Making Panoramas

Mount Sneffles Mountain Range in Colorado from the Outlook on Highway 62

Do you remember the first time you saw a panoramic photo?  They are so appealing because we “see” in 180 degrees and most photos, even with a wide-angle lens can only capture about half that.  In the old film days you needed a special camera and specially made film.  Have you seen one of these cameras?  Anyway, thanks to digital cameras and software, any of us can make an appealing “pano”.  Here’s how.

Chose the Right Subject

This is probably the easiest step.  Almost any sweeping view makes a good panorama.  Sometimes, when you do this, one might ask, “what is the subject?”  When making a pano, sometimes the focal point of the subject is not readily apparent.  The subject is the sweeping view.  It is always good to maintain compositional discipline using the rules of thirds, strong foreground, and a good subject.

Oregon Coast from Point Blanco with strong foreground

There are other times, where a panorama eliminates a distracting foreground which concentrates the view on the actual subject.  I loved these stone temples, but the foreground was distracting.  A pano crop made a huge difference.

Original Composition

Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Make the Photos

There are at least three ways to make the photos you will need for your pano.  If you have a point and shoot, you may be able to do it by hand.  My Canon G12 has a “pano assist” feature on the LCD that helps me make a pano that I can process later in Photoshop.  Newer point and shots have “sweep” technology where you simply press the shutter while sweeping the camera slowly from one side to the other to create one panoramic image in-camera.

Yankee Boy Basin, CO

Most of us with a DLSR will need to do it the following way.  With my Canon 5D Mark II, I place the camera in portrait orientation and make 5-7 photos. Remember to overlap the composition by about 33% to get the best and easiest stitching. Make sure your tripod base and camera are level.  If you are not level, you will get a very crooked panorama and therefore, have to make a more severe crop.  I also use this pano stitch plate from Really Right Stuff (see our camera kit.)

Cathedral Valley – See our friend Mark on the left side of the photo

Process the Photos

After I download my photos, I export them into Photoshop and execute the command to combine the individual photos into a panorama.  After this is complete, the stitched pano will show up on the screen and you will, most likely, have gaps above and below the completed panoramic photo.  Here you have two choices, you can crop the photo or use the “magic wand” and “content aware fill” to fill-in the open spaces.  Do both to see what looks better.

San Diego, CA skyline from Coronado Island

Crop the photo with the right aspect ratio in Photoshop, Lightroom, or Blow-Up from Alien Skin software.  Standard size panoramas use aspect ratios of 1:2, 1:2.5, and 1:3.  This is especially important if you are going to print them.

Last Dollar Road, Ridgway, CO with 1:2 aspect ratio

Cautions

There are three main dangers in making a pano.  First, and most important, is you need to set up your tripod and camera level.  Second, watch out for filters and polarizers, especially on a wide-angle lens.  You may get areas that are darker or more blue than others in the pano and this will look wrong and will be hard to fix later in processing.  Third, make sure you understand how you are cropping.  Cropping loses mega pixels and the aspect ratio may be wrong if you do not pay attention.

This is what happens when you do not use the nodal point

Finally, a most special caution is to watch out for parallax.  This will show up in two ways.  First straight lines in the photo may not match up.  Second, you will have a concave pano with very little room to crop.  The reason this happens is the entrance pupil of the lens has to be right over the point of rotation when making the panoramic photos.  This is also called the nodal point.  If you want all of the technical issues, see this article in Wikipedia.

The Red Mountains near the Yankee Girl Mine on HHY 550, CO with a good crop and some “content aware fill”

DSLR Equipment

Here are two ideal equipment set-ups to make a pano and reduce the possibility of parallax.  Of course, we always recommend you use a tripod.  When using a wide-angle lens with no lens collar, you should use a nodal bar or rail (from Really Right Stuff).  Now the lens is over the rotation point.

24-105mm wide-angle lens, a nodal bar, and a pano stitch plate.  Notice how far back the camera is from the base of the tripod.

70-200mm lens in portrait orientation. Notice, I do not need a nodal bar because the lens collar already moves the camera away from the center of the tripod.

My personal ideal set up is to use about a 100mm focal length with a Canon 70-200 mm lens that has a lens collar.  Use a pano stitch plate.  Use the bubble level on your tripod, stitch plate, and camera.  With the lens collar the entrance pupil of the lens is properly placed over the tripod rotation point without a nodal bar.

Conclusion

Panoramas are not that hard to create and make great final photographs.  The warnings above are easy to deal with in the field or later in Photoshop.  There is some let down in the field because you can not see your finished panorama with a DLSR, but if you use your imagination and gain some experience, you will see panoramic opportunities everywhere.  To see more of our photos, please go to www.pamphotography.com

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