Few photographic presentations can capture the feel and magnitude of our scenic national parks like the panoramic print. When you walk past a wide photo, you can feel yourself getting drawn in.
Photographers generally create the panoramic print in one of two ways: they either take a regular photo and crop the top and/or bottom off or they take a series of photos and digitally ‘stitch’ them together.
If you have a high-resolution camera, then you might be able to simply crop to get the effect you are after. A camera with about 10 mega-pixels will give you enough pixels to print a very nice panoramic crop up to 20 inches wide. If you want more width, more resolution, or if you don’t have a 10+MP camera, then you can easily stitch a series of photos together to make a seamless panoramic image.
Now, if you read an in-depth tutorial for shooting for panoramas you will learn a lot about tripods, tripod heads, and how to avoid parallax. I’ll leave those details to others and will assume that you, like me, are likely shooting your panoramas freehand because the tripod is in the car. For best results you really should use a tripod with a dedicated pano head, but they are pretty expensive and specialized tools. I’ve found that a steady hand will give excellent results using modern stitching software.
Software that can take a series of photos, align them, and blend them together is called stitching software. Most cameras actually come with pretty capable software. This software usually is designed for fully automatic stitching and generates images that will be fine for most people. There is also some excellent free software available for pretty much any computer called Panotools. This is an open source project that a lot of people have had excellent results with.
If money's not an issue for you, then AutoDesk’s Stitcher and Adobe Photoshop are the big players in this area. There are also some very affordable shareware applications for both Mac and Windows.
Whatever software you end up using, remember that the quality will be dependent on your shooting style and original image quality. I always recommend setting your camera at RAW or full-quality JPEG with the least compression (sometimes called ‘Fine’ quality). If you do shoot RAW, you’ll need to export the images into TIFF or JPEG to run them through most stitching programs.
How to shoot for panoramas
This is an area where the fixed-lens, point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras have a significant leg up on the interchangeable-lens SLR camera. Most P&S cameras have a panoramic stitch assist mode. In this mode, the camera locks various settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus, white balance) when you take the first shot and then will show you part of your previous shot on the camera’s LCD screen for subsequent shots. This not only ensures that your shots stay lined up, but also makes sure you have enough overlap between pictures for the software to seamlessly blend everything. Most cameras even include software that can take these photos and stitch them together into a seamless whole.
If you have an interchangeable-lens (SLR) camera, then you’re pretty much on your own. The camera manufacturers assume you know what you want to do and these cameras do not have a stitch mode. At least in the case of Canon they do still include stitching software.
Here is how I shoot panoramas with my SLR:
* Set the camera to program mode (usually marked as P)
* Set the white balance to anything except auto or set the camera to shoot RAW
* Point the camera at something you want to have in focus that is not too bright or too dark
* Do a half-press of the shutter button to focus and get the camera to meter the scene
* Note the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed that the camera wants to use
* Turn off autofocus on your lens/camera (this effectively locks focus to the point you focused on earlier)
* Set the camera to full manual mode (usually marked at M)
* Set the camera’s aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to what the camera metered above
* Line your camera up with the horizon and shoot your first shot taking note of the right half of the frame (assuming you are panning to the right)
* With a mental image of the right half of your last shot in mind, slowly pan the camera to the right until the the rightmost edge of your last photo is about centered in the viewfinder
* Shoot and keep shooting until you’re done
* Make sure to turn autofocus back on and reset the camera to your preferred mode
Phew! That’s a significant difference and really shows how much help the P&S camera provides in panoramic shooting. With that much difference, you may ask why you’d bother shooting with an SLR instead of a P&S and the reasons are simple:
* Most P&S panoramic assist modes assume you are shooting a single row of photos from left to right. With the SLR technique, you can shoot right to left, multiple rows or even with the camera on its side in portrait orientation. You can certainly do this with a P&S in pano assist mode, but the previous frame alignment image won’t be usable.
* An SLR often has higher resolution, lower noise, and/or greater dynamic range.
* An SLR can shoot in RAW while most P&S cameras cannot.
Some parting tips
* Use a leveled tripod with panoramic if possible.
* Try to make sure that nothing that you are trying to capture is either too bright or too dark.
Moving objects and people can cause issues with the stitching. Try to avoid too much change between shots.
* If you try to stitch images taken in full auto mode on a camera that isn’t in panorama assist mode, you will almost always get poor results. Remember to use assist or Manual mode if you have it.
* For a really fun panorama, shoot a full 360 degrees and stitch your image into a QuickTimeVR movie. This movie can be embedded into a Web page to allow visitors to interact with the scene, panning and zooming in on the image.
* If you’re trying to find pictures you took in panorama stitch assist mode on a Canon digicam, it always names them beginning with “STA_” then “STB_”... instead of “IMG_” for each panorama.
If you want to get serious about panoramic shooting then you need to get a panoramic tripod head and good solid tripod. A good head will cost you from $150-$900. Another interesting option is an automated head from GigaPan Systems. This head will hold your (point & shoot) digicam and move it into position to take multi-row panoramas, and it even comes with stitching software.
As always, happy shooting!