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How To: Panoramas

I love taking panoramas.  It’s one of my favorite things to do.  It fulfills an artistic and technical need, and, the results are great to look at.  The panorama of the Pennybacker Bridge (aka “360 Bridge”) in Austin is made up of 8 single frame images.  Each “slice” overlaps the other making it possible for software to recognize the overlapping features and assemble the panorama.  For this particular image I used Photoshop’s panorama feature to assemble the final image. I then used Topaz Impression to add the artistic flair.

Austin 360 Bridge Panorama

Many of today’s modern cameras and smartphone cameras have a “Panorama” function built in, however, photographers would like to have more control over this process and the outcome.  I’ve shot quite a few panoramas recently and I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the tips I’ve learned along the way.

  • Tripod:  A heavy-duty tripod is the foundation of a good photograph and it is a must when shooting panoramas.
  • Panorama Head:  Shooting panoramas with a standard tripod head is very hard to do.  A panorama head on your tripod is a big plus.  A panorama head has a leveling eye and rotates above the tripod leveling so that the rotation is level notwithstanding an unleveled tripod.
  • Portrait Orientation:  Many people shoot panoramas in landscape mode and end up with a very thin strip. Turn your camera to portrait mode and you’ll have a taller panorama.
  • Lens:  I prefer to use a medium range lens for these type of shots.  I find that somewhere between 70mm and 200mm is a good focal distance.  It just depends on how far your subject is.
  • Metering:  Once you’ve got your camera set up, meter the entire scene and find a good exposure balance then set your camera on manual mode and key in the appropriate settings (aperture, shutter speed & ISO).  Also, make sure the white balance is set to something other than Auto so that it’s consistent across all the images.
  • Overlap:  I use a 50% overlap when I’m shooting.  This gives the software more data from which to decipher the stitching process.
  • Remote:  I always use a wired or wireless remote to trigger the shutter.  It eliminates any unnecessary camera shake and you get sharper images.
  • Dry Run:  I highly recommend doing a dry run or two before shooting the actual sequence.  I look for things like where the tripod legs are, where is my backpack, are there any objects that I might trip over, etc. This is especially true on any panorama over 180 degrees and especially so on 360 degree panoramas.
  • Shooting:  Create a good workflow for shooting using the tips above.  I find that shooting in a good rhythm helps.
  • Advanced Panoramas: Shooting an image with bright objects (e.g. sunrise or sunset) is quite tricky. I try to find the best exposure balance. You will have some parts of the image over exposed while others will be significantly under exposed. I fix these in post processing.
  • Tricky Situations: Avoid panoramas with moving objects (e.g. surf).  I tried to do an ocean panorama once and failed miserably.  The incoming waves were at different intervals in each frame so it did not look very good when assembled.
  • Parallax Error.  This is an issue that happens when there is something that’s too close to the camera.  As your rotate the camera around the software gets confused and creates a distortion in your final image.
  • Post Processing: I use Photoshop to assemble my final image and do my edits.  There are other options to assemble the final image including Panorama Maker and the latest version of Lightroom (v6).  All three of these do a decent job and none are perfect.  I find that Photoshop does a better job overall.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  I may have left out a thing or two.  Use the comment section below to add any other tips you can think of.

4 thoughts on “How To: Panoramas”

  1. Very useful tips, and I like the artistic rendering of the shot….lots’s of Pennybacker photos out there but none like this!

    1. Thanks Tom! There are quite a few out there. It’s tough to differentiate. I’m glad you liked it. I don’t normally do that kind of “artistic” work but this one turned out OK.

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