Before getting in to answering this question I just wanted to mention I am running a “Capture-to-Computer” workshop in Skegness, Lincolnshire on Saturday 21st January 2012. One place is taken but there is one free place left. The basis of the workshop is creative and artistic photography – blur, ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) and textures. The morning will be spent with me showing you the techniques for shooting this style of image and then after a meal (included) I will spend the second half of the workshop showing you how to process these images in Lightroom and Photoshop. If you would like to book the second place the price is £149. Please drop me a message and I will organise it for you. Right, now on with the business of making panoramas!
I love panoramic images and with modern digital cameras and software they are easy to make. I find myself rejecting the use of super wide lenses in favour of making panoramas more and more in my photography. I am not keen on the heavy distortion that comes with the super wides and the converging verticals they create. With a panorama I can get in even more width and maintain a natural looking image with far less distortion.
You can by purpose made panoramic tripod heads, such as the Panosaurus, which are designed to rotate the camera on the ‘nodal point’. If the camera is rotated while held on this point and kept absolutely level will allow it to create almost perfect panoramas with little distortion and a very natural look. However the heads are expensive and you either have to have them fitted to a dedicated tripod or be prepared to switch heads in the field, and few of us are that dedicated or have the backpack space to carry two tripod heads.
There are two very acceptable alternatives which are ideal for most of us and I use both in my image making. I will cover both methods here. You can use a tilt and shift lens (the expensive but easier option) or you can use a standard prime or zoom lens. Both require stitching images together in software and both produce great images if done carefully.
So, if you want to make high quality panoramas, how should you go about it? The first step is to get your tripod as level as possible and make sure the camera is as level as possible on the head. This is far better than angling the camera slightly upwards or downwards. The more our of level the tripod and camera are, the more distorted the final image and the area you will need to crop away from the edges of the pano will be larger. I use the small round level bubble on the top of my tripod below the head to level the tripod itself. This can be fiddly as you need to tweak the leg lengths to get it right but it is worth doing. I then level the camera on the head using my hotshot spirit level.
Next is getting the settings in the camera right before you start shooting. It is critical that nothing changes between shots or you will not be able to seamlessly stitch the image. Turn off auto focusing on your lens so the focus point does not change between shots. Switch the white balance to daylight so it doesn’t alter between shots. Zoom out further than you want to to allow for cropping the stitched image which you will have to do to a greater or lesser extent. Don’t frame the image as you want it to finally appear as some of the edges will be lost. Start the panorama further to the left or right than you want to for the same reason. I use the camera in portrait orientation for panoramas to give a larger file size and more depth for cropping (unless I am using a tilt and shift lens, but I will come to that later).
Working in aperture priority or manual, choose one area of the pano to set your exposure and focus. The exposure is often the tricky part, especially around dawn and dusk or when the scene has high contrast. I tend to aim to set my exposure based on the area of the pano which is almost the brightest. I take a test shot to get the histogram across to the right. You have to accept then, that as the camera moves to wares the darker area of the pano it will begin to under expose but we can tweak this later in the software to balance the image. I set my neutral density graduated filters for the same frame as the one I use to set the exposure. You have to accept that as you take the other frames the positioning of the grad may not be quite perfect, especially if the land rises or falls across the width of the range of shots but it will look worse if you try and move the grad up and down for each image. (I prefer to use soft grads for panos to make the transition line less obvious).Do not use a polarising filter when doing panos as this will cause havoc with the look of each frame and you won’t be able to stitch the images acceptably. Focus hyper focally or on a point very close to the base of the frame. I usually use f16 for panoramas to give a bit more latitude on depth of field, whereas in my other landscape work I am usually trying to get the aperture to f13 or f11.
Once you are all set up rotate the camera to the left or right hand end of the pano sequence. Remember go further left, or right, than you want to include in the final image you have in mind. I then take a single shot with my hand in front of the lens with my thumb up. This tells me the next image is the start of a pano sequence. Once I have taken the final shot in the sequence I take another with my thumb down. This indicates the end of a sequence. Believe me, you will be pleased you did when you get home as it can be hard to tell which images are for panos.
Take the first shot and then rotate the camera for the next as quickly as possible. The absolutely critical thing to remember is to overlap each frame by at least 30%. It is better to overlap by 50% than to go lower than 30%. The more data and overlap Photoshop has to work with the better the quality of the panorama you will get. The reason for working quickly during the sequence shooting is to minimise movement of objects in the pano. Anything moving makes it harder for the software to do the stitch, so scudding clouds, branches of trees blowing in the wind and so on can cause issues.
Don’t forget, panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. For a really different type of image use the same system but shoot vertically. Vertical panoramas look great on the wall.
Back at home on the computer there is some very specific things you can do to make the panorama stitching go well. I use Lightroom to work on my raw files so the screenshots below will show that, along with Photoshop for the stitching but Elements works in just the same way although the menu items might be in slightly different places. You can also get specific panorama stitching software but I have never used this so can’t comment on it.
Import the raw files into Lightroom. Do not allow the import dialog box to apply any changes to the images on import such as adjusting white balance or applying some preset as this will make stitching difficult or impossible to do seamlessly. It is vital you don’t do any work on them whatsoever before they are stitched. Find the sequence of images and shift click to elect them (this is when the thumbs up and thumbs down shots are a big help, but obviously don’t include them in the stitch!). Right click the selected images and select Edit in >> Merge to panorama in Photoshop. (see screenshot below)
This will open Photoshop (or Elements) with the following dialog box open
On the left hand side select the Auto radio button and in the centre area of the window you will see the list of raw files you are using. Click OK. Now just leave Photoshop to do its thing. It will take a while depending on how many raw files you are stitching and how fast your computer is. On slower machines you will have tome to go and make coffee :).
Once stitched the image will look something like this;
Now you can see why cropping is required. In the layers panel you can see how Photoshop has stacked the three images and then masked them to achieve the stitch. The next step is to flatten the layers and then crop the image to the panoramic shape, losing all of the irregular edges. I then save this image as a tiff (or psd, if you prefer) and take it back into Lightroom. Now you can start making adjustments to the exposure, contrast, clarity and so on because now it will be across the whole image and will look right.
Once you have made the adjustments you want in Lightroom, move the image back to Photoshop for any final tweaks and adjustments there, and you are done.
The process is identical with Tilt and Shift lenses, with a few differences. Firstly, when doing horizontal panos you keep the camera in Landscape orientation. You make the sequence of images by using the shift mechanism and make three images, one shifted all the way to the left, one in the centre position and the final one shifted all the way to the right. All the information above about levelling and camera settings still apply and the stitching process is identical, you just need the three shots. The advantage of this method is the overlap the TSE lens produces is way beyond 30% so the stitch works well and the amount that needs to be cropped away is usually less as the lens tends to give a clean stitch if the tripod and camera have been set level.
So, why not have a go next time you are out with your camera. They are great fun to make and can be quite addictive. Enjoy!