Panoramas for Beginners with a dSLR

Have you ever photographed an absolutely stunning location? Then back home, checking your images, realise you have totally failed to capture the majesty that was spread out before you?

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image

One of the reasons for this is that the human eye/brain takes in so much more than your camera. Your eyes are constantly moving, yet they focus so quickly on all of the interesting bits that everything appears ultra sharp to you. Your eyes have a really wide field of vision too. Just try this. Look directly at the computer screen in front of you. Then, without moving your eyes, hold your arms out so they form a straight line through your shoulders, with palms facing the floor. Stick your thumbs out. Now, slowly move your arms inwards until you become aware of your thumbs while still looking straight ahead. You’ll probably find that your field of view is not far short of 180°. If you move your eyes left and right you’ll find you can actually see a little way behind you – still without moving your head. In comparison a digital SLR with an APS-C size sensor and an 18mm focal length (around the widest angle on a typical kit lens) has a field of view of only 64°. Your eyes take in so much more than your camera, and that’s what leads to disappointment, time after time.

There is a solution, and the title of this piece gives it away.

In order to recreate some of that awesomeness in your images, you need a panorama to do it. Creating a panorama couldn’t be easier, and to begin with, the good news is that it won’t cost you any money either.

From an equipment point of view all you need is a dSLR camera.

But you will need to add just one more item to your arsenal, and that’s some stitching software. Stitching software is what seamlessly joins your separate images to create that stunning panoramic view. The software is necessary because lenses distort images – especially wide angle lenses, and especially at the edges – which is where you need the images to match. Stitching software takes this distortion into account and corrects it.

Photoshop has had a panoramic stitching feature (Photomerge) since at least CS2. You will find it under File ==>Automate ==> Photomerge. Lightroom also has this function built into the latest Creative Cloud version. Adobe, by the way, do a great deal for photographers. You can get an annual subscription that allows you full use, not only of the latest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, but also any upgrades that take place during your subscription period so you always have the latest version of the software. Adobe are currently offering a huge discount to photographers taking both versions together compared to subscribing to either Photoshop or Lightroom individually. Photoshop CC alone is more than double the price of the Photoshop & Lightroom package so grab this offer now.

If you have a Canon EOS camera you can download Canon Photostitch for free from Canon. It is part of the software set that is supplied with your camera. You’ll also find it in Canon’s ImageBrowser EX.

A quick Google search for Free Stitching Software leads me to believe there is plenty out there if you don’t have any photo-editing software that lets you do this. I use either Photostitch or Photoshop. Photostitch is simpler, Photoshop gives you much more control over your finished image. If you’re new to creating panoramas you’ll find Photostitch more than adequate. The only other free software I’ve used is Hugin and that also does a brilliant job, but it is far from straightforward to use. if you click on the image below you can compare the results from Canon’s Photostitch, Hugin, and Photoshop. The same four images were used to create each panorama.

OK, so you’ve got a camera that allows you some manual control, and you’ve got some suitable software – what next?

Next you need some images. How many is up to you. You can join two, three, twenty three. It doesn’t really matter, though the more images you join in one operation the longer the job is going to take. The software has to match up pixels on each edge of adjacent images and correct lens distortions and pretty much do a load of number crunching so you don’t notice the join. This takes time, especially if you are using a camera where each image has a high pixel count. So I would suggest that three or four images might be a good place to start until you gain some experience.

One of the things I’ve found speeds things up – since I’m not making big prints – is to create smaller jpeg files for each image and join those. I’ll reduce my 5000+ pixel side to 1000, or maybe 2000 pixels and then the stitching process goes much quicker. This will still provide you with a large image that’s too big to view full size on a monitor.

Time to get started and to make it a little easier I’ve turned panorama creation into a simple ten step process.

  1. Find a subject – which can be absolutely anything that takes your fancy.
  2. Decide on the start point and the end point.
  3. Measure the exposure for the brightest part of the scene (so that you don’t blow out the highlights)
  4. Set the exposure manually: move the mode selector to M, then adjust aperture and shutter speed.
  5. Take a shot of the brightest part of the scene and check the histogram to ensure no overexposure of highlights.
  6. Set the focus to manual and focus on anything significant in your panorama.
  7. Turn the camera to portrait orientation
  8. Take the first shot at the left hand end of the panorama and make a mental note of an object near the right hand edge of the frame.
  9. Move the camera so that the noted object is on the left hand side of the frame now (this ensures sufficient overlap) and take the next shot.
  10. Repeat until the panorama is complete.

In Much More Detail

1. Subject

Panoramas tend to full into the landscape category, but they can be of anything that fails to fit into the standard 3:2 ratio rectangle we force most of our images into. Unlike general photography, panoramas don’t usually have a simple subject – like a person, statue, building and so on. Your subject also needs to be captured without moving the camera up or down between shots. Check out Panoramic Photography by Arnaud Frich for some great examples of what you can create. Also be wary of moving objects in the frame. Stitching software can’t cope with objects that are in a different place in each frame.

2. Beginning and Ending

Panoramas, just like any other image, need to have a little thought spent on composition. If you can, find parts of the scene that act like natural stops to frame the image. In the panorama of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port (see section 7) I’ve used the taller buildings and deep shadows on the left and the grassy bank with another shadow on the right to frame the image. The panorama of Hope Valley, Sutherland uses a hill at each end – as does the one of Conwy, Wales.

3. Measure Exposure

Exposure is one of the biggest problems with wide panoramas because you can find that light levels across a wide scene vary by as much as two or three stops. If you leave your camera on auto exposure (Aperture Priority Av/A, Shutter Priority Tv/S, Program P, or any scene modes), then the camera will adjust the exposure for each shot every time you move the camera. As the exposure changes so does the colour and brightness of each pixel. What this means is that the pixels on adjacent image edges – that are supposed to be identical – end up being different. This causes problems in the stitching software. When you switch to manual exposure and set the aperture/shutter speed combination to cater for the brightest part of the scene, you know that all edges will be identical. You also know that you will have detail in the highlights. Panoramas frequently contain a lot of sky and if the clouds are blown out and have no detail then they will detract from the appearance of your image.

Point the camera at the brightest part of the scene half-press the shutter and look in the viewfinder to see your camera’s exposure suggestion.

4. Manual Exposure

Set the exposure mode to M, then set aperture and shutter speed to the reading obtained from the camera in the previous step. The exposure needs to be consistent across all the images. If it isn’t the joins will show up and the stitching software will have difficulty matching identical pixels on adjacent images. Setting the exposure to manual prevents the camera making the minor changes it would make as you move the camera for each successive image.

5. Brightest

Now take your shot, check the screen and check the histogram. If the vertical bars on the histogram are up against the right hand edge then either select a smaller aperture setting (if you have f11, then try f16), or increase the shutter speed (if you have 1/250, try 1/500). If there is a large gap between the vertical bars and the right hand edge then select either a larger aperture or slower shutter speed.

Repeat this process until you have the correct exposure.

6. Focus

Focus is a bit like exposure. If the focus changes from image to image then matching pixels along the edge of the frames will not be identical.  Your camera likes to pick something that interests it and focus on that, so you need to take control. Switch the focus to manual, usually the switch is on the lens, and find something that seems to be a representative distance for the whole panorama and focus manually on that. Alternatively, leave the focus on auto while you shoot your exposure test, and then, without altering the focus distance, switch to manual focus. That way the camera will do the focusing and switching to manual will just leave it where it is.

7. Portrait

It really doesn’t matter which way you hold the camera to take your panorama. But if you are hand holding then you’ll find that portrait orientation gives you more vertical ‘wiggle’ room. It’s not easy to keep the camera movement perfectly horizontal, unless you use a tripod with a levelled head, and until you’ve had some practise you will find that your stitched panoramas have a lot of white space at opposite corners. This needs cropping out and will make your resultant panorama very narrow.

 

Shooting with your camera held vertically allows for more vertical space, though it does require many more images to cover the area of the same panorama.

Compare the above with this image where the camera was held vertically.

8. Start

Start at the left hand end of your panorama. Stitching software tends to want you to arrange images from left to right, so that the matching edges are adjacent. If you use something like Lightroom to sort your images it also makes it easy to select the images that you want in order to create your panorama. If you’re anything like me, these will be mixed up with a lot of other shots. Some photographers take a shot of their hand before the first image of a panoramic sequence, and another at the end. This makes it easy to find a panorama set when scanning through a lot of images.

9. Pay attention

As you take each shot find something close to the right hand edge. You will use this as a reference point when you move the camera to take the next image. So, when you move along for the next shot, line up the same reference point, but this time on the left hand edge. You want to aim for an overlap of around 25%. This gives the software lots of information to work with. If you fail to overlap, or barely overlap, the stitching software may just give up and you won’t be able to create your stunning view.

10. Repeat

Just repeat point 9 until you reach the end of the panorama. When you’ve finished, remember to reset the focus switch and put the exposure back to auto. I’ve quite often found that I’ve taken a load of overexposed shots simply because I forgot to reset everything to normal and I’ve been shooting on manual thinking the camera was looking after the exposure.

 

That may seem like a lot to take in, but once you’ve done one or two the whole thing will become second nature to you and you’ll find yourself creating panoramas every time you go out with your camera.

 


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