Panoramic photography has never been easier than it is today, thanks to digital technology. In the days of film, your options for panoramic photos were the purchase of expensive, but very capable, panoramic cameras, stitching images together in a darkroom, or physically cutting and pasting prints together. Panoramic cameras, like the Linhof Technorama-series, Hasselblad XPan, Fujifilm GX617, or Horseman SW-series cameras, are beautiful machines and still incredibly viable tools of the trade if you want to take exquisite panoramic images with film. The B&H Used Department often has a nice selection of gorgeous panoramic cameras to choose from. And if you must shoot digital images, Horseman makes dedicated mounts that accept popular medium format digital backs.
For those looking for the film-panoramic experience without a foray into costly, dedicated camera equipment, Lomography produces many dedicated panoramic cameras that take 35mm film, as well as cameras that offer panoramic modes on some of the company’s medium format film cameras.
Today, thanks to digital technology, panoramic photography has never been easier.
Almost every point-and-shoot, mirrorless, DSLR, and smartphone camera has built-in panoramic modes. Once you select this mode, the photographer pans the camera right or left, up or down, and the camera’s computer automatically begins taking photos and stitching them together into a single panoramic file. This is as easy as it gets!
Panorama of the B&H SuperStore, taken with an iPhone 6. © Jill Waterman
However, if you do not have a panoramic mode on your camera, or if you want to have the ability to stich together raw images to form your panorama, you can always create your own panoramic images manually. Success depends on simple planning and a fundamentally solid process. The process is easy, but there are pitfalls to avoid and hardware that can help you out.
Camera position You can shoot horizontal panoramas with your camera in the “landscape” position, but the best method is to roll your camera 90 degrees into the “portrait” position. This allows you to, in post processing, crop the top and bottom as needed to keep the main subject inside the panorama. Also, you should get less distortion.
Lens Selection At first, you might think a wide-angle lens is best for a panoramic. This isn’t always the case. Depending on your subject, and the distance from the subject, a normal or telephoto lens might be best. Remember, one of the draws of the panoramic image is the detail you can see in the final photo. This means your lens needs to bring you in relatively close to the subject, but not too close. You will want to have some space above and below the subject (think skyline or mountain range) as you pan through the landscape, but not too much space, as the goal is an image that is very wide, but not very tall. A standard 50mm lens is often perfect for panoramas. If you need more reach, go with longer focal lengths. Prime lenses are best for consistency, as you do not want to accidently jog your focal length on a zoom while panning.
Remember, one of the primary benefits of shooting a panoramic image consisting of multiple frames is the intricate detail that is possible when viewing the image up close. A wide-angle lens is counterproductive to this goal.
Panorama at the beach, taken with a Sony NEX-6 ILC. © Nick McGuire
Panning Direction I don’t know why this is, but unless you know if your camera or software supports the opposite, your panning should be left to right, as the camera’s automatic modes use this and the post-processing engines also work from left to right. Don’t ask me why. Just do it! Some futuristic-type cameras and software allow right-to-left panning, but the old-school default has been left-to-right panning.
Support Besides helping to stabilize your camera and give you the best chance at getting sharp images, a tripod also makes it substantially easier to pan across the scene between exposures and maintain accurate framing. Also, a remote or cabled shutter release will add to the overall stability.
Level You want to keep your panning level. You can verify this with the use of bubble levels that are either built into your tripod or tripod head or attached to your camera’s flash shoe. Some cameras have built-in level indicators. Not only do you want to be level, port and starboard, but also level fore and aft.
Exposure Modes Manual mode should be your choice for your panoramic. Other modes might work, but have the potential to send you into one of the aforementioned pitfalls, so go with Manual to improve your odds. What you want to do is get a consistent exposure through the panorama. Often, one part of the landscape is brighter than others. For me, I want the final image to look like what I see through the camera—as if I had made the panorama in a single exposure.
Panorama of the San Francisco skyline from the Alcatraz Lighthouse, captured with a Nikon D300 DSLR. © Todd Vorenkamp
To set my exposure, I set the camera to a middle aperture for maximum sharpness and, on Aperture Priority mode, I scan through the landscape and look at my camera’s light meter and exposure information. I mentally register the required shutter speed in the bright sections and in the dark sections and then I pick a shutter speed value in between the two. If there is no difference, or only a difference of one stop, I will choose the darker exposure, as I know I can pull more details out of the shadow areas of the panorama.
Some panoramic experts will adjust aperture instead of shutter speed to fine-tune their exposures. Regardless of the mode you choose, check your histograms and look for clipping in all channels. If you need a faster shutter speed to freeze movement in the frame(s) and you do not want to open your aperture more, you can bump up the ISO as needed.
Focus Modes Depending on the subject of the panorama, and the distance involved, you might want to focus initially with autofocus and then switch to manual focus so the focal plane does not shift. Be careful not to bump the focus ring as you pan, if you do this.
Panorama of crashing surf, taken with a Sony NEX-6 ILC. © Nick McGuire
There are many opinions online about focus and panoramas. I have had no issues using autofocus to lock me onto a distant scene and leaving autofocus on for all the frames, but if you are focusing on objects closer than infinity or closer than half of the hyperfocal distance for a given lens, then you need to make a conscious decision about your focal distance.
White Balance Make sure you chose a specific white balance for your panoramic. If you leave the camera on Auto White Balance (AWB) and the camera shifts while you make exposures, you might have a post-processing/blending nightmare. If you forgot this, but shot the panoramic in raw, you can adjust the WB in post processing before you stitch the images. For those shooting custom WB settings, feel free to bring this technique to your panoramics.
ISO Ensure that your ISO is not set to Auto ISO. It's also best to shoot at lower ISO values to avoid unwanted noise when possible.
Filters Your awesome polarizing filter might make that sky and those clouds pop, but as the camera changes angles on the sun, the polarization will shift as well. Shoot your panoramas filter-free to avoid problems later.
Panorama of a sandy walk, photographed with a Sony A7r ILC. © Nick McGuire
It is crucial, for the success of the panorama, to have the same camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, and focus) through the image.
If your camera has no Panoramic mode, or you just want to do this old-school style, here’s how I do it. I take a “dark frame” before I start and after I finish the panorama. This way, when I am browsing the images later, I know where the panorama starts and stops, as it is likely that I may have similar images from the same shoot. To get a dark frame, I simply hold my hand over the lens while I shoot an exposure at the manual settings I will be using for the panorama.
While panning between frames, you want to overlap your images by between 20 to 50%. The more overlap, the better, generally. I use the grid option on my viewfinder to help me with my overlap; since it is set for thirds of the frame, I am getting a healthy overlap when I use both sides of the grid.
Panorama of upstate New York lake, photographed at Minnewaska State Park with an Olympus TG-850. © Allan Weitz
To verbally illustrate, I look through the camera at my first frame, depress the shutter, and then, before I pan to the right, I look for an object that is lined up at or near the right side vertical grid line. I then pan until that object is now lined up with the left side grid line and I take the next image. Repeat as needed until you are done.
Finish with a dark frame to help your file organization later.
And, before you pack up, shoot one or two more. I have found, through trial and much error, that I need several panoramas to get one “perfect one.” It is likely that one frame is not as sharp as the others, or something may have changed position without your permission, or your exposure was off. Be meticulous, change exposure if needed, but shoot at least a couple of panoramas separated by dark frames to give yourself the best chance at success when it comes time to stitch them!
Vertical panorama of the Empire State Building, captured with a Sony NEX-6 ILC. © Nick McGuire
The section on setup, above, is designed to help you avoid some hardware-based potential issues that will wreak havoc in your panoramic images. There are external elements that you cannot control that you should be conscious of as well.
Parallax Parallax, or the shifting of an object as the camera changes position, is the enemy of the panorama photographer. If you are photographing a distant landscape, this effect is minimized by the great distance to the subject; however, if there are foreground objects close to the camera, parallax created as the camera pans can cause headaches for the stitching software and leaves your image with unwanted issues.
To reduce parallax effects, avoid close foreground objects, use a camera system that allows the lens to stay stationary while the film or sensor is moved behind it the way a view camera permits, or ensure your camera is panned about the lens’s no-parallax point using a specialized panoramic mounting system that allows sliding adjustments to the camera. If you have one of these mounts, the manufacturer should provide instructions for its use, and there are several online tutorials to help as well.
Movement across the Scene Visualize shooting a cityscape across a busy waterway. Pay attention to moving boats and ships and try to make sure that you have them contained entirely in a frame instead of at the edge where they might appear in two or even three images as they move through the scene. If an object is moving across your panorama, simply adjust your overlap as needed. Remember, you cannot have too much overlap. Once the object is out of the frame, continue as planned.
Movement in the Scene Watch for things in constant motion. Waves, trees in the wind, flags, etc. They are in motion and, if captured in more than one frame, can cause grief for the stitching process.
Level Sometimes a bubble level on the tripod might not be extremely accurate if the bubble is “sticking” or if you looked at it from an angle. Test-pan your camera through the panoramic scene to make sure you are staying level before you start the shot.
Gear for Panoramic Photography
Like many things in the photographic world, you can make a panoramic photo without any gear at all, outside of your camera. But, there are numerous tools available to make the task easier and more precise. Below is a summary of common panoramic gear. If you want a more in-depth look, please head over to this partner article.
Panorama of New York City skyline from a Williamsburg rooftop, taken with a Nikon D90. © Eric Reichbaum
A sturdy tripod isn’t required to make a good panoramic image, but it will certainly give you the best chance of success with your images. By all means, use a tripod, but if you are out in the field without one and a panoramic is begging to be captured, don’t let the lack of support deter you!
Specially designed panoramic and time-lapse camera mounts help the panoramic photographer get the shot they want. Some panoramic heads are designed to ensure the camera stays completely level through the rotation, many have calibrated markings and ratchets to assist in precision panning, and some can be programed to pan the camera automatically at specific increments. Some even come with proprietary software to program the mount and assist in post-capture stitching.
These mounts are designed for cameras of all types, from DSLRs to point-and-shoots to action cams like the GoPro.
As we discussed above on the subject of parallax, many of these panoramic mounting systems are designed to rotate your camera and lens system precisely about the no-parallax point of your gear, once you set it up correctly.
Panorama in the New York City Subway, photographed with an iPhone 6. © Jason Wallace
Alternative Panoramic Options
Multi-row If you have a panoramic mounting system, the vertical slide can be used to create a multi-row panorama by shifting the camera up or down to create another layer of, or more, images. If you try this without a sliding support system, the tilting of the camera up or down will introduce perspective distortion and create a difficult solution for the stitching process; however, some modern software can handle this, so you might want to give it a try.
Perspective Control Lens Specially designed perspective control lenses, also called tilt-shift or shift lenses, are not only great for removing perspective distortion when photographing buildings. They are also great tools for panoramic images. Instead of panning the camera, simply shift the lens through the panorama!
Go Vertical 99.9% of panoramic images are taken while panning horizontally. Try a vertical one for a creative change!
A vertical panorama of New York City, taken with a Sony Cybershot DSC-WX1. © Allan Weitz
Be creative Mountain ranges and cityscapes are the most popular targets for panoramas, but think outside the box! One of our resident B&H Photo panoramic photography experts, Roman Tyczkowskyj, says, “Since I’ve been doing this long enough, I’ve challenged myself with subjects that don’t lend themselves naturally to panorama. Examples include people, vehicles, and ferry boats moving at more than 20 mph. Because of the detail captured at a great distance, you can, through the polarized window in the ferry cabin, see the lines of type on the bottles of mustard that a woman is reaching for in the galley.”
Another vertical panorama of New York City, captured with a Sony Cybershot DSC-WX1. © Allan Weitz
Finally, Stitching it Together—It’s Easy!
Most of the mainstream photography post-processing software these days has the organic capability to stitch panoramic images together into one seamless file. These systems have drastically improved over the years. There are also a number of third-party software systems available that specialize in panoramas, which may afford more control and options to the stitching.
A panorama at night of the Long Beach, Long Island, boardwalk, captured with a Nikon D610 DSLR. © Nick McGuire
Panoramic Photos are Fun!
Besides the visual candy, one of the best parts of making a successful panoramic image is that it is fun to do. When I slow down the photographic process and sprinkle some technical steps into the experience, I find it more rewarding than capturing the passing snapshot. This is what draws me to night photography, and also to panoramic photography. Speaking of which, its time to head out to make some nighttime panoramas!
Panorama of the Lower Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn, photographed with a Nikon D5300. © Allan Weitz
Do you have other pointers or tips? Please share them in the Comments section, below, and thank you for reading!