how to take panorma

The Ultimate Guide to Panoramic Photography

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What is a Panorama?

Panorama photography (also called panoramic photography) is a method of increasing the field of view over and above the capabilities of a wide angle lens and, therefore, increasing the aspect ratio of the finished product.

The purpose of the panorama is to better express the sense of space and the expansiveness in any given scene we wish to photograph. A panorama more closely represents how we view the world and communicates the physical world with detail and authenticity.

This article covers absolutely everything you need to know for shooting single level panoramas. At almost 8000 words, this is the most comprehensive free panorama photography guide on the web. 

pokhara panorma

Taken in Pokhara, Nepal in 2012

The Best Digital Camera for Panorama Photography?

There are numerous methods available to create panoramic photographs, ranging from a simple collage of the printed medium through to APS, medium format and clockwork, slit-scan cameras. Dedicated Panorama cameras are often expensive: A Linhof Technorama 617 III – Medium Format Panoramic Camera, for example, will generally cost in the region of $4000 to $10000. These cameras often have a fixed aspect ratio of 3:1 and use 220 rollfilm, but fortunately, whatever type of camera you have, there will be some method of creating a panorama with it (even if it means sellotaping polaroids together.)

Some compact cameras even have a panorama mode which allows you to create a wide format image without the need for any third-party software.

The panorama craze has even trickled down to the little old smartphone; you can even take a series of hand held photos with your Iphone or Android phone then use one of the many apps available for download to stitch those photos together into a panorama. However, while this may be easier than using some real camera equipment, the resulting phone-created panorama will be far inferior in quality and composition than if you take panoramic photos the proper way with a dedicated setup that includes a tripod and a camera, then use specialized software to stitch those images together.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For our purposes I will concentrate on the creation of landscape panoramas using a DSLR; in particular, stitched or segmented panoramas. By far, the combination of a DSLR, the right panorama equipment, and good panorama software can yield stunning results. And, quite a few people have this camera setup already.

Panoramas Made Simple: How to Do It

tilicho lake panorama

Taken at over 5,500 meters at Tilicho Lake, Nepal — the highest glacier lake in the world

Panoramas are basically a composition stitch of many different pictures that overlap. The simple steps to creating a panorama are this:

  1. Take two or more completely level pictures that overlap by 20% to 30% 
  2. Use software to combine the images into a single image with the overlap points exactly matched up

And that’s basically how to create a panorama photo.

However, the devil is in the details. If that 2 step simple guide doesn’t do it for you (and it shouldn’t) then let’s proceed onward.

So let’s get to it…

STEP 1: Have the Right Panorama Camera Equipment

Panorama Hardware comes down to a few key pieces. Some are NOT required, but if you want to take the perfect panorama or you want to do so more easily and faster without fiddling around as much, some of these pieces can help tremendously.

If you can afford it, buy a whole panorama kit which includes a panning clamp and a nodal slider.

As for the rest of your tripod setup (an L-Plate, a good Tripod Ball Head, and of course, the Tripod) you should have ANYWAYS if you are into landscape photography. And if you don’t have a tripod setup, then don’t even look at dedicated panorama equipment until you have those!

Before we get  to the process of panorama-taking, lets look at what you need.

Tripod (to allow perfectly aligned Panoramas and better quality image)

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A Tripod is pretty much required for any decent panorama shot. Yes, you can take a panorama without one using say a compact camera or phone with a panorama app, but the quality won’t be very good. So, consider a tripod a must. I always recommend a top end tripod, since you will be using it ALL the time for landscape photography (and many other types of photographing). However, if you can’t afford or are unwilling to pony out for a quality tripod, then you can use any tripod, just as long as you use a tripod over none.

Best Recommendation for Tripod for Panoramas: I recommend the Gitzo 1542 Traveler Tripod as the best tripod for panoramas (and landscape photography). It’s the one I own and use and what I shot ALL the panoramas you see on this post with.

Also see my Best Tripods for Landscapes and Ultimate Guide to Landscape Photography tutorial.

L-Plate (to allow Horizontal and Vertical Compositions on the fly)
1D X L-Plate with L Component Extended & Cables Attached download (26) $_35

This is not necessary to take panoramas, but it can make taking pictures (including panoramas) MUCH easier. This is basically a L shaped plate that is screwed directly onto your DSLR. It allows you to rotate your camera in either vertical and landscape mode without changing the composition of your image. If you have a camera attached directly to a ball head, what happens when you move the camera from landscape to portrait composition? You’ve got to physically recompose everything because you have to move the tripod and camera to a different angle. The L-Plate helps you avoid that by simply re-positioning the camera itself (rather than the tripod ball head + camera) to landscape or portrait mode in a couple seconds.

Best Recommendation: L-Bracket by Really Right Stuff. You have to get a custom one for your camera body and model, however.

Nodal Slider (to avoid Parallax Errors)
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The issue of Parallax and the Nodal Point of a lens will be discussed in full detail LATER on in the article, so don’t worry about feeling confused here.

Basically, this rectangular shaped plate is fitted to the camera so that the tripod quick release plate is positioned at the end of the camera as opposed to beneath the ball head clamp. With this fitted, the camera’s Nodal Point remains, more or less, centered effectively; i.e., directly above the tripod.

This will eliminate parallax errors in the panorama.

Yes, you can use panorama software (or Photoshop) to fix Parallax errors, but why resort to that? Just shoot the damn panorama RIGHT in the first place and you won’t worry about it later.

Get it? Ok moving on.

Spirit Level / Tripod Level (to make panorama’s level and improve quality of stitching)

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To make certain that the tripod and camera are completely level try to use use a spirit level that slips into the flash hot-shoe. This will help you to attain straight horizons and so reduce the amount of cropping required later.

If you don’t have a special tripod head like the Really Right Stuff PCL-1, then you need this  hot-shoe level to level the camera. You will also need to level the tripod legs too, if you want a completely level picture. Personally, I just use a Panning Tripod Head to avoid having to fuss around with leveling both the legs and tripod plate.

My recommendation is this $10 USD Hot-Shoe one from Amazon.

Panning Tripod Head (to make leveling for Panoramas a breeze)
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If absolute precision is required then slightly more complex and expensive panoramic tripod heads are available such as the Nodal Ninja or Manfrotto 3025 panoramic attachment, or the Really Right Stuff PCL1 (I own this). These heads provide 360 degree vertical and horizontal arc around the NPP and can step up in 3.75 degree increments which takes the guesswork out of whether or not you have left sufficient overlap for post-production.

A very time-saving piece of equipment to have if you want to take panoramas on the fly. It’s basically a panning-base with a built in spirit level. You can install it as the actual clamp or you can use a dovetail attachment so you can add the panning tripod head to the ball head quick release clamp and remove it too.

Best Recommendation for Panning Clamp: Really Right Stuff PCL-1

Shutter Release Cable

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Not required but they damn they can make it a bit lot easier when taking photos for panoramas. You just click the button on the cable release to take the picture, move your camera a few degrees (ideally you can look at the little notches on your panning base so you know how far each frame is for your overlaps), click it again, and repeat till you are done. Not touching the camera also means you reduce camera shake introduced by your hand.

Alternatively, you can just set your camera on a 2 to 8 second timer to auto shoot. But this means you have to wait that period between shots, which can add up if you are doing say a 180 degree panorama in portrait mode with say a 70mm prime. You could need like 20 or so exposures to get the individual images for that panorama. With say an 8 second delay between each picture that’s 8 seconds x 20 = two minutes of WAITING between shots. A cable release saves you this time.

You have to buy one that works with your camera brand and camera model, however.

DSLR OR Mirrorless Camera (to get the best quality panorama images)

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While we are assuming you own a DSLR for the purpose of this panorama photography tutorial, it’s important to note that DSLR’s give you the most flexibility for panoramas because you can adjust a host of settings and you have the ability to choose the right lens. DSLR’s also can utilize specialized panorama equipment (i.e. tripod stuff which attaches to DSLR bodies).

That’s not to say you can’t use a point and shoot to take a panorama — you can — but, it’s just much easier to use a DSLR and you are likely to get a better picture, especially since you can utilize a tripod and all the panorama equipment that fits onto the tripod.

Check out our Guide to Buying the best DSLR

STEP 2. Keep the Camera Level

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(Hint: Use a Tripod and a Panning Clamp)

If you use a tripod ball head (and most tripod users do!) that means you will need to level in two SEPARATE places: the tripod clamp and the tripod legs.

Leveling the tripod legs ensures your ball head panning base is completely level as you pan the camera for the different panorama shots while leveling the tripod clamp ensures the camera itself stays parallel to the panning axis as you pan.

If you are confused about this, just realize your tripod legs can be moved up or down (or even if they are vertical because each leg is extended exactly the same, they ground they rest on is not perfectly level AND your camera, which sits on a ball head that can tilt horizontally, is itself often not sitting level.

Simply slapping on a spirit level on top of your camera and leveling it WILL only ensure the camera itself is level to the tripod panning base while the tripod itself won’t be level. So you will also need to level the tripod legs. The easy solution to avoid having to level both the tripod clamp and tripod legs is to use the Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning clamp. You simply adjust for level using the build in panning-clamp level, and your entire setup is level.

Here’s how to level your camera setup for a panorama assuming you don’t have a panning clamp or leveling base, but only have a tripod and ball head.

Option 1 for Leveling Your Camera for Panoramas:

Here’s how to level your camera that hard way….

First Level Your Tripod (first step)

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This is essential to taking a good panorama. Keeping the camera level ensures the vertical and horizontal alignment of all objects is maintained. The best way of course is to use a TRIPOD. I’m not going to even discuss how to do panoramas without a tripod. If you want play at it, sure go swing your camera around with your arms in an arc and snap pictures and use software to recombine. Or better yet, just pull out your iPhone and snap some shots and use an app to stitch together something that could be called a panorama.

But when you are ready to move out of the play pen with the kids and play with the big boys, get a tripod and come back to this article. We are going to talk about how to REALLY make a Panorama that impresses, not some verisimilitude of one you post on Instagram.

Many tripods have a spirit bubble on the top area — you can use this to make sure the legs are leveled. There are also other attachments you can find if you don’t have a level. I won’t talk about this here, I’m just going to assume you know how to do it.

Then Level your Camera (second step)

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The next step here is to level your camera. If you’ve leveled your tripod and you have a ball head, you need to now level your camera. The reason? Because your legs can move off the horizontal plane and your ball head (with your camera locked to this) can move off the horizontal plane too. So you need to have the tripod legs leveled and you need to have your camera leveled.

You can get a level spirit bubble that slips into your flash shoe at the top of your camera. Some cameras like Nikon also have internal levels inside the camera so you can level it via the digital reading too. Canon does not have this feature.

Option 2 for Leveling Your Camera for Panoramas:

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Or you can use using a Panning Clamp like RRS PCL-1 or a Leveling Base and don’t worry about Leveling both the tripod legs and the Camera as in Option 1 above.

This is what I do because,  like, who the hell ants to fiddle around with leveling tripod legs then leveling the camera. It’s confusing and it’s a waste of time — time you could be using to shoot your panorama.

So, save yourself the effort and just make sure you have a panning clamp and the whole leveling issue is moot — just set up your camera and tripod, look at the spirit bubble on your panning clamp (or leveling base), and level it there and you are done. Easy as pie and done in a couple seconds.

Ok, moving along.

STEP 3: Choose the  Right Lens

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You will want the right lens for the right job. And that is typically a prime lens, between 28mm and 50mm, though this is NOT a hard or fast rule. The lens you use depends on what sort of panorama you want to create and the type of effect.

Generally Avoid Ultra Wide Angle and Wide Angle Lenses

Typically, you will want to avoid using a wide or ultra-wide angle because this will introduce some distortion when it comes to your panorama. Maybe you want this effect, but if you want to make a vast panorama that simulates the 180 degrees you see with your eye, it’s not a good idea to make your image look slightly distorted by using ultra wide angles. Again, this is up to you and use can certainly use ultra wide angles for creative type panorama shots. Just realize you will have distortion with the lines in your image, especially for close foreground objects or architectural type shots where such distortion in straight lines is particularly noticeable.

Choose Prime Lenses over Zooms If You Can

If you can choose, you should opt for Prime lenses over zooms if you have primes in your kit. The reason is they are sharper with less distortion (something we want to eliminate) around the edges — something that’s important for Panoramas since we are shooting extra wide already.

Primes also have a better Nodal Point. Since they are SHORTER than zooms, the Entrance Point Of A Lens (also called Nodal Point) does not move as much as it does with a ZOOM meaning you don’t get as much Parallax errors. This is a moot point though if you have a nodal slider — you can use a zoom on the Nodal Point if you do.

You can use Zooms of course and still take spectacular panoramas, but primes are just a better tool for the job and will give you a better image at the end of the day. But it’s up to you.

Choose lens between 28mm and 70mm

For the best panorama’s I recommend using a focal length between 28mm and 50mm. Personally, 50 mm works well and is my favorite focal length to use. I also shoot at 70mm as well often.

However, you can shoot with higher focal lengths if you want higher resolution panoramas, provided you are shooting a multi-row panorama (this is more complex though and you need more equipment — we won’t talk about multi row panoramas here)

Shoot in Portrait

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You will also want to shoot in portrait mode so you have MORE picture in your frame.

STEP 4. Eliminate Parallax Before You Shoot

Parallax can ruin your panorama image. This has to do with the positioning of your optical centre of the lends over the point of rotation. You can eliminate Parallax with a nodal slide.

Parallax is big issue when it comes to Panorama photography. It’s essential that you find the No-Parallax Point to eliminate or reduce Parrallax.

Finding the NPP (No-Parallax Point)

Whilst it is the photographer her/himself who objectifies, a camera or the basic biology of the human eye can only subjectify. Everything presented to us in the ‘scene’ (in this case a landscape), sits entirely in relation to our subjective viewpoint. Stand, for example, in your garden and take a step left, right, forwards or back and you will see foreground and background objects shift in relation to both yourself and each other. A piece of wall hidden behind a leaf can, for instance, suddenly become apparent or what you can see reflected in a puddle will change. The same holds true for how a camera sees.

This ‘parallax’ is most evident when you hold a finger up at arm’s length. If you look through and beyond the finger, first with one eye and then with both, you will see that distant objects obscured by your finger will change. This is because the parallax has changed as the steropsis of the eyes kicks in and out. It is also the reason why passengers in a car sometimes think you are speeding: how they see the numbers on the speedometer in relation to the needle is different from the point of view of the driver.

However, if we can fix this point on the camera; create a No-Parallax Point, in three dimensional space then little or no shifting in the relationship of distant objects will occur when the camera moves to take the different composite images of the panorama. Without fixing this point there will often be a ‘ghosting’ or ‘tracing’ within the final image. Here is an example of a panorama taken without using a fixed No Parallax Point

Although some software (particularly Auto-stitch) can compensate for this effect, there is never any guarantee that you will not be left with mismatched elements and aberrations that can ruin the final panorama.

So where exactly is the No Parallax Point on your camera? 

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Unfortunately the NPP it is not quite on the axis that the tripod rotates upon but is further forward than this: the iris or entrance pupil. On most DSLR’s this would be located away from the sensor towards the center of the lens barrel (see image above for a rough eyeball of the position of the NPP).

This NPP or Nodal Point is visible if you open the aperture to around f/6.3 and, with the back of the camera facing a light source such as a window, look in through the front of the lens whilst holding the depth of field preview button. Just forward of the white dot you’ll see is the No Parallax Point.

In order to save any frustration later and having to fix the error with software, this is the point that needs to be fixed in 3 dimensional space and the point around which the camera should revolve. In most cases, and for distant landscapes taken across the horizontal axis, the tripod head is a sufficient point on which to rotate the camera. The need to control the NPP becomes more critical when either:

a. intend to stitch both horizontally AND vertically, or
b. when close foreground objects are involved.

Of course all of this assumes that the camera’s orientation is landscape, but for greater detail and image height the best results are achieved by flipping the camera to a portrait orientation.

However, using this method means there is a small problem to overcome. Not only will flipping the camera’s orientation on a traditional tripod head mean that the tripod’s balance is off-center, but the camera now also swings in a more dramatic arc around the tripod head, meaning that for the vast majority of composite panoramas, the NPP will shift to an unworkable level.

If this is all mumbo jumbo to you still, then here’s a simple breakdown of the Parallax problem: Image parallax occurs when both near and far objects don’t match up when you overlap the images. So if you are shooting a landscape scene with a fence with multiple shots, the same fence post in the first image you take must align exactly with the same fence post in the second image.

This parallax effect can be eliminated if you place the optical center of the lens on the camera right over the point of your rotation.

Graph Beta

However, if you look at most camera setups, you’ll notice a problem here. If you place your camera on the tripod, the lens sticks out — thus you cannot position the optical center of the lens over the point of rotation (the center of the tripod).

There is a simple piece of equipment to help deal with this issue: a nodal slider. This is basically a rectangular piece that you attach your camera to one of the end points. The slider connects your tripod to your camera and allows you to slide the camera back, allowing you to re-position it so that the optical center sites over the point of rotation — i.e. the NPP.

Look at this image and you’ll see HOW and WHY the nodal slider can fix this:

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This piece, which is simply just a piece of metal that lets you slid your camera up and down on a horizontal plane while on your ball head, lets you adjust the camera back far enough so the No Parallax Point is reached for your lens.

Easy.

So just buy the damn Nodal Slider and be done with it.

STEP 5. Compose Panorama

Composing the Panorama is a bit different than taking regular frames. You have to think ‘the big picture’. Literally. A panorama may be simply a few photos stitched together to dozens or more.  Generally a good rule of thumb is to think 180 degree panoramas. More then this and the images start to look a bit squeezed. You can shoot up to 360 degrees though and there is an entire school of panoramic photography devoted to 360 degree panoramas.

In short, decide in advance the elements of the scene that you feel are integral to the final panorama and run through, in your mind, how you will work through the shots.

To Shoot 180 Degrees or Not To

When you start taking panoramas, one of the first things you’ll have to decide is should you shoot 180 degrees or more. 180 degrees is a straight line, so if you shoot more than 180 degrees of scenery you will end up with distortion of some sort when you recombine into a panorama later.

This is just simple math here. You can’t squeeze more than 180 degrees into a 180 degree plane (which is what your final FLAT image will be) without some lines being bent to fit the whole image into that shape. The effect of panoramas that are more than 180 degrees is that straight lines begin to curve. The more degrees past 180 you go, the more distorted and curved your image becomes when you recombine.

Now, this is an effect someone people purposely seek and far be it from me to tell you it’s wrong. BUT if you want to shoot traditional panoramas, and ones that mimic what you see with both eyes in front of you, stick to panoramas LESS than 180 degrees.

Keep in mind that the wider a focal length of a lens is, the easier it is to squeeze past the 180 degree mark in a couple shots. For example, with something like a 17-40L, shooting down at the 17mm range on an Full Frame is 93 degrees. This means in roughly 2 (or 3 if you count overlap of 20 percent) you will have MORE than 180 degrees. If you shoot with something like a 50mm, then it’s going to be a LOT more images before you pass the 180 degree mark.

Best Conditions for Shooting Panoramas

A Solitary Subject and Surrounding Context: Ideally, you want to choose a scene that has an isolated, single subject (a foreground object) with a wide open background that accentuates that subject. You can just capture open expanse of course which itself can make a startling image IF the background is stunning. Still, the rules of composition apply here — for  best results, have a foreground object that adds a sense of scale. The open expanse with serve to provide depth and the mood.

Sunset & Sunrise: You can shoot panoramas during sunset and sunrise, but the lighting can be difficult to manage. You’ll likely need HDR to pull this off and or grad filters. But it can be the most rewarding of panoramas.

A high point vantage: Panoramas can be magnificent if you can place yourself on a high point overlooking an open expanse. This type of panorama can yeild some startling results. Think the top of a mountain or hill or top of a tower. The bottom line: you want to be the tallest object in the near vicinity to capture the open expanses below you. Being the highest point has a tendency to give you a far more interesting foreground than otherwise.

Thinking About Your Composition

Magic Hour can Produce Magical Panoramas

As with any landscape photography, the range and depth of color are best brought out by photographing the panorama during the ‘golden hours’, which happen just before sunrise and just after sunset.

Consider Movement in the Scene

We have looked briefly at the movement of the camera but, whichever landscape you decide to photograph, it is also worth considering any movement on the scene, before you get to the process of taking the images.

Without a doubt, try avoiding any panoramic frame shots that may have a bit of blur from movement of wind. Things like fields of flowers, moving trees, leaves, water, and fast-moving clouds can cause issues.

Movement of Clouds and Shadows: Remember that the movement of clouds and the sun’s arc through the sky means that the individual images will differ if too much time elapses between shots. Changing the exposure settings to compensate for this is not really an option as this may cause discontinuity in post-processing.  Architecture can be particularly problematic as shadows are more clearly defined in straight lines.

Movement of Wind on Objects: Wind will cause trees to bend or leaves to shake. Stray objects may get blown into the frame and rain may cause changes to surface colors. You could compensate for all of this in post-processing, but ideally stillness in the scene will make life a little easier, making the final result a little better.

Movement of Water: if you are dealing with a composition that includes water in it, especially with water in motion such as a river, waves, waterfalls, and such, this can cause problems when you stick your frames together because the water-containing frames won’t be the same positions (water moves, duh so those parts won’t like up exactly). Try to make sure your single frame composition includes ALL of the water (such as a river etc). If moving water extends over multiple frames, then you will want to have a slower shutter speed for the blurring effect — this will produce a better stitch when you combine.

Watch for Moving People: I cannot begin to tell you how many panoramas I have attempted (and ruined) in the past, containing doppelgänger dogs and floating torsos. Therefore, also try to consider how people and animals will affect your panorama, particularly if they are moving through the desired frame. They may end up occupying a position that will place them where you intend to overlap the images for stitching or they will appear in two of the images rather than just one. Try to wait for a quiet period when the scene is least populated.

How to Shoot Faster Than Slower

Under any circumstances, working at a sedate pace will cause complications, just as working too hastily with insufficient preparation. Being prepared for nature’s little eventualities means that you should allow very little time to elapse between the taking of the first photograph and the last. This will make it less likely that atmospheric or lighting conditions will compromise the continuity of the images.

To shoot faster we recommend you have a Panning Head so you can look at the angle notches on the panning base and shoot without having to look at your viewfinder or LCD to guesstimate your overlap AND you should have a cable release so you can shoot each shot instantly without having to wait for your timer. Combining both of these means you can snap off a 3,7,10, 20, or even 30 image series of shots for a panorama extremely quickly and by doing so, reduce the chance of movement or interference of your composition.

And if the worst happens and unexpected objects interfere…

A function of the PTGui software allows you to highlight objects that you would like erased during the stitching process and, though it takes a little practice, it works well for the majority of the time. Of course it is best to avoid this in the first place wherever possible. But should something like a person or object jump into one of your frames while shooting your panorama, you can remove it post processing in PTGui very easily with this feature.

STEP 6: Optimize Exposure Settings Before Shooting

Make sure your camera is in manual mode. You don’t want to be using any automatic settings for MAXIMUM control of the final result. Can you still take good panoramas without a manual mode? Of course, but if you have a manual mode, use it now.

This means you’ll have to manually set your aperture, shutter speed, focus, and white balance

Set Your Camera Exposure for the Mid Point of the Panorama Lighting

Panoramas, because you are covering a wide part of the sky with different lighting in each segment of sky and land, can be a bit tricky. This is made even more so when there is variable lighting due to contrasting lighting such as sunsets, sunrises, storm clouds casting shadows on the land, etc. The trick here is to meter your exposure for the AVERAGE exposure for the whole scene. The way to do this is to first switch your camera to aperture priority then rotate your camera over the whole panorama to find the the part that’s the mid point between the lightest exposure meter rating on the panorama scene and the darkest. Then switch back to manual mode and set the camera’s shutter and aperture settings to that mid-point exposure setting. Doing this will prevent your final image when you sticht it together to have uneven lighthing between one part and the other.

Set White Balance to Sunny or Cloudy

You’ll likely be outside most of the time so you’ll want to use Sunny or Cloudy. Keep in mind that if you shoot in RAW, you can change this setting later in Lightroom.

Shoot in RAW

Make sure you are shooting in RAW format. If you do, you can fully configure many of the exposure settings afterwards in Adobe Lightroom. This allows you to move your exposure by +1 or -1 stops without quality lose. You can also modify they white balance and make other adjustments. And if you want to shoot HDR, the RAW format and all the flexibility it offers better allows you to make HDR images after.

Adjust Camera Hardware Settings

Make sure you have mirror lock up enabled (or delayed shutter release if you have that). This allows for maximum sharpness in your images. You should be using a shutter cable so you are not touching your camera to snap the shots. If you don’t have this accessory, then you will want to set your camera shutter timer for 6-8 or so seconds. You can set it for 2 seconds BUT if you do this, there is still vibration from touching your camera.

STEP 7: Shoot Your Frames Keeping Consistent Overlap Between Each Image

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Leh, India (taken with a consistent 20 percent overlap using a RRS Panorma head)

Once you have figured out the best panoramic composition for your photo and you start taking photos, make sure that you overlap the individual shots by between 25 and 30 percent. You can get by with 10 percent overlap I’ve found, but it’s risky doing it like this and it makes it harder for your software (sometimes) to stitch things back together. There is definitely the risk of you MISSING a critical overlap too if cut it too close.

So as a rule of thumb, stick to 20 or 30 percent overlap and you are good.

If you are shooting left to right across the landscape then identify an object or landmark in the right hand third of the frame and make sure this appears in the left hand third of the next frame.

If you have something like the PCL-1 Panning Base by Really Right Stuff, there are gradients marked on the banning base that lets you see exactly how far apart each image frame is so there is no guesstimating on your part. Just look at the notches before you shoot, shoot, then move the panning base a few more notches over, then shoot again, and repeat. you don’t even need to look in the view finder or lcd.

STEP 8 (Optional). Shoot Multiple Exposures (Exposure Bracketing) for HDR Panoramas

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Taken in Leh, India during sunset

Pretty much any decent DSLR or Mirrorless camera will allow you to take multiple exposures of the same shot. This is called Automatic Exposure Bracketing and is a core feature for most DSRLs (and mirrorless). The way it works is you set the range of each exposure and the number of exposures to take. The usual is 3 exposures set at 2 stops apart. So -2 exposure stops, 0 stops, and +2. Some of the newer cameras let you take 8 or even 16 different exposure  stops.

Why would you want to do this? Well you can combine the different exposures for each frame to get far more dynamic range of light (capturing all shadow details on the ground while also capturing the sky) then stitch them together to make a panorama.

We call these HDR Panoramas and here is how to do make an HDR panorma.

If you want to make an HDR photo, then REPLACE STEP 7 with STEP 8 instead. This means you’ll basically change the camera settings to shoot multiple exposures per each shot. That’s it.

In the photo above, I shot 3 images per each frame and about 12 frames with my 70-200mm lens (around the 70mm length with each shot). The resulting 36 images were recombined into and HDR panorama with PTGui.

How to Take HDR Panoramas

1. Set your Auto Exposure Bracketing in your camera to take multiple shots of the same frame at different exposures then start taking the panorama as usual.

Now Instead of a single shot per frame, you’ll have multiple shots of the same image (3 or more for each frame depending on how many you take and your camera settings).

2. Afterwards, you can use software such as PTGui to take all the RAW files for the panorama shot, combine the exposures for each shot into an HDR photo, then stitch the whole series of images together to make an HDR Panoramic photo.

If you don’t want to make an HDR, then you can just choose the shots from each Automatic Exposure Brackets for each frame that are exposed properly (usually the 0 stop exposure ones) and combine those with software to make your regular panorama photo.

Choosing the Best Lens for Panorama Photography

Ok, we are done with the panorama tutorial with Steps 1 to 8 in the above section.

However, let’s take a look at some of the lenses you may want to use to wrap things up.

One question people often have is trying to pick the right lens. I talked about this above already. In summary though although a wide angle lens means fewer shots are needed to complete the panorama, it is best not to think in these terms because you don’t get a better image than you would with a non-wide angle and 8 shots.

Eight good shots with the right lens are better than three shots with an inappropriate lens.

Wide Angle Lens with Panorama’s

manali_to_leh_road

I took the photo above with my 17-40mm on my 5D. When you use wide angle, however you do get that distorted, slightly curved effect. You don’t get this if you shoot with a non-wide angle, but you have to shot a LOT more frames with a non-wide angle.

A 14mm lens would typically encompass a field of view of 114 degrees; a 24mm would cover approximately 67 degrees. Panorama photography can allow up to a 360 degree field of view, although more typically a panoramic composite will aim for a field of view of somewhere between 80 and 180 degrees over the horizontal field of view. The aspect ratio, (for it to be considered a true panorama,) would be 2:1 right up to 10:1 or more.

This is where some experimentation helps. There are no real hard and fast rules but some lenses will produce significantly better results than others. Nobody, however, wants to produce a run-of-the-mill panorama and perhaps it’s worth seeing what interesting visual effects can be had from unusual lenses (which ultra wide and wide angles will produce if you use them).

With a wide angle, particularly a fish-eye, the curvature can create problems in the software later: stitching two squares together is far more efficient than two circles. You could use a rectilinear, wide angle lens but I prefer to use a prime 50mm or 35mm. For landscapes where you are pressed up close to the scene such as a forest, I have used a 20mm f2.8, which was fine but the curvature of the lens will become more apparent on close architectural shots. For distance landscape panoramas where you don’t have a close foreground object, you can get away with ultra wide or wide angle lenses to a degree without noticing too much curvature in the lines.

Here is an image someone took (not me) of a panorama that’s less than 180 degrees but shot with an ultra wide. Note the distortion with the straight lines becoming curved. This is what happens when you use ultra wide angles with panoramas.

125_0752-san-fran-panorama-from-att

Non-Wide Angle Lenes with Panoramas

As a personal preference, when taking a panorama, I tend not to use a long telephoto lens or, conversely, a wide angle lens. I must stress this is my own preference and has more to do with not trusting myself to be a little clumsy on occasion. With a telephoto there is always the possibility that I could nudge the lens to a different focal length without noticing.

Some people prefer telephoto lenses, as you can put together a high resolution many-image panorama if you are willing to shoot a lot of images. For really high resolution, ginormous panoramas, you need a telephoto and a multi-panorama setup that lets you shoot panoramas on the horizontal line as well as on a vertical line for a muli-row panorama. But this is another type of panorama photography and a different tutorial all together. You need more equipment to allow this.

Shooting Panoramas Beyond 180 Degrees

Further to this, once you move beyond a 180 degree horizontal field of view you are out of simple panorama territory: where the eye is capable of taking in the scene as a single unified image. The images often become fussy, containing too much information and might be better viewed by being animated or scrolled through. For print purposes I would suggest a 170 degree field of view as a maximum across both the horizontal and vertical plane.

Here is a recent panorama below that I took in India that did not turn out well. I used a 70-200mmL f/4 to shoot it, but I shot about 220 or so degrees — MORE than 180. Look how the lines look bent. This is what happens when you shoot more than 180 degrees, regardless of what focal length you use.

jodhupur_morning_panorma

Taken in Jodhpur, India in 2015. Not a good panorama shot

Keep in mind IF you take images more than 180 degrees you can end up with curved lines because things are distorted. Why? Because any sort of flat plane can’t realistically depict anything more than 180 degrees without some sort of distortion to cram a +180 degree field into a 180 degree space (which is the case when you recombine the image).

To that effect, I recommend you shoot 180 degrees or LESS if you want a panama that mimics what you see with the human eye and not something that looks a bit distorted.

Unless, that is, you want that this effect on purpose.

Should You Use Filters with Panoramas?

In one work, yes. I do almost always. Let’s look at the filters you can and perhaps (depending on the lighting conditions), should use.

Grad Filters

In terms GRADUATED FILTERS, any graduated filters are a judgement call. If the lighting is such that your picture would benefit, then judicious use of grad filters are a go. Panoramas always work best if the lighting is completely even as you don’t run any risk of uneven lighting in the foreground or sky. However, there are times when such conditions are not possible and in that case, grad filters may be useful.

Some photographers would argue that grad filters are best avoided with panorama photography and added in the software later as you can get an uneven sky (one area of the sky darker than the other area). However, I personally DO use grad filters with panoramas — it’s too useful of a tool to throw away. If you use them right, you can get spectacular panorama photos (and without having to resort to HDR techniques).

However, you need to be careful how you use them.

Polarizers

Polarizing filters may create uneven skies — if the sky is blue and not cloudy. Again, it’s a judgment call here — if the polarizer will bring out a much more dramatic sky, then do so. I say if there are fluffy clouds and blue skies then use it.

The price you pay for using a polarizing filter in a panorama image is that polarizers will change the sky coloration depending on the position of the sun. However, with a multi-stitch panorama, the color of SOME of the images will show slightly different “blue” colors which, when the final panorama image is created, will have part of the sky darker than other parts.

Note this can be fixed in post processing, however. Even better some of the best panorama software such as PTGui can fix uneven skies automatically so you get a more realistic looking sky with even lighting.

Other Lens Filters

Full neutral density and UV are OK and shouldn’t cause any real problems.

Camera Settings Panoramas (Ideal Focus and Exposure Settings)

The focus for a scenic landscape should be set about one third in to the vertical axis, particularly over water where soft focusing will achieve more consistent stitching because of the constant movement and rippling.

In order to attain perfect continuity set both the exposure metering and the focus to manual. Take an exposure reading and keep this the same for all the frames. Allowing the camera to do it’s own metering or auto-focus will result in discrepancies. As with any composition you should decide where the focus will lead the eye in the final picture. Set auto-focus to this point and once done switch straight back to manual before you take the first shot. Keep this focus throughout. Using focus intelligently can create some interesting effects. Although we often think of a panorama in relation to landscape photography, panoramas can be used anywhere you want to increase the field of view, so setting the focus centrally on the vertical plane for example, can create a pseudo tilt-shift effect or a sense of movement as though the viewer is being pulled into the center of the picture.

Similarly, white balance set to manual.

A special mention must be made here of stars and the moon. If you want to have deep, starry night skies, try to photograph somewhere with a low level of light pollution. Keep the exposure time as low as you can manage because stars move very quickly across the frame. An exposure of 10 seconds or so will begin to trail. Because the position of the stars will change in relation to the landscape below you need to be as quick as possible. Similarly make sure that the moon does not appear in one of the overlapping thirds because it too will move relative to the landscape.

NB Generally I shoot in high quality JPEG but software such as PTGui now offer RAW support and functionality across the range of image formats is improving all the time. If your images are RAW then covert them to TIFF before stitching to eradicate JPEG compression artifacts. Also, don’t sharpen or compress the images prior to stitching. This would better be left to perform on the final image.

Stitching the Images Together with Panorama Software

ptgui

Although images can be stitched together manually in image software such as Photoshop or Gimp, specialist software is widely available and fairly user-friendly. The best known, and most extensively used of these are:

  • PTGui (the best in my opinion)
  • AutoStitch
  • CleVR (free)
  • Registax (more useful for processing astro-photographic images prior to stitching)

My personal recommendation here as the best panorama software is PTGui as it’s easy to use, has a ton of features, and seems to produce the best panorama images. It’s not free though, but the cost is absolutely worth  the investment.

It’s quite easy to create a panorama once you have the individual images. You simply load the images into the software, tinker with a few settings, and hit a button. After a minute or so, you’ve got a panorama from a series of stitched images.

We’ll have a tutorial on how to use PTGui or Photoshop for panorama photography in the future.

HDR with Panoramas?

You may or may not to use the increasingly popular HDR effect on the final panorama. HDR or (High Dynamic Range) is often overdone as a photographic effect but used with some subtlety it can be a useful weapon in the software arsenal. Further, you may one day decide to see how HDR sits with an image you took in the past, and so bracketing the exposures is always worth considering as a matter of habit.

I’ve talked about this in the previous section, so read that. You can EASILY create HDR panorama photos with PTGui right away, as LONG as you have the following:

1) Raw Files (for the Exposure fusion option which uses a single RAW file and blends it together at different exposure settings — good if there is ANY movement in the image since this style of HDR will eliminate it

2) You have Multiple Exposures for Each Frame (3 or more at different exposure settings)

You simply import in all your raw files for the panorama, choose the option (Exposure Fusion or True HDR) type for HDR, then adjust some settings and hit a button. A few minutes later, you have your HDR panorama.

Easy!

Conclusion

Taking a good panorama is not difficult — the best way to go about it is to get out there and start trying. You don’t have to opt for an expensive setup to take a panorama. This article has listed the IDEAL equipment for a landscape photographer who wants to get into some serious panorama landscape photography. But if you can’t afford it, then you can get buy with just a cheap tripod and a cheap camera on that tripod.

The basic requirements to take a good panorama are:

  • DSLR Camera
  • Tripod + Ball head
  • Software to stitch individual images together (Panorama Software)

If you have the above, you can start taking panoramas without much fuss. If you find you enjoy taking panoramas, then you might look at getting a dedicated panorama equipment (panorama panning clamp, nodal slider, L-Plate). But you certainly don’t need to spend the money on this specialized equipment to get started with Panorama photography.

Here are some important notes about taking panoramas:

Camera Settings For Panoramas

  • Use auto-focus to determine a focal point then lock to manual
  • Don’t use flash!
  • Keep exposure times and aperture the same for each image
  • Do not let the camera auto white balance, auto expose, or auto-focus

Composition for Panoramas

  • Level the tripod and camera using a bubble level for the legs and the plate OR just use a specialized panning tripod clamp such as the Really Right Stuff PCL1.
  • Leave an overlap of one quarter to one third on each shot (look at the degree marks on the panning base of your tripod or panning clamp, take the picture, then move the camera a specified number of degrees to the right, take the picture, and repeat).

Panorama Equipment

  • Ensure you are using a tripod and ball head with a panning base
  • Use a Panning Clamp (OPTIONAL)
  • Don’t use a polarizer or graduated filter unless you have special reason to
  • Use a Nodal Slider to eliminate parallax (OPTIONAL)

Comments

  1. Herman Rissolo

    Should I not be able to leave my full frame camera in the horizontal position to take panoramas? It looks like it covers even more of the scene than the aps type camera.

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