I have been an avid landscape, seascape and architectural photographer for quite a while now. On occasion I’ll encounter a scene or building that can simply not be captured in a traditional single frame capture. Maybe it’s because my lens are not wide enough for a specific subject or perhaps the scene being captured warrants a wider ratio of photograph. There are also times when I think ‘wouldn’t this just look amazing as a huge print’…. huge prints typically need huge resolution… this is another area where knowing how to shoot and combine panoramic photographs can be to your benefit.
In this tutorial I will show you how I capture my panos… While by no means the perfect set up it certainly fits my needs and I feel these tips and my advise will at least help you get a better image. Panoramic photography can be a very expensive business with specialist equipment and setups costing well into the thousands but you don’t necessarily have to have all this ‘stuff’ to get great shots. I’d sit in the middle grounds in what I have spent on equipment that helps for this area of photography but the very same equipment is vital for the architectural work that I specialise in so that warranted the expenditure! Anyway I’ll start with explaining the equipment end of things moving onto the taking of the shot and then the combining of the shots in post processing. Here go’s… I promise I’ll keep it shorter than the last in the tips series….!!!!
Ok…. To begin with I’ll tell you what I use to take my shots. As you see from my gear list I use Canon cameras and lens. 99% of the time I use the 5d2 as the camera of choice. When shooting pano’s you often want loads of resolution and the 5d2 gives me that. To be honest any modern Digital SLR will be sufficient. Even a decent quality point and shoot digital camera can work. To me the camera isn’t really the most important part of shooting successful images. With the correct technique you’ll get acceptable results with any camera. Anyway… moving on… I shoot panos with a few different lens. Surprisingly the lens I probably use the most is the Canon 85mm F1.2L. Its very very sharp, provides loads of detail and is relatively distortion free. After that I also use the the Canon 24mm F3.5L Tilt and Shift Lens. Using this lens and its movements (shifting in particular) makes middle resolution images very easy. They are the main lens I use but at times also resort to wider or longer focal lengths… depending on what I am shooting.
Next up and probably more important is a tripod. I use a Manfrotto tripod with a geared head and also a leveling head underneath that. Keeping everything very squared up and level is vital for successful pano shooting. I also use a cheap hot shoe mount spirit level jobbie on top of the camera but use it purely as a backup. Once I position my tripod I then adjust the leveling head so at least the geared head above it is working off a level base. Next I level the head itself using the built in level and after that I double-check everything is straight with the crappie spirit level on top. The reason I kind of ignore my spirit level mount is that after a bit of testing I found the hot shoe itself is not level with the body of the camera. Also the foot of the level itself does not fit snug in the hot shoe. So yeah I basically dont trust it…! I’m probably over cautious with this but when I am shooting architecture I have to have things straight so my cautiousness definitely stems from there. After that I use a remote release to trigger the exposures. So thats the equipment I use. Yes I have spent quite a bit of money on this equipment but its part of what I shoot professionally so its justified. Down the line I might invest in a dedicated panorama tripod head like this one but I might have to win the national lottery first…! To perfect the whole tripod shooting and setup one should always rotate the camera around a nodal point. The nodal point of a lens is the point inside a lens where light paths cross before being focused onto the film plane or digital sensor. The dedicated pano head will let you find this nodal point and then rotate around it. By not doing it that way you can get parallax issues etc but as of yet I have not found it to be a major issue. Parallax tends to effect items very close to you (like rocks in your foreground). So far I have found that the software I use for combining the images I take corrects the parallax sufficiently. Heres a snap of my setup on a recent shoot….
Recently I have seen pretty dam good multishot panos shot with iPhones and other smart phones. While there sensors may be small and low resolution the software thats doing the joinging of the images is pretty good and compensates for lack of resolution. The resulting panos are great for web or small printing but would not stand up to a lot of further manipulation or any type of large format printing. They have their uses….!!!!! Ok next I will explain how I actually take the shot. It only took me 900 words to get to here…!!!! hahaha
Ok so you know what equipment is preferable and I’ve explained a little bit about leveling the camera. So you are now standing in front of a fantastic scene… a beautiful mountain range… a stunning twilight cityscape but your lens just isn’t capturing enough detail to convey this beauty. Ok start by roughly eyeing up the area you think you want to shoot. Now decide which lens will work best to get the shot. Try a few different focal lengths whilst handholding the camera. Once you have decided on the focal length its time to mount the camera on your firmly positioned tripod.
Now its time to do some leveling. Start by concentrating on the tripod and ignoring the camera itself for the moment. Most tripods (or at least the tripod head) have a level built into them. If you have a leveling head then get this bit level by adjusting the threaded discs until that little bubble level is perfect. So now you have this bit level now concentrate on getting the camera level. This is where the hot shoe spirit level comes in (if ye can trust it) or on newer DSLR’s the inbuilt level..! I generally concentrate on getting the horizontal leveling perfect and am not so worried about the vertical alignments.
So now everything is level is time to start shooting. I typical shoot in vertical orientation (especially when shooting at longer focal lengths) as the distortion is less of a problem and it gives me more cropping room in post processing. Next I try a few test exposures adding grad filters if necessary. As I normally shoot in aperture priority I now record the correct exposure and switch to full manual mode on the camera and dial in the pre tested aperture and shutter speed. This ensures that my exposures dont change as I rotate the camera through the scene. You should also set you white balance away from auto as different conditions within your scene could effect the kelvin value of your white balance. I shoot in raw so the white balance step is less important but I still set it away from auto just in case. Also make sure you are not shooting at or close to your lens widest aperture as some lens suffer form vignetting which can effect the overall look of the image in post processing. So now focus your lens manually (maybe even with live view so ye nail it….!). Now start pressing that shutter button…. Slowly rotating the camera as you go allow between 20 and 40% overlap between frames. This can be difficult to gauge so always pic something on the horizon thats close to the edge of the frame and make sure its also in the next frame on the other side. Keep rotating (whilst constantly watching your spirit level) and shooting until you have covered the entire scene. I normally shoot a picture of my hand before and after the actual pano images so I know during processing which images are the final ones to be joined. See below the unedited images with overlap….
Ok If ye did everything above correctly you should now have your raw material for your pano image in the bag. I know I mentioned earlier that I use a Tilt and Shift lens but as its quite a specialist lens, with not many people using them, I’m not going to dwell on how to shoot panos with them. Instead have a look here if you are interested in that method. However if you do want me to elaborate then please let me know and I will re-edit this post…! Next up its the processing… 1540 words… dam it I ‘ve done it again…! haha
Ok so you have you ‘raw’ material to create your pano image. Trust me you’ve done the hard part…! In no time now you’ll have your pano ready to be sent to that large format printers…!!!!! So again I will explain my methods. I have a couple of options on software but before I get there just some other advice. I’m hoping that you have taken your images in RAW format. If so go ahead now and open your RAW processor. My software of choice is Adobe Lightroom 3. When you open your images your software may try to auto correct your images. Its best to turn this off as I have no doubt that the software will adjust each image slightly differently resulting in difficultly in the joining process. Instead I want you to pick your settings on one image and then do EXACTLY the same to every image in your pano. Also be careful not to do any cropping yet as that can happen later and you wouldn’t want to loose any of your overlap.
Ok next up its the stitching software. I use 2 different bits of software and both have their merits. The one I actually began using a few years back was called PT Gui. When I bought it I think I only paid €65 so its gone up a bit. But its worth it. It is very very extensive and works really well in auto mode but also has brilliant settings and adjustments should the auto mode not work. I have yet to put images through it that it couldn’t join…! So yeah… its worth the money and very very capable. My gripe is that its a bit daunting for those that are new to all this pano stuff. So my next option is to use the built in Photostitch plugin in Photoshop/Photoshop Elements. Over the years Adobe have perfected this plugin and about 80% of the time it gets the pano correct in full auto mode…! For those of you that havent used it just go to ‘File-Automate-PhotoMerge’ and then select the images you want to stitch/merge. It takes a few minutes but generally gets it pretty dam accurate. My gripe with this stitching software is the lack of options. Should it happen to get it wrong it can be difficult to go back and tweak. Anyway after you have your now stitched pano you will likely end up with a huge image with funny borders. Thats where shooting the individual images in vertical orientation comes in as you should have a bit of space in the sky/foreground to crop out those wobbly borders…! Finally go through your image at 100% to check for misalignments, dust and other distractions. Also have a quick tweak at your levels, saturation and curves to finish everything up. Save, backup and send it off to the printers…!!!!
Thats about as much as I can tell ye… well there probably is more hidden inside my head but its getting late and my fingers are sore so mail me if ye want more info…!!!
Here are a few panos that I have done over the last few years…!