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Handheld Panoramas the Easy Way

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Confronted with a nice view they would like to take home, many photographers use a wide angle lens and get a single shot before moving on. More can be done to truly capture the scene.

Taking a landscape photograph, especially at places we rarely go to, usually makes us dream of having such the vista printed and framed hanging on a wall at home. A BIG PHOTOGRAPH! Most people will get a wide angle lens, the widest they can get, and shoot a single shot, horizontally, to get the scene. I've told this to people a lot of times and now let me write this down for you: DON'T!

This picture showing the relation between the Monserrate Gardens and Palace, in Portugal, would not be the same if I had done a single shot.

Some years ago I told a student of my workshops who was going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip how to get a big panorama, showing him also how easy it was. He never stopped thanking me for the tip, when I printed the result he placed on the wall of his living room: a mountain range in Switzerland capped with snow, showing the real dimension of the place.

The nearly two meters wide picture was taken on his simple DSLR with the kit zoom lens. When I tell people they can do the same and that I do it all the time, they don't believe me.

A single frame can only cover so much of a landscape, as this picture taken at 16mm on a full frame EOS 5D Mark III shows.

Doing a panorama with multiple shots is easy, and even more easy nowadays, as lots of digital cameras have a wizard to assist you in stitching the image. But when I tell people they can do it with any camera, by hand, without any special tools, not even a tripod, and that the software can do the rest in the computer, they think I am making fun of them. Until I show them how to do it and the final result. It's something I always challenge people to do at my workshops.

Let's take various frames of the same subject, here also at 16mm but in a vertical orientation, gives you the chance to do a bigger image and cover more space.

To do panoramas with absolute perfection you do need a stable tripod, even specific heads and/or tools like those from Novoflex that will align the successive images. The idea of having to buy all that and to have to understand difficult words like nodal point and parallax makes people forget that it can be done other ways too. Especially with the software we've available today.

The process is simple: you just have to practice a bit in order to turn/move you camera in a straight line, from left to right (it's easier that way) and shoot a series of photos, always covering about 30 per cent of the space of the previous image, so the software knows what to join when you make the panorama. Here is how I do it.

Always take a reference picture to check exposure and also use as guide to the different series you shoot.

1. Take a Reference Shot

Start by taking a picture of the view you want to create a panorama from. It's a reference shot that will show the beginning of the series created to make the panorama. If you make more than one series do a reference shot at the beginning of each so you know when each collection starts. It will be confusing otherwise.

To expose this picture, set the camera to manual so you keep the exposure constant in the series. Check if the light is right and remember that you should try to not get a big variation between the different frames, so your panorama will be easy to assemble if you do it in an arch that keeps the sun out. This will make for a simpler post-processing work.

2. Small Steps First

Start by doing small panoramas, with two or three pictures, Once you get used to it you can easily get panoramas made from 10 or more pictures. Remember to always define anchor points beforehand along the way, to keep the camera in a straight line, for horizontal panoramas.

When using the technique, if you've difficulty focusing the lens for each different image, you can pre-focus in a point in the horizon or an element you define as important to keep sharp, and then disable AF.

3. Close and Far Objects

If you're shooting a panorama with important elements closer to you, you have to be careful that they don't get distorted within the different views. It can be done but you need extra care turning the camera. Remember this when shooting. And reshoot the whole series trying to place important elements closer to you within a single frame to get them properly represented. Remember that the technique explained here is to make things simpler and doable without any specific gear.

A series of six pictures from all taken to create the panorama, are selected in Adobe Bridge and sent to Photoshop to be merged. Note the images are vertical.

4. Panoramas Done Vertically

When you think of a panorama, you think of placing the camera horizontally. You did in the previous reference shot, but now turn your camera vertically. Doing this you've more space on top and bottom of the frame, and that is important because the software tends to cut bits of those areas.

Let me explain one thing here: usually you're told to not use wide angle lenses when shooting panorama sequences, because you get distortion on the corners that the software cannot manage properly. Although that is true, if you shoot vertically with a wide angle lens it will be safe to work even at a wide setting, because you're using the central area of the lens and there's no evident distortion visible that way.

5. Select the Best Images

Even if you shoot a series of 10 or 12 images you don't need to use all of them to create a panorama. In Adobe Bridge or your editing program select those that better cover the view you want, and send them to Photoshop or whatever program you use to merge photos.

Once you do that the program tries to, automatically, merge the images in order to get a larger picture than you could get in a single shot. That is the beauty of it all is that you can get a photograph that looks more like the scene you remember.

Depending on the size of and number of images, if you use RAW or JPEG, and the power of your computer, you'll have time for a coffee break or nap. But believe me, Photoshop does a fantastic job these days - since CS4 - compared to versions from some years ago. It even corrects tone differences in areas usually problematic, like the sky.

After stitching, the result looks like this. An image that has rounded corners you need to trim to get the final photo.

6. A Strangely Shaped Picture

The resulting panorama always shows corners that seem to have been cut with a pair of blunt scissors. It's time to frame the central area of the image and throw away the rest. Using a wider angle and letting space around what is your main subject gives you, at this stage, more options in terms of framing.

The panorama gives you more than a single frame could show and lets you make bigger size prints.

7. Look Ma, a Big Panorama

The image above, with a final size of 8600x4865 instead or the original 5760x3840 pixels from the single frame from the camera, tells the whole story. I've an image created by mixing 6 frames shot vertically (check the Adobe Bridge image above).

Besides having covered more space, I also have more pixels to create a larger print if I want to. In fact, although the system is often associated with panoramas, it can be used when you need to have bigger images from small cameras.

Twelve years ago, when I bought my first EOS D30, with a 3.1 millions of pixels sensor, I would shoot static airplanes in two or three images, in order to get a final shot that would let me create bigger size prints. You can do the same today and it's much, easier, with the tools available.

When you have elements that are close to the camera you need to take care not to distort them when you stitch the different frames. Done well, the result can be fantastic.

8. Software to Use

I use Adobe Photoshop to do panoramas and I hope Adobe Lightroom will have an option to do panoramas in a future version, but you don't need to use a commercial program to do your own panoramas, if you don't have one. Even Windows has a program that does panoramas, the Windows Live PhotoGallery. And users of Canon cameras receive a PhotoStitch program in the software pack sold with the cameras. I've used Canon's software for years and it works fine to create panoramas.

On the free front you can try Hugin, or Image Composite Editor from Microsoft, Panorama Plus from Serif, or even Pos Panorama Pro. There are also some online solutions that let you upload your images but I would advise you to get a downloadable program and try this at home in your own time.

In fact, there are lots of options in terms of software, some better than others, all promising to help you reach a wider view with your photography. Why not try some of them? You might find a new path to follow in your photographic adventures.

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