How To Take Stunning Panoramic Pictures

The immediate benefit of taking a multi-shot panorama is the FOV (Field Of View) and also size and ultimately image quality. Lets say for example you use a 6 megapickle camera, it’s one of those organic green ones. Well if you crop say 10% off the top and bottom to make it “look like” a panorama shot then it becomes a 4.8 megapickle image which restricts the size you can print to maintain the best resolution.

By taking multiple images and blending them, you get a much larger image and thus better resolution (clarity and sharpness) when printed at say A0 size. Plus, they can look pretty cool.

Canary Wharf Panorama

When I first started taking these they would kind of work sometimes and other times I had quite a few problems that I would then spend hours in processing to fix. Over time, experience (and frustration) taught me how to ensure a higher success rate at the time of capture.

(If there are any terms which are unfamiliar to you then please spend a little time with google to read up about the details. It will benefit you in the long run.)

(My) Most common mistakes:

1) White balance
2) Exposure
3) Lens Focus
4) Speed of capture
5) Camera rotation (overlapping and parallax errors)

With regards to point 5) you can shoot a panorama with the camera on a tripod and also hand held. I now prefer hand held (if the shutter speed is fast enough) as I can control the rotation near enough to the lens nodal point. If you are doing commercial work then it is a priority to get yourself a dedicated panorama head for your tripod. For us amateurs, some simple techniques will work most of the time.

Ok, so let’s start with the first point.

1) White Balance.
I used to have the camera set to Auto White Balance (AWB on the camera). This would cause each shot to be metered by the camera and it changing the colour temperature depending on the type of colour cast it thinks it was “calculating”.

The result would be that each joined shot would have different colour casts to them which you would see across sections of the pano image.

Therefore, if shooting in daylight (indoors or outdoors) then set the white balance to the type of day it is. Sunny, cloudy etc If shooting at night with street lights or indoors with lights on then set the white balance to the type of lighting in use. Tungsten etc.

2) Exposure.
If you shoot in AV, TV or whatever other mode you prefer then sorry but you are going to have to learn to shoot in “M” mode. There is unfortunately no work around. This is probably one of the most important rules in taking successful panoramic pictures.

What would happen if you use one of the auto modes is you take a shot (camera decides exposure – Aperture and Shutter Speed), move slightly and then the shutter speed or aperture changes because the in-camera meter is trying to maintain 18% gray. When you come to stitch the images together, you may have darker and lighter shots to merge together as the camera is trying its best to maintain the same exposure across the scene.

But I hear you thinking, gears whirring, smoke out of the ears: “If I am looking at a scene in front of me, say 160 degree FOV (field of view), then the sky may be quite light near the sun and it is getting darker further away from the sun.”

Eureka!

What the camera will try and do is balance the whole scene to 18%. Making some parts lighter (dark areas) and some parts darker (the light bits) by adjusting the shutter speed or aperture.

Here is an example of a panorama shot with the camera automatically exposing for the scene. See the banding that happens. This is why manual exposure is a must.

Poor Auto-Exposure - Banding

You want it to capture the lighter parts and darker parts as you see them. Because this is how the brightness in the scene graduates and so you want to recreate it in the shot. This will then guarantee a decent tonal graduation from light to dark, dark to light etc.

First of all meter the whole scene: Preset your aperture, you want this at F/8-F/11 for the best DOF – depth of field and sharpness compromise due to lens diffraction. Check your shutter speed and up the ISO if you need to. If you are on a tripod then leave your ISO set to the lowest value. Now scan the scene (looking through the viewfinder) from left to right and watch the light meter. If the light meter moves an equal + and – amount across the whole scene then you are virtually spot on. If not then change your shutter speed to get this result.

Take a test shot in the lightest and darkest part. Check the histogram on each shot. For the lightest part, does it clip the highlights? On the darkest part, does it block the shadows? If so then adjust the shutter speed either up or down a 1/3 of a stop and try again. You want to get to a situation where you are not clipping the highlights or the shadows. If you are unable to manage it, sometimes you can’t, then set the shutter speed as close to mid exposure so you DO NOT clip the highlights on the brightest part.

3) Lens Focus.
Before you continue, swot up on Hyperfocal distance and Depth of Field. Then, find out the hyperfocal distance for the camera AND lens you are using. Why camera, because you need the CoC (circle of confusion) for the sensor. You basically want the objects nearest in the scene and furthest away from you to be in focus and sharp. There is a point where you cannot get objects really close to you in focus whilst getting a sharp background. Get to know what this distance is and then back up a bit.

Right, back from google?

Set your lens to MF (manual focus) and dial in the hyperfocal distance on the focus ring then leave it.

Sorry I have not gone into detail on this but there are sites out there that can explain hyperfocal and give you calculators that will do a lot of the brainwork for you.

THIS is a good site.

As a general rule of thumb, you can focus a third of the way into the scene. To do this, set the lens to AF, choose the focal length you want to use and then focus on an object a third of the way into the scene. Set the lens to MF, which will preset the focus so it won’t change. Then recompose and leave the settings on the lens.

Third rule; Preset the focus on the lens.

If you made it this far then well done!! I got bored and had a quick play on GT5.

Stratford Upon Avon

Anyway!! This is “all” you need to do on-camera.

4) Speed of Capture.
If you are shooting at Golden Light or on a day where there are clouds in the sky then you need to be pretty quick when you take your shots. This is due to the light changing across the scene you just averaged due to the setting sun and/or clouds moving. If you are taking shots of any moving parts like water, people, cars, boats etc then you will get some ghosting or disjointed parts. You will have to post process these manually.

Aim to get across the scene in about 5 seconds. Anything under 10 seconds would be great.

Fourth rule; Be quick.

5) Camera Rotation.
You need to know about parallax errors and lens nodal points for this section. Google is now your friend:-)

Hold up your index finger in front of you. Check what is directly behind your index finger, lets say in this case it is a tree in line with the finger. Focus on your finger and then close just your left eye and then your right eye. See how your finger shifts depending on which eye you close. This is the parallax errors. Because your eyes are slightly apart, hopefully not Uma Thurman distance (sorry Uma), then that slight shift in distance means you are looking at your finger and the scene behind it at a slightly different angle.

If shooting handheld, when you rotate around the scene, anything in the foreground will appear to shift because the angle at which the lens is viewing the scene and thus the foreground to background object is slightly different. When you come to stitch your picture together a rock, for example, in one scene will have shifted slightly in the second scene and thus not on the same alignment.

Here is an example. See how the rails on this scene are not aligned.

So you don’t rotate! You basically shuffle your feet around the camera.

This is the pivot point. If you rotate, then you are spinning within the pivot point under your body and the camera is on the outside rotating around the pivot point. If you keep your camera steady and use the point directly under the camera, then the camera spins around the pivot point and you move around the outside.

You want the pivot point at the camera to be around a third of the way from where the lens connects to the camera to the end of the lens. This is my general rule of thumb. You can use a monopod held under the lens to rotate around. Be careful not to shift the focus ring.

If you want to be precise then you need to find out the nodal point for your lens depending on the focal length and use a pano head for your tripod.

If you are using a tripod then just rotate. You will have some parallax errors but hopefully they will be slight and your stitching software can cope with it.

Overlap your images by about 30-50% Use an object as a reference point and line it up in your next scene.

Fifth rule; Shuffle yourself around the camera/lens if hand held.

Camera Orientation.
This isn’t a rule, it is a preference.

I try and shoot most of my scenes in portrait mode. It gives a better pano in my opinion as it gives the final image more height.

It’s up to you, try both and see which you like.

Multi-row Panorama.
This is where you take multiple rows, as well as columns, resulting in a much higher resolution. Some stitching software can cope well with this format and so if you are thinking of printing a very large image then go for a multi-row format.

You start from the top left of the scene work across, move down and back to the left and move across again. Continue for as many rows as you like and ensure that you overlap by 30-50% across the horizontal as well as the vertical.

I find that a standard or longer focal length lens works well with multi-row as it reduces the wide angle distortion for each shot.


ABRIDGED NOTES

White balance
Preset to a manual setting such as Sunny, Cloudy, Tungsten

Exposure
Set camera to “M” mode and preset the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Meter for the average area of the scene and leave it.

Lens Focus
Set the lens to MF – Manual Focus. Focus a third of the way into the scene.

Speed of capture
Take the shots quickly; within 10-15 seconds.

Camera rotation
Turn around the centre of the camera and overlap from around 30-50%


Some applications that you can use to stitch your images together:

Autostitch (free), PTGui, Pano Tools, PT Assembler, Photoshop’s Photomerge.

British Library Reading Room. Here I am slightly tilted up to capture the skylight into the picture. I used a lens that had IS (image stabilisation) on it otherwise the shutter speed would have been too low to get a sharp image. This is a 14 shot image.

London City at Sunset. An example why being quick is paramount. The right side of the scene is getting dark as the sun sets. The left side, where the sun is setting, is still light but it is constantly changing.

I would love to see your panorama’s and critique your work if you would like me to. So please leave me a comment and say hello.

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