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How to Make Great Panoramas

Hi there and welcome to the latest post from my photography tips page.

I have found myself recently taking more and more panoramic photographs – images where the scene is just too broad to fit into one single frame. In this tutorial, I will give you step by step instructions on how to take the best individual photographs needed for your panoramas. I will then give you some tips on editing these to help you get spectacular results.

St-Pauls-Cathedral-Millennium Bridge-London-Panorama

 

What is a Panorama or Panoramic Photograph?

Quite simply a panorama is an image that comprises any number of individual photographs of a scene that are joined together in editing software to provide one large wide or tall image incorporating all of the images. 

Sometimes you cannot do justice to a scene in just one photograph. You may want to capture the essence and scale of the view in front of you and it just cannot all fit into the one image. The alternative of using a wide angle lens may just result in the whole scene fitting into one image but being too small to show detail or draw the viewer into the feeling of almost actually being there. This is where panoramas come into their own.

Miami-downtown-from-Key-Biscayne-Panorama

Miami-skyline-sunset-panorama

 

Stage One – How to Take the Images for the Panorama

There are a few steps here that can make your life so much easier if they are followed and are so simple to do. Believe me – there is nothing worse than returning from an amazing scene realizing that you cannot achieve the end result of a beautiful panoramic image because of a simple error.

  • Shoot in Manual mode.

This may be daunting for some of you but believe me it is very simple, yet essential for panoramas. When you are joining the images together, it is vital that the images are all shot with the same settings so that they can blend into one another seamlessly. For example, if you change the shutter speed you may end up changing the exposure time in each frame leading to some images being lit differently and inconsistent results. 

If you leave your camera on one of the auto modes  (or Shutter or Aperture Priority) then you are not going to be able to ensure all of the separate images are using the exact same setting.

If you are not confident using manual mode then perhaps taking a test image with one of the ‘Priority’ modes and then taking note of these settings – switch to manual mode and dial these in and then proceed to take the panorama in this way.

Please check out my earlier articles on aperture and shutter speed in case you need some help or a refresher on how to take use manual settings.

  • Exposure

Expose for the brightest section of your panorama so that you do not risk over exposing in a brighter part of the panorama and lose valuable image information that can’t be recovered. It is always easier to add a little exposure in post than remove over exposed areas!

  • White Balance

Consistent white balance is also important so that the tones in the image (and often the sky) can all be the same. Whilst not so important if you shoot in RAW as you can amend this in post, it is good practice (and essential if shooting jpg) to set a consistent whitebalance before starting the sequence of images.

  • Focus

I would recommend that you set your focus either manually or using a desired autofocus point with autofocus and then when that is set, turn off autofocus. You do not want to risk parts of the panorama being out of focus if individual frames are not focussed correctly.

  • Level

I always try to shoot my panoramas on a tripod wherever possible. That said, it is not always the case, so in the alternative, it is important to try to keep the images level. I personally use the grid feature that my camera can put into the viewfinder so that I can ensure that each image is taken on the same plane. This will help the software to stitch the images together and also ensure that you have a level panorama and not missing any foreground or key elements from part of the scene.

If you are using a bullhead with a panning feature, that can help you to do this by literally using this feature to keep the camera on the same plane as you carefully rotate (an re-lock) between each image.

  • Overlap your Images

Again, another vital step that you must do in order to ensure that your software editing has enough information to join the images together! I would recommend a third or at least a quarter of the previous frame should be included in the next image. Failing to do this may result in the software not being able to stitch the images together well or at all. It is better to include too much information in each frame and take more for the sequence than find that your software cannot stitch the images together.

  • Consider Landscape or Portrait Orientation

Depending on your composition, consider taking your sequence of images in vertically (portrait) rather than horizontally (landscape) to be able to include more foreground or sky etc. 

  • Lens Choice

Try to avoid using a wide angle lens when creating your images for your panorama. Wide Angle lenses naturally distort the images so when you take a number of images all with a wide angle lens, all of this distortion compounds and will affect the end result of your image.

Sometimes it is unavoidable as you are in a confined space or have limited time to take too many images, but just bear in mind that the results may look a little skewed. However, that said it is not always a bad thing and personally I used this distortion to my advantage in the image below of the view of the London skyline from Tower Bridge – I was able to use the distortion of the Bridge support to create a frame for the skyline itself.

London-skyline-through-Tower-Bridge-Panorama

 

Here are a few extra tips and recommendations to make things a little easier: 

  1. Think about your overall composition carefully before you start taking the images. You need to be looking at the overall picture that you will be trying to achieve rather than each individual image. I would recommend considering where you intend to start the first image and end. Then allow yourself a little extra ‘room’ for each end image so that you can alter these later in post-production. It is better to have this ‘information’ and not need or use it later than not to have it at all! Also the usual considerations should come into play – rule of thirds, foreground interest etc. You can read more about composition by clicking here to visit my earlier article.
  2. Be wary of any movement in your scene that may affect how the images my be joined. For example, if there is a boat or car or other moving object in the scene then it may appear in each photograph and will result in very unnatural results in the panorama. Another issue may be with the wind blowing foliage or clouds that may not be able to be joined very easily or naturally in the panorama. Shadows may also cause similar issues.
  3. Shoot in RAW so that you have more flexibility in editing your images.
  4. Don’t move too quickly that you end up with an unusable image. Alternatively, bear in mind that taking too much time between photographs may result in too much movement or change in lighting to enable a seamless blend.
  5. Finding the images taken for a sequence can prove a little tricky when uploading all the files from your memory card – a little useful trick I use is to take an image with my hand in front of the lens before taking the first image in the panoramic sequence and then again at the end. This will help me locate these images as specifically for a panorama when I return and batch upload the files to my computer. The hands just act as visual markers on the computer screen.
  6. Consider that if you are using a polarizing filter on your lens then this may result in an uneven color in the sky as you take each image in the sequence.
  7. Panoramas don’t have to contain many images and sometimes just 2 or 3 images are all that is needed for the scene.
  8. Don’t forget that not all panoramas have to be horizontal and sometimes a vertical panorama may yield great results.

Downtown-Miami-Brickell-Key-Florida-Panorama

 

Creating your Panoramic Photograph

Step One – Initial Editing

Carry out the basic RAW edits that you would usually do but I try to avoid over-editing the individual images too much from the outset. You will have gone to the lengths above to ensure that they all have the same settings so you don’t want to vary these too much at this early stage. Personally I only check the ‘remove chromatic aberration’ and ‘correct lens distortion’ box for all of the images at this stage. This just removes any possible color fringing on the edges of some subject matter such as trees or buildings and any potential lens distortions.

Step Two – Merging the Images

Select all of the images and upload these to your photo editing software where they will be merged into the panorama.

Again personally I use Photoshop and if you do you can just follow these steps:

Choose File, Automate and select the images to merge

.

Choose the following options:

  • Blend Images Together to have Photoshop try to seamlessly blend exposure and color.
  • Vignette Removal to correct for any lens vignetting (darkening) at the edges.
  • Geometric Distortion Correction to repair any lens distortion (often caused when shooting at a wider angle- see above).

I choose the ‘Auto’ layout option as this seems to work pretty well for most panoramas. It can be worth experimenting with the other options if you are not happy with the results from Auto.

Click OK to continue.

Step 3 – Processing the Panorama

Once the processing has finished, your initial panorama will appear in photoshop and you can see all of the images appear as individual layers in the layers panel. I then merge these down to one layer by choosing ‘create to smart object’. (this allows you to be able to work non-destructively and rework the initial merge).

Your initial merge will most likely look a little distorted such as below:

Using the filter tools such as Adaptive Wide Angle or Perspective or Skew effects, you should be able to easily straighten up the image to create a natural view.

Any missing pixels can be filled using content aware fill. I then crop the image to an acceptable frame.

Then just process the image as you would any other to improve on tonality, color and vibrance and to correct any exposure issues.

Bluebell-forest-panorama-final-2

I hope this tutorial helps to explain how to make a panoramic photographs more easily.

 

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about this post (or anything else on my website), and to pass this tutorial onto any photographer friends you think may benefit from it.

You can connect with me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/antonyzphoto/ or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/antonyzphotography

Until next time!

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