gitzo carbon fiber, with no center column and independently adjustable legs. Brand is really not important, but I do recommend a tripod with independent legs (no attachment points to a center column). Tripod flexibility is key, and not only for panoramic photography.
- Acratech Ultimate Ball Head. I can't recommend a ball head highly enough. There are several brands available. In hindsight, my 'Ultimate Ball Head'... well, it isn't so 'ultimate'. I recently purchased my wife an Induro BHL-2 ball head, and I am extremely impressed with the build quality, durability, and easy of use. If Jena doesn't watch it closely, I may 'borrow' it...
- Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp & Dovetail Mount. The stuff that dreams are made of. No. Seriously. This thing has made my life so much easier. It's like butter, on top of your tripod. No. Seriously. Ps - I no longer use the dovetail mount. It is designed to be attached to the base of the Panning Clamp. Then the whole thing can be slid onto any Arca-Swiss quick release system. After getting tired of having to fish the panning clamp out of my pack, and clamp it on my quick release before shooting a pano, I just decided to remove the standard qr clamp and replace it (full time) with the Panning Clamp. Butter, I say!
Disclaimer: I have no financial relationship or sponsorship with any of the companies in this tutorial - I just use what I use. Either because it works perfectly (Panning Clamp), or because I can't currently justify changing my system ('Ultimate' Ball Head). It works. Just...
Selecting Your Scene & Composing You Panoramic
Not every scene works as a panoramic. Truth be told, very few do. Since I can't travel with you every time you are photographing, you'll have to decide what scene's work best for your panoramic photography. We are working on cloning technology, despite even my parent's (and wife's) pleadings...
Panoramic photographs typically need to have a strong visual element (or several) throughout the entire composition. Like most rules, this can be broken - but I have found that my strongest panoramic images succeed more frequently when the subject fills (or nearly fills) the frame. That's not to say that there shouldn't be a main point of interest, something that pulls it all together and draws the viewers eyes to a point. As with any image, this "visual flow" is instrumental for keeping our eyes moving within a composition. The moment they stop, the visual interaction also stops, and the visual evaluation begins. In the interaction stage, the viewer's eyes are still gathering data, learning more about that image, and investigating each section of the image. The longer you can keep the viewer doing this, the longer you hold their attention. As soon as the evaluation begins, they are judging the entirety of the piece, and are ready to move on. All images reach this stage of viewing at some point in time (granted this act typically takes less than a few seconds, if that), but if the evaluation begins too soon, the viewer likely missed pieces, sections, details in the image that they wouldn't have otherwise. 'Otherwise' being a slight change in composition.
For my panoramic work, I typically prefer grand landscapes. It is imperative that you start with a level surface. When I started doing panoramic, I started the same way that most do. I didn't have any special panoramic equipment, just a ball head atop my tripod. I also had a Hama Double Bubble spirit level that I used for much of my landscape photography. The problem is, while this setup works great for single image ('traditional') photography, it tends to complicate panoramic (multi-image) photography. It can be very difficult to align successive frames accurately, and quickly. Speed does matter in panoramic work, light changes & subjects move (well... not mountains, but the clouds do!). If there is too much movement between frames (if the clouds drift too much, or if the lighting change is too dramatic), it can make aligning the images (in post) difficult, if not impossible.
We'll start here, because it involves no additional accessories. If you have a hot-shoe mounted bubble level (or a camera with a built in electronic leveling device), it can help. I'm a firm believer that knowing something is not enough, if there is a 'why' factor to that knowledge, it elevates your knowledge and allows you to think more critically and creatively. Let's break it down.
- Choose a lens & focal length that covers the VERTICAL aspect of what you want to cover. You won't be shooting your horizontal panoramic with a horizontal camera. Also, do NOT use a polarizer. Be careful to not choose a lens that is too wide - it will distort the edges of each photograph, and make it very difficult to align your shots or for your pano software to merge them. I typically only use 50mm or longer for focal lengths.
- Why? By using your camera in a vertical position as you shoot horizontal panoramas, you increase the overall resolution (detail) of each segment of your pano, and therefore the resolution of the entire panoramic. Example: say your sensor is 4000 x 6000 pixels. If you shoot your panoramic with the camera in a horizontal position, your finished panoramic will be (at most) 4000 pixels tall. However, if you position the camera vertically, your pano has the potential of being 6000 pixels tall. That's a 150% increase in resolution.
- Why no polarizer? Because polarizers, by nature, polarize differently as the angle from the sun changes. As you pan your camera the polarization effect will change, and create uneven skies (or reflections), making the panoramic stitching portion very unnatural.
- Choose a slightly wider angle focal length than normal. Just a little bit. Try not to 'crowd' your subject matter with the edge of the frame.
- Why? Because alignment is never perfect (even with specialized panoramic photography equipment). So you need some 'wiggle room' for cropping when you are processing your panoramic. Using a slightly wider lens (and I mean only slightly) will give you that added space to allow for cropping.
- Mount your camera (vertically) on your tripod head & level your camera as best as possible. The best way to do this (if you do not own panoramic leveling equipment) is to use your camera's internal electronic leveling tool (if it has one) or a bubble level attached to your hot shoe. We'll go over another accessory (further in this article) that makes this much easier.
- Why? Images that are (even slightly) poorly leveled make proper alignment of the panoramic image very difficult. You would need to crop even further into the panorama, which could potentially compromise your overall composition, and would definitely decrease the overall resolution of the image.
- Compose your panorama. Once your camera is level, lock your tripod head knobs. Leave the panning knob just loose enough so you can pan your camera, but not so loose that the camera swings freely from left to right. Then, pan your camera from the left edge of your intended pano to the right edge. Pay close attention to the scene.
- Why? Your eyes do not see in a panoramic format, so they can not crop out all the distractions or intrusions of the scene. Watch the horizon line (visible or not) to make sure that your subject doesn't climb or dive too much, in a way that may be distracting or unsettling in your pano. Be careful to choose a good starting and ending point. Remember that stitched panoramas (this technique) are not restricted to a particular format. A standard 35mm ratio is 3:2 (36 x 24 mm = 3:2). Typically, panoramas are 3:1 ratios, but 2:1, 4:1, or longer can work quite successfully. Also remember - just because you can make it wider, doesn't mean that you should make it wider. Like any successful image, the whole thing must work. Not just a part of it. The length of the pano must have meaning, not just size.
- Use your camera's Live View functionality (if it has it) to verify your exposure throughout the planned pano. Be sure that you are in manual exposure and manual focus modes. Choose an appropriate aperture. For my landscape panoramic images, I typically want as much to be in focus as possible, without dealing with loss of sharpness through diffraction. So my aperture range is usually from f8 to f13. Once you have an exposure chosen, do not adjust it. Focus on one point, usually in the middle of your intended pano. If I am shooting a mountain scene, I set my focus on a major peak in the center of what will be my pano. For my work, that distance is usually at my lenses 'infinity' setting, so everything that far away will be acceptably sharp.
- Why? Manual exposure mode is key. You do not want to change your exposure within a panoramic (unless you are using HDR techniques... but that is for another post), because the images will not blend evenly when in aligned in Photoshop (or your pano software choice). The last thing you want is to have noticeable shifts in exposure in your final panorama. I hear some advise that you should disable your camera's Auto White Balance feature as well, for panos. Since I shoot in RAW format (and thus can be changed in Lightroom), I do not worry about this. If you choose to shoot in JPEG format, setting a fixed white balance is a good idea. I also use the AF-ON button as my autofocus button, rather than the shutter button (through a custom function), on all of my cameras. This allows me to autofocus (if I chose) in Live View, but not refocus each time I hit the shutter button. Manual focus in Live View would work just as well - it is up to you.
- Use a remote release (wired or wireless) or a self-timer.
- Why? Any method of firing your shutter without your hand on the camera offers a steadier platform. Especially with longer duration exposures, you can slightly destabilize your camera by pushing the shutter button with your finger. Let the tripod do its job. I usually prefer the 2" timer because I do not need to dig through my bag to find my cable release/remote release. In fact, I use the 2" timer on almost all of my landscape photography. It gives just enough time for the camera to settle down after I hit the shutter button.
- Starting from the left hand edge of your intended pano, take your first picture. Then pan your camera to the right to shoot the next segment. Be sure to overlap each frame so your panorama software can have enough recognizable points to properly align the photos. Continue this process until you reach the right edge of your intended panorama.
- Why? Overlapping is another key. Some advise that you overlap by 50% - that seems like over-kill to me. I usually overlap about 20%. I just pick a feature near the right edge of my frame (about 20% in from the edge) - like a peak on a mountain, or a tree that stands out - and pan my camera so that object is now 20% in from the left edge of my frame. Rinse & Repeat. You shouldn't need to refocus at all during these successive shots.
- Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
- Why? Because it looks funny, and we all need a laugh from time to time.
So, it can be done.
I did it out of ignorance for several years.
But why suffer?
What is that accessory I mentioned in #3? It is really important if you are going to be doing a lot of panorama photography. I don't leave home without it. Heck, it never leaves my tripod.
A panorama head attachment. As you can see in my kit, I use the Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp. What is so unique about this piece of equipment? First of all, it replaces your Arca-Swiss style quick-release clamp on top of your ball head. MOST ball heads have a threaded screw that attaches to the clamp that physically holds your camera. Mine allows me to unscrew the clamp it came with and thread on the PCL-1. The PCL-1 has a rotating (and locking) base, with degree marks, and it's own built-in bubble level. What this means is that I can (very quickly) set up my tripod - at nearly ANY ungodly angle, in nearly any precarious position (yeah... been there, done that), and quickly level my camera. All I do is unlock the main tension knob on my ball head, and level the panning clamp using the built in bubble level, then lock the main tension knob at that position. Slide the camera on, release the dedicated panning knob (on the PCL-1) and any way I pan my camera is level. Bingo, bango, awesome*. Because the pivot/pan point is not below the ball head, it maintains a totally level pan, regardless of where you turn it. Told you it was like butter!
*What is not so awesome is the President/Owner of Really Right Stuff's political donation history. At the risk of starting another online war, this knowledge WILL BE a factor in my future purchases (or rather, lack thereof) from this company. I'm a (very) happily married man with a beautiful wife. But I believe that everyone should have the right to marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation. I acknowledge that everyone has a right to their own opinion, but when that opinion disenfranchises the rights of others, that is where I draw the line. This is the 21st century. It's time to join it.
An alternative to the RRS PCL-1 is the Sunwayfoto DDH-02 Panning Base. I can not fully endorse this product as I have never used it, but the functionality looks identical.
Now, back to less important things...
It's important to note that you can use this same technique to create 'standard' format images (3:2 ratio) with much higher resolution than a single capture. Here's an example of one that I created recently. With this technique - I can easily print this image at 40" x 60" or larger. This 'pano' (for lack of better word) was created using three vertical images. I have a beautiful (24" x 36") canvas-wrap print of this hanging over our living room couch. The detail is amazing and I look forward to printing it much larger:)
So, now that you've shot your panorama, what is next?
Let's get your images ready to be combined. I'll be using Photoshop Lightroom and Photoshop in this example, but Aperture/Camera RAW/PhaseOne Capture 1 Pro/etc. with your favorite pano creating software will work very similarly.
When I import my images into Lightroom, I find each series of shots that were taken with the intention of creating a pano, and color code them with a color label (usually yellow). This helps me keep things organized. If I have several series of images back to back, I also group them into 'Stacks' to keep each series separate.
Once they are properly organized, I pick one of the images (typically, the primary focal point image, if there is one) and use Lightroom's powerful tools to 'master' that one image. This means I work on the saturation, color temperature, contrast, vibrance, subtle exposure changes, adding digital grad ND filters if necessary, etc. Once this image is exactly the way I want it, I copy those adjustments (by right-clicking on the image: Develop Settings: Copy Settings) then select the other images in that series of images and paste the adjustments (again, right-click on the selected group of images: Develop Settings: Paste Settings). This should guarantee that each image has exactly the same adjustments, so they will all match up when we combine them in the pano software.
The next step is to send them to the panorama stitching software. In my case, I typically use Photoshop (CS6 at this time) and Lightroom's export functionality. I simply select the group of images, right-click on any of the selected images: choose 'Edit In': Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. This will automatically have Lightroom prep the images for me (with adjustments I've made in Lightroom), send the images to Photoshop and initiate the Photomerge import dialog box.
I usually use the 'Auto' setting, and check 'Blend Images Together', 'Vignette Removal', and 'Geometric Distortion Correction'. It works fantastically 99% of the time. Once you click 'OK', Photoshop goes to work, merging and blending the images together to create a single panorama. When it has finished, you will have a multi-layered file. If it looks good to you, 'Flatten' the file (using the menu 'Layer': 'Flatten Image'). At this time, you will likely need to use a crop tool to remove the excess border . You can do this in Photoshop, then save the file and bring the finished pano into Lightroom, or you can bring the uncropped pano into Lightroom, and crop there. It is entirely up to you. I prefer Lightroom's cropping tool over CS6, but it is all preference.
There are lots of ways to make beautiful panoramic images. After over 10 years of creating them digitally, this method is my favorite.
Do you have any questions? Please ask them in the comments.