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Photography

Create a Photo Sphere With Your DSLR Camera

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Immersive Photo Mapping.
Gettin' Round: How to Make a Spherical Image with Google Camera
How to Embed Google Photo Spheres on Your Blog or Website
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

With your own DSLR camera, you can create immersive photo spheres just like the ones you see when using Google Maps’ Street View function. This will allow people to see the world from your perspective as if they were standing in the place where the photo was taken. You can pan left and right and up and down as if you were actually there looking around. With a few easy techniques and tips, you will be on your way to making stunning photo spheres with your own DSLR camera. 

This process boils down to creating a 360 degree panoramic image and uploading it to a free online tool to create a photo sphere. If you haven’t created a panorama before, this tutorial will walk you through all the basics. 

Equipment

For this tutorial you will need a camera, panorama photo stitching software,such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, or the free tool Hugin. Google’s online service will create the photo sphere. You may also choose to use a tripod or monopod to help you move the camera in a more controlled manner. I created my photosphere without either and it didn’t cause any extra difficulties.

I chose to use a wide angle lens to get more of the landscape in each exposure and reduce the number of frames needed to create a 360 degree panorama. For my camera, that is an 18mm lens on an APS-C sized sensor. That's roughly equivalent to a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Settings

It is important to keep the images as consistent as possible in terms of focus, color balance, and exposure to create a nice, even panorama. Take your camera off auto white balance and set it to its daylight preset or 5600 Kelvin. You can fine-tune color balance later but you want it to be consistent while capturing the images.

You will use manual focus to keep the point of focus the same in all of the images. Also keep your aperture setting the same so use aperture-priority mode or manual mode. I set my aperture at f5.6 for my panorama.     

Capturing a Panorama For a Photo Sphere

Capturing a panorama to make a photo sphere requires making a panorama that covers 360 degrees horizontally and up to 180 degrees vertically. To create this panoramic image, we need to capture a series of overlapping images that can be stitched together later using computer software.

Standing in one place and turning slowly between each shot, capture a series of images that cover 360 degrees. Each image should overlap the next by approximately 20%. Shoot one rotation around the horizon line with the camera held vertically. 

Capturing a sequence of overlapping images

Next, shoot one 360 degree rotation above the horizon line, overlapping each shot with each other and the photos taken in the previous step by approximately 20%. Repeat this step, pointing the camera above the previous rotation to capture more of the sky. 

Finally, shoot one 360 degree rotation below the horizon line. Overlap each shot with each other and the photos taken in the previous step by approximately 20%. Repeat this step, pointing the camera below the previous rotation to capture more of the foreground.

Stitch Together the Images

Now that you have captured all of your images for your panorama it is time to stitch them together. You can use Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, or another program like Hugin. I am going to demonstrate the process using Adobe Lightroom to stitch my photos because it does a great job blending exposures when working with raw images.

Merging all of the photos can take a significant amount of time. The more photos you try to merge at once, the more time it will take. You don’t need to create a huge picture that can be printed at a large scale, just one large enough to view on the web.

First, import all your images into Lightroom and select the images that you want to merge. Export your selection as smaller tif or jpeg files, 1200 pixel on the long side will work fine, and import them back into your catalog.

Next, right-click in the center of one of the thumbnails and select Photomerge. Then select Panorama from the sub-menu. A dialog box will appear and Lightroom will generate a preview of the panorama. The preview may take some time to appear but the actual merging will be much faster with the smaller files.

Merging photos to panorama in Adobe Lightroom

Choose the Spherical projection, because you will eventually create a sphere from the image. Leave the Auto-Crop check box unchecked so you can have more control over how that is done later. Go ahead and press the Merge button and you will have your panorama.

Merging photos dialog in Adobe Lightroom

You should now have a 360 degree panorama like this one:

A panoramic photo covering a full 360 degrees

Fix the Blank Spots

I have a few irregular blank areas around the edges of my panorama that did not have photographic information to cover that area. I have two options of how to work with that blank area. I can simply crop it out, which will reduce the area that image covers. Or I can try to fill it in with Adobe Photoshop. This option helps me keep a larger coverage area so I’m going to do the latter. It works surprisingly well with many images.

Open the image in Photoshop and start by selecting one of the blank areas with the Polygonal Lasso tool. All you have to do is to draw a polygon around a blank area. Make certain you have the blank area selected plus some non-blank pixels.

Selecting blank areas with the polygonal lasso

The simplest way to fill in this area is by using the Fill function. Click on the Edit menu and select Fill. From the dialog box, select Content Aware and press the OK button. Now Photoshop will assess the content of the image and fill in the selected areas. If it is unable to fill in the area, you might end up cropping the image instead. If it did fill in the area, you will then save the image in Photoshop. 

Filling a blank area with content aware fill

Create the Photo Sphere

Export the panorama at 6000 pixels on the long side. Then use your web browser to navigate to the Google Photo Sphere app. Click on Choose File and select your panorama stored on your computer. 

Once your image uploads, you will presented with a screen where you can fill in some meta data to help locate the photo sphere on the globe. You can use the default settings for the Set Values section. If you have a better estimation of any of these values, go ahead and enter them. 

Next, you will need to set a location. You can enter a search query in the search box or pan and zoom to the location where the photo sphere was created on the map below. Then drag the red marker to the spot you were standing in when the images were taken.

After the location is set, click the Next Step button. After you click, you will be taken to a screen that has a preview of your photo sphere and a map where the sphere is located. If everything looks good, click the Download button to save the finished photosphere to your computer. If the preview does not appear, it will still create a photo sphere.

And that’s it, you have created a photo sphere with photos from your own DSLR!

Sharing Your Photo Sphere

Since these photos are spherical, they take some considerations when you want to view or share them with the full experience. 

Viewing and sharing in Google+ 

It is easy to share your photo sphere on Google+. Just click the share button on the Google+ website and upload your photo sphere as a photo. Google+ will detect that it is a photo sphere and allow viewers to click on it and view it with the full 360 degree experience. 

Viewing in Google Maps

You can contribute your photo to Google Maps for the public to view. Find the place where the photo shpere was taken and click on the interactive, circle marker. Google will not let you upload it to any arbitrary spot. Instead you will need to click on a business name or a place marker. Then click on the Add Photo link in the left panel and upload your photo sphere. That’s it; you have contributed your photo sphere to Google maps for everyone to see. You can also share a link to the photo sphere on the map.  

Tips and Tricks

Photo spheres work best outdoors where there are not a lot of complex things close to you, such as tree branches. But if you can create a well-connected, 360 degree panorama, you can create a photosphere from it.

Things that move, such as people, cars, and tree branches can also cause problems just like they do when creating any panorama. Sometimes you will see a blurred, partial object or a blur where things have moved or have not stitched up neatly. If this happens, you can alter the pixels and attempt to fix the problem area with Photoshop or just leave them in as a funky artifact of a digital process.

It is possible to create a photo sphere with a person standing in it. You simply have to ask them to hold still until you are done capturing the portion that they are standing in. Once that portion is captured, they can relax or move. Make sure they don’t move into a section you are capturing or they may show up in the photo sphere more than once.

Conclusion

With these simple steps, you can create your own immersive photo spheres anytime you want using your own DSLR. Photo spheres are fun to make and provide an interactive photo experience for viewers. Now you’re ready to create some spherical photos!

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