Panoramic images are a striking, but underappreciated, type of photography. In this tutorial we’ll look at what exactly a panorama is, show you some inspirational panoramas and give you some tips to take your own, stunning shots.
What is a Panorama?
Panoramic photography is also known as wide format. In the days of film, you’d have to buy a panoramic camera (I had one of these, it was a small red plastic box with giant film) or spend a long time in the darkroom piecing together your images by overlapping the exposures.
With digital, panoramic photography is so much easier to do, but the definition has become more complex. A picture taken with a wide angle lens is not necessarily a panorama.
Generally, a panorama is considered to be an image with an aspect ratio of 2:1 or larger: so at least twice as long as it is high. The field of view that the image covers is equally as important. To be considered panoramic, it should really show a scene that would be greater than that which we could see with our eyes
To complicate things further, you could technically take an image with a wide angle lens, and then crop it to a panoramic ratio. Today, though, the technique is mostly to take a series of images and then digitally ‘stitch’ them together using editing software, later.
What You Need
With the digital stitching method, pretty much any lens will let you get a great panoramic shot—it doesn’t have to be a wide angle! Experts often consider a sharp prime lens, like the cheap and cheerful 50mm, perfect for this kind of photography. The shorter the focal length, the more of the scene you’ll be able to get, in fewer shots. Conversely, taking more images with a zoom lens, will allow you greater scope for cropping or zooming in later. This has all sorts of exposure and size implications which I’ll touch on below.
If you are really into panoramics, or want to make pictures of moving subjects, there are specialty cameras, like the Hasselblad XPan and the Fuji 617, that are made especially for wide-format photography and produce fantastic results.
- What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses: How to pick the lens that’s right for you and the kind of photographs you want to take.
A tripod isn’t essential but you’ll make your life a little easier if you use one. As well as the stability, which is essential for shake-free shots, you’ll want to make sure it has a flexible head (ideally with a handle) so you can pan easily from left to right.
A shutter release is also helpful to ensure sharp shots, but again, something you can manage without.
Photo Stitching Software
To make your individual shots into one large one, you need software that can do a specific task called stitching. This is where the programme takes recognisable areas of an image called control points in order to understand where they should be joined. For example, if you were taking a cityscape, the software would pick up on a building in one shot, find the same building in the next shot in the sequence and make the join there.
You don’t need something expensive and bespoke to stitch images into a panorama. Many regular image editors like Photoshop and Lightroom already have this function built in. If you don’t have access to these, then there are free stitching programs such as PanoramaPlus and Hugin. These free pieces of software will obviously limit you in some way, whether that’s the size of your image or, in the case of a piece of software I used to use many years ago, plastering a big smiling face watermark over the image.
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- How to Create High Dynamic Range and Panoramic Images in Adobe Lightroom: Learn how to use Lightroom's new HDR and panoramic stitching features.
bridge creates a nice leading line to Big Ben (the clock tower) in the background. It also breaks
up the water; I think without the bridge, this shot would have lost some of its
impact, there’d be too much river. Capturing this shot with a wide angle lens
would have put the main subject (the architecture) far too far away in the
background, and again we’d have seen too much river.
This is a nice example of using a structure like a bridge to pull us into the panorama.The central composition works well here and the sky and the sea are both broken up; one by clouds and the other by a small boat and hut; I think this balances the picture nicely.
Cityscapes are really popular panoramic subjects. This one
has the added complexity of being a long exposure. Creating a long exposure probably
means the blending was trickier than that of a normal panorama and probably
some layering (as well as stictching) has occurred. The contrast between the
warm and light left side to the cool and darker right works really well.
I would guess that this has been post-processed this way rather than using a filter, as the exposure isn’t very long; the water hasn’t smoothed out at all. This could have been taken with a wide lens but the cropping certainly makes this look panoramic.
Again, I’d guess at
this panorama being a cropped wide shot. It’s unlikely the fish would hold
still long enough to have taken multiple shots and it would become even harder
to blend with the busy background. Still, the cropped nature means the
photographer obviously wanted to create the panoramic look and I think this
works well; the added interest being that it is of course, underwater—something we don’t see all that often.
Which Mode to Shoot In?
I recommend you stay away from auto when taking panoramic images. You’ll be capturing several pictures across your scene, so if there are subtle changes in light, you don’t really want the camera compensating for that automatically, or you’ll end up with a hodge-podge of exposures to try and fix together.
Ideally, you’ll choose your settings manually and lock them down. This might not be possible if you are, for example, taking a panorama in which the sky is bright sunshine at one side and has a storm moving in on the other. In that case, you’ll want to make adjustments manually. The idea is to keep as close to the same settings as possible. I’d suggest noting down the changes you’ll need before you start to shoot to make things easier for yourself. If you try and do this while panning you might forget where you were up to or make a mistake, while all the while the conditions could be changing, meaning your earlier images no longer match your later ones as well.
Remember that as well as your settings being manual, you need to turn off auto-focus too. You don’t want the camera changing focus or ‘hunting’ every time you try to take your next shot.
Landscape or Portrait?
Panorama images tend to be (although
aren’t exclusively) landscapes, or scenery. When shooting like this, the tendency
can be to hold your camera in landscape orientation, and why wouldn’t it? It’s what we’re
used to. However, I’ve actually found using the camera in portrait orientation much more
effective. When you’re taking your panorama photos you
need plenty of height as well as the width.
My recommendation is to do two passes using portrait orientation. First get plenty of sky as and the top half of your scene or subject in one pass. Then move down and capture the bottom half of your subject (with a healthy margin of overlap) and the ground. This will give your chosen ‘stitching’ software lots of references when it’s matching up what goes where and you can crop to suit, later.
Remember Your Basics
Remember to set up your shot as you usually would, still thinking about things like composition. It might be harder when you can’t see the representation of your finished image in your viewfinder, but picture the whole scene in your mind. Mentally divide it into grids if it helps and place points of interest logically. You don’t have to be exact; especially if you take more than you need and give yourself room to crop.
Making an image that is deliberately designed to take in more than we usually could with the naked eye can be tricky. The way we see objects from a certain distance can be different depending on the angle: this is called parallax. A perfect example is having my mother in the passenger seat of the car, telling me I’m going too fast because the angle she’s at means the speedometer needle looks different for her than it does for me. If you’re taking a photograph from left to right, photographing an object from two slightly different perspectives then you might end up with an anomaly in your finished image. Try to keep everything at a decent distance to combat this, even if you crop in later.
Movement is a real headache too; you don’t know pain until you’ve tried to stitch together a sea-scape or a grove of trees on a windy day. In short, avoid movement if you can. If you can’t, then try and get the pesky movers in one shot so you’re not stitching two differently positioned items together,
Watch out for image sizes. If you already have a camera that outputs to a large size and you shoot in RAW, joining many of these together can cause your computer to grind to a halt, or take forever for a result. Be prepared to wait a significant time for large-scale panoramas to render. From experience, I find it’s best to have everything else on the computer closed, and just let the software do its thing.
Top Tips to Getting Great Panoramic Shots
- If you’ve been taking a lot of images through the day, can you remember where your panorama starts and ends? Take a picture with the lens cap on or take a picture of your hand as the first and last picture of each shot in the series. It’ll make it easier for you to see which images group together.
- Remember to change your settings to manual: the last thing you want is your camera bumping up the ISO in dark parts of the image, or altering the white balance.
- Shoot portrait for easier, added height. Why not try a vertical panorama?
- If you’re shooting hand-held, stay in the same place and only move the upper part of your body.
- Remember to compose your image in your head before you start to shoot and know exactly what you want.
- Create a Photo Sphere With Your DSLR Camera: With your own DSLR camera, you can create immersive photo spheres just like the ones you see when using Google Maps’ Street View function.
- Shooting Shallow DOF Panoramas: Shooting a shallow DOF panorama gives us a wide perspective to capture the environment, and since we shoot a series of fullsize frames, the shallow depth of field is preserved.
- Creating a Focus Stacked, Vertical Panorama with a 400mm Lens: Focus stacking is a technique usually associated with macro photography, tripods and precision. But you can use it with a 400mm lens, handheld, and come out with some nice images.
Panoramic shots stand out, no matter what their content. The nature of their ‘odd’ ratio and unnatural field of view draw our eye and have us scanning the image looking for details we might have missed on first glance.
Whether it’s an impressive city-scape from up high, or a simple landscape, panoramas offer us the opportunity to showcase something from a different perspective, something that not everyone is able to get. Nailing this can be tricky, there are a lot of things to consider and you never really know if it’s going to work how you pictured it until you’ve stitched it in your software.
When you’re taking your shots, remember to work out your composition and
any settings that might need changing, before you start to shoot. Photograph in
manual mode to prevent any auto-adjustment headaches later on and try shooting
in portrait orientation to get plenty of height. Avoid windy days where possible if you have
moving objects like trees; and try and keep any large subjects in the distance
to prevent parallax anomalies.