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Shooting Panoramas Correctly

Updated: May 24, 2019

Anyone with an interest in photography will come upon a large scale scene that just begs to be photographed, printed, and displayed on your wall. It might be a mountain scene, a cityscape seen from a high vantage point, the under-view of a large bridge, etc. This is when you will want to know how to shoot a panoramic view, or “pano “as we call it.

Most panoramic photos you see have the shape of a bumper sticker, wide and narrow. The traditional standard for a pano is a 3:1 ratio, width to height; I will show you how to make them more attractive, in a more rectangular format. You probably have most of the equipment needed; you just need to learn the techniques.


Mt. Tallac at Lake Tahoe. There should be a sandy beach and Fallen Leaf Lake in the foreground but shooting in the traditional horizontal camera position excluded them.

Equipment:


1. You will need a sturdy tripod with a ball head that allows you to rotate the camera 90 degrees into a vertical position. (see photo) It also has to swivel 360 degrees in this vertical position.


2. It is very handy to have a bubble level that attaches to your camera; they are cheap ($10-15 on Amazon) and you use them to level your tripod head and camera. Taking this step when setting up your shot will save you time and pixels when stitching your photos together.


The camera has been tilted 90 degrees into the vertical position, and the bubble level has been placed in the flash shoe.

3. You do not need a wide-angle lens, a lens in the 40-80 mm range is fine. You can use even a telephoto in many situations.

4. It is best not to use any filters, especially polarizing filters. These filters can leave light vertical lines at the points the software joins the photos and result in a ruined sky image.

5. Photo processing software that can stitch your individual photos together into one large photo.

Technique:

1. Pick the location where you want to set up your camera and tripod. You might not have much choice but fortunately in panoramic shots it is not as critical as other photo techniques

2. Rotate your camera to the vertical position and attach a bubble level in the flash shoe on top of the camera. Adjust the legs of the tripod per the bubble level, swivel your camera back and forth slowly thru the scene you want to photograph, observing that the bubble level stays level. Take your time doing this, you will be glad you did.

3. Set the exposure parameters. With the ISO setting at 100-200, not auto ISO, adjust your camera to Aperture mode, set the F stop to F -11 to F-16 so that everything in the photo will be in focus. (read my Focus and DOF blog that explains this) Set the white balance to daylight, not the auto setting. Take a meter reading at several points in the scene, by pushing the shutter 1/2 way down and noting the exposure measurements. You should take these readings at the bright spots and in the shadows and decide on an average exposure. Then adjust your camera to the Manual mode, set the aperture to what you had in Aperture mode, set the shutter to the average you decided upon when taking the exposure measurements. Keep these same setting for all your shots.

4. Set your lens to manual focus, focus on something in mid photo and do not adjust this. By this time, you have gotten the point that consistency from shot to shot is paramount.

5. Swivel your lens to the left edge of your scene, (give yourself some extra scenery for cropping later), take one of your hands open palmed and put it in front of your lens just so you can see it on the edge of your picture. Snap a picture, review the composition in your Live View screen checking for composition and exposure per the histogram. Later, when you are processing your photos, it is hard to tell where your photos you want to use for a pano begin and end. The picture with your open palm will tell you during processing that the next photo in the filmstrip is the first one for your pano.

6. Take your photographs, working left to right, trying to overlap one photo and the next one by 30-50%. You should always shoot left to right so the photos will be in the proper order in the filmstrip of your software. I have my camera set with a grid that shows in my Live View screen, dividing it into thirds, vertically and horizontally. I use these lines to guide me in overlapping my photos by 1/3. If you don’t overlap sufficiently, you can end up with white lines in your pano where the photos join.

7. Take as many photos as you need to cover the entire scene, better too many than not enough. After you take your last photo, put your fist in front of the lens and take another photo. When you see this photo in the filmstrip, you will know it is your last photo to in the series. I like to take 2-3 series of photos when I do panoramas, so this trick with your open/closed hand really helps keep things straight.

Software:

There is a variety of software options for stitching photos together into a panorama, ranging from freeware to the top end programs costing several hundred dollars. I used a free program called Auto stitch, written by Matthew Brown, for several years and liked it a lot. It is easy to use and produced great results on most panoramas. But it had some trouble stitching together foreground objects on several panoramas.

I recently switched to Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and now use its Photo Merge function. It is an easy process and I especially like the Boundary Wrap function that lets you square up the initial merge photo and saves you many pixels.


I attended a talk by a man who photographed the entire total eclipse of the sun last year; he had a tremendous number of photos both horizontal and vertical to stitch together. He used a program called Autopano Giga, and he raved about its abilities. It also had great reviews on the internet. But while researching for this blog, I found out that the company that sold this program went out of business in 2018.

A Google search for “panoramic stitching programs” yielded several other stitching software options.

The most important thing about stitching is to not do any processing, such as adjusting the contrast, saturation, exposure. on the individual photos before you stitch them together. Leave them as you took them and then do your processing on the larger finished photo.

The best advice I can pass along is to just try it on a simple view, follow the steps I have outlined, and just keep practicing.

This is a vertically shot pano shot from Ecola State Park on the Oregon coast.


This pano shot in the vertical position is of Cape Falcon on the Oregon coast.



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