When we travel to amazing places, taking pictures allows us to show our friends and family what we saw. Composing the perfect photo is a process of pointing your camera at something interesting, and shooting at the right time. But what if the people viewing your photos could virtually stand where you were standing, and look around, fully immersed in the scene?
360-degree panoramas are a unique and exciting way to let your viewers explore your pictures. If you’ve played with Google Street View, or have seen a real-estate listing with a virtual tour, imagine capturing this type of interactive photography on your next adventure.
Seeing the World in 360
While many phones and point-and-shoot cameras have a panorama mode, 360 spherical panoramas will take your images to even further by including everything in the scene. Visualize your photo being projected on the inside of a large ball. Your viewers will be able to look in any direction, side to side or up and down!
Explore this immersive panorama at this link.
iPhone 360 Panoramas
iPhone apps like Photosynth, 360 Panorama, Pano, and AutoStitch are a really fun and inexpensive way to start experimenting with 360 panoramas. Creating spherical 360s with a phone can be a challenge. Holding your phone over exactly the same spot on the ground when shooting will help everything line up.
Ricoh Theta: The One-Shot Wonder
If you want to shoot 360s without the hassle of apps, the Ricoh Theta is a small, easy-to-use camera that takes 360-degree panoramas in one shot. The Theta has a super-wide fisheye lens on each side, and usually does a nice job of stitching the images together. You can either press the shutter button to make a 360, or fire the camera from an iPhone. I carry this camera with me every day, so I never miss an opportunity to shoot a 360.
Shooting 360 Panoramas with a DSLR
If you’re serious about shooting 360s, you’ll eventually want higher-quality panoramas with more resolution. The next step is to use a mirrorless camera or DSLR with a fisheye lens and panoramic head. Using a fisheye lens allows you to make a fully spherical 360 in a reasonable number of shots. Wide-angle lenses also work well, but require shooting and stitching more images. While handheld 360s are possible, using a panohead on a tripod or monopod makes assembling your panorama a lot easier.
I shoot 360 panoramas with either a Nodal Ninja R1, or a Nodal Ninja Ultimate M2 Panoramic Head. At just over one pound, the R1 is great for travel, and works well on a tripod or monopod. The M2 allows you to use bigger lenses to shoot high-resolution, multi-row panoramas.
I’m currently using a Canon EOS 6D with the Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens to shoot 360s. A lightweight travel tripod like the Sirui N-1204x, or MeFOTO GlobeTrotter, makes a great option for support. Both of these tripods also convert to monopods.
Panoramic heads are available from a wide variety of manufacturers. B&H carries heads by Nodal Ninja, Jobu, Novoflex, and Manfrotto. Good panoramic heads start at around $350. The Nodal Ninja R1 or Nodal Ninja 4 are great beginner models.
Spending some time dialing-in the settings on your panoramic head will ensure that your images stitch together easily. A panohead keeps the point where light enters the lens, called the no-parallax point, consistent between shots. This precise alignment makes it easier for panoramic software to stitch your panorama together. I recommend using the grid method for finding the optimal stitching position of your panoramic head.
Leveling and Rotating
In addition to calibrating your panohead, keeping the camera level is helpful. You can use a leveling base such as the Nodal Ninja EZ II or Acratech, along with a click-stop rotator underneath your panoramic head. For an ultra-light and flexible travel setup, I often use the Arca Swiss P0 ball head on my travel tripod. The inverted design of the P0 allows proper panohead leveling and rotation.
Fisheye Lens Choices and Resolution
The easiest way to shoot a 360 pano with a DSLR is to use an 8mm fisheye lens on a crop sensor, or a 10-12mm fisheye on a full-frame camera. The angle of view of these fisheye lenses is so wide that you can capture a 360-degree sphere in four shots around (that’s one shot every 90 degrees). You can shoot either a fifth shot of the ground where the tripod was, or just patch this area using Photoshop.
For more resolution, use a 10mm fisheye on a crop sensor, or 15mm fisheye on a full-frame camera. You’ll need to shoot six shots around (every 60 degrees), one shot up (called the zenith), and one shot down (called the nadir).
Higher-resolution panoramas allow your viewers to zoom in further. Some panographers use longer lenses to shoot gigapixel panoramas, where you can really explore all of the fine details of a scene. The GigaPan robotic heads are popular for gigapixel panoramas, but aren’t well suited for 360 spherical panoramas.
Keeping your exposures consistent between shots is an important part of shooting 360 panoramas. I recommend shooting RAW images in Manual mode. You’ll want to keep street lamps or other strong light sources away from the blend area of your images. Also look out for tripod shadows, which can be tricky to remove. A cable release is useful for preventing camera shake.
Stitching and Displaying 360 Panoramas
"Panoramic software is continuing to improve, and there are lots of panographers online to give you tips."
Process all of your RAW files with the same settings, and output them as 16-bit TIFFs. Then you’ll need panorama software to stitch them together. The two top stitching programs are PTGui and Autopano. PTGui is powerful, but can be a little bit tricky at first. Autopano has improved a lot over the last few years, and has a nicer user interface. There are also free options from Hugin and Microsoft ICE. Stitching 360s in Photoshop is technically possible, but very cumbersome.
Once your panoramas have been stitched together, you’ll need a way to present them online. If you’re adding 360 panos to your website or blog, Pano2VR, krpano, and PanoTour are interactive panorama viewers that offer lots of options. A simpler way to get your 360 panoramas online is to use 360Cities or Google Maps.
Most people can learn how to shoot and stitch 360 panoramas within a few days. Professional-level stitching and presentation can take more time to master. Panoramic software is continuing to improve, and there are lots of panographers online to give you tips.
Blending Your Passions
My passion over the last 10 years has been to photograph abandoned places, often under the light of the full moon. Once I started playing with 360 panoramas, I realized that the immersive experience really helped me remember what it was like to be at these amazing places. I started shooting 360 panoramas on most of my road trips to the rusty and forlorn locations that I like to photograph. Here’s a virtual tour of a junkyard in the middle of the night:
Explore this immersive panorama at this link.
I hope this article inspires you to try shooting and sharing some 360 panoramas, whether it’s on your next trip to somewhere exotic, or just walking around the city where you live.
About Joe Reifer:
Joe Reifer’s night photographs feature ghost towns, industrial ruins, desert junkyards, and closed military bases. He also enjoys shooting 360-degree panoramas. Reifer teaches night photography and light-painting workshops at California’s most scenic junkyards.