The Tools and Techniques of Panoramic Photography

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There’s something about the shape or aspect ratio of panoramic photographs that always makes you slow down for a closer look. Most of the pictures we view on a regular basis in print or online are invariably horizontal, in 3:2 or 4:3 rectangular aspect ratios, which can be visually digested with a quick pass or two of our eyes. The visual data contained within wider-aspect panorama photographs, however, is distributed across a field of view (FOV) too wide to absorb in a single glance—let alone in two or three glances—depending on the subject matter.

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In addition to their attention-grabbing aspect ratios, panoramic photographs catch our attention because panoramic images are quite similar to the way we see the world, through horizontally aligned eyes.

The human eye, depending on the owner’s health and physiology, takes in a field of view of about 90 to 95°. Our eyes work together to capture a combined binocular field of view of approximately 120°, separated by an interpupillary distance of about 54-68mm, when looking straight ahead. Combined, our eyes can take in a more expansive angle of view (AOV) of about 180 to 200° when both eyes pan left and right in unison.

In-Camera Panoramic Imaging

In the days of film there were cameras manufactured specifically for panoramic imaging. Short of cropping a third off the tops and bottoms of standard-sized frames or butting consecutively captured prints together as a means of creating panoramas (pre-digital stitching), these specialty cameras, which were available in both 35mm and medium formats, were the only way to create panoramic photographs.

Despite the denudation of film cameras from the marketplace, cameras designed specifically to capture panoramic photographs are still being manufactured and are available in the form of the novelty Lomographic cameras, as well as precision medium-format technical cameras that are interchangeably compatible with film backs and digital-capture backs.

When shooting digitally, it’s possible to capture panoramic images through a choice of methods, the simplest being by stitching two or more still images, captured consecutively, along the same horizontal (or vertical) plane with about 15 to 20% overlap between adjoining frames. Once the individual images are opened and processed, it’s easy to stitch them together using Photoshop or any number of stand-alone stitching applications.

Thanks to their translucent mirror reflex viewing systems, panoramic imagery can also be captured using Sony’s SLT-series DSLRs. Once the sequence is complete, these images are instantly merged together into a single wide-field image with an AOV of up to 360°. And you don’t have to do anything except wait for the final image to pop up on your screen.

The cool thing is that this awesome technology is available in a number of point-and-shoot cameras that cost well under $499. There is also a growing number of panorama-enabled DSLRs and panorama-enabled mirrorless camera systems that incorporate the same technologies at similarly reasonable price points.

As a result, what was previously considered a photographic process reserved for technically savvy photographers who could afford pricey, narrow application photo gear is now an “everyman” (and woman) workflow option.

Multi-Shot, Stitch-Assisted Panoramic Cameras

In a bid to take stitching technologies to the max, there are also panoramic camera cradles available that can turn almost any digital camera into an advanced panoramic capture device capable of combining hundreds of individually sequenced stills into a single, monstrously detailed panoramic image file.

Included in this exclusive club are GigaPan Camera Mounts, which are available for use with DSLRs as well as garden variety point-and-shoot cameras. Other options include the e-Filming 360 Digital Panorama Base, which works in a similar manner, and the GoPano EyeSee360 Panoramic Camera Mounts.

The Best Focal Length for Capturing Panoramic Imagery

Contrary to what one would assume when talking about lens choices for shooting panoramic images, wide-angle lenses are not necessarily the best choice when it comes to stitching individual images together. The reason is that in the process of maintaining proper perspective and blending overlapping sections of adjacent images, the corners of each frame have to be cropped slightly, and the wider the lens, the more you have to crop, resulting in smaller, lower resolution image files.

So, while in theory you need fewer wider-angle pictures to create a panoramic photograph, if you shoot with a lens closer to whatever is considered “normal” based on the camera format you’re using (i.e. 50mm for a full-frame 35, and 35mm for an APS-C-format camera), you’ll end up with a sharper, better-detailed panoramic photograph.

A Few Additional Thoughts about Panoramic Photography Techniques

Camera, lens and software issues aside, there are a few additional considerations one should keep in mind when taking panoramic photographs.

Camera Supports: Though most panorama-enabled digital cameras tout the achievements of taking handheld in-camera panoramas, for best results you should mount your camera on a tripod with a tripod or ball head that can be leveled, locked and rotated (preferably) 360° in a level position. At B&H we stock a large number of ball heads with panoramic bases, panorama base plates and camera platforms and quick release panorama plates—many 

with multiple built-in bubble levels—that enable you to set up your camera for optimal panoramic imaging.

If you already own a tripod and head that you’re happy with but need a bit of assistance in leveling your camera, B&H also sells Lucite bubble levels that sit neatly on your camera’s hot shoe, as well as leveling base plates that feature adjustable cams. When positioned between your tripod and head, leveling base plates allow you to micro-adjust the angle of your seated camera to enable 360° of level camera rotation. It might sound complex, but in fact is quite easy.

When you’re shopping for a ball head, tripod head or base plates for shooting panoramic imagery, make sure the base portion is clearly calibrated 360° around (and preferably with detents) for precise and repeatable camera positioning.

Exposures: When you’re shooting individual still images that will be stitched together to create a panoramic photograph, it’s recommended you set your camera’s exposure system to Manual mode in order to avoid uneven lighting from one frame to the next. By establishing an f-stop-shutter-speed combination that maintains a good balance of shadow and highlight detail, your final results will have a more natural look. If in doubt, shoot a series of sequences with half or full-stop over- and under- exposures. With a bit of practice and experience, this should be an easy workflow procedure.

Pan Speeds: When you’re capturing in-camera panoramas in which the camera captures and stitches together dozens of still frames while you hold the shutter button and “sweep” the scene with your camera, it’s important to maintain a steady, not-too-fast-and-not-too-slow pan speed. A few test shots should enable you to figure out a safe “speed zone.”

Moving Subjects within the Image Field

Always be aware of moving subjects when shooting panoramic photographs, especially when shooting in-camera sweep style panoramas or when using cameras in which the lens pivots during the exposure. The reason behind this alert is that anything moving within the frame, depending on the direction and velocity of the subject’s movement and the direction and velocity of the camera (or lens) movement, can easily result in visual distortions.

In the case of subjects moving in the opposite direction of the camera or lens, the subject might appear truncated, or only partially recorded. Similarly, subjects moving in the same direction as the camera or lens movement can be elongated, or in the case of sweep-style panoramas in which dozens of images are captured in rapid succession, the moving subject can appear stroboscopically. While these aberrations can be artsy looking, there are times you might want to wait for a lull in the action or a red traffic light before taking your picture.

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And lastly, despite the fact it’s advisable to maintain a level horizon line when capturing panoramas sweep style—and the camera will automatically halt the exposure if you go too far off course—with practice it’s possible to capture truly unique rollercoaster-like panoramas once you figure out how far you can push the limits of tilting while sweeping the scene.