By Dimitrios Zavos
For some peculiar reason panoramic photos, even average ones, seem to enjoy a higher degree of appeal among viewers, when compared to those of the most common formats. One can only speculate as to why. It could be because panoramas offer a more "immersive" viewing experience with their ultra-wide field of view or it could be that they just stand out because of their different format, and this makes them more "eye-catching" by default.
Whatever the reason may be, the bottom line is that panoramic photography allows plenty of space for creativity and in this article I will initially explain how to correctly capture panoramic images and secondly how to blend them into a single image using Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop.
As this is a rather lengthy article, you can be transferred directly to any of its sections by following the links below:
So first things first, let's start with the gear you will need (or may sometimes need to remove from your camera...) in order to capture panoramic images.
It might come as a surprise to many, but you don't actually need plenty of gear to shoot panoramic images. It can be done simply with a point-and-shoot camera, a mobile phone or a DSLR and lens setup. Of course, in such a case, you should be prepared for a compromise in image quality and you must also anticipate heavy cropping of your final image, due to alignment issues that are quite common when shooting panoramas handheld.
Nevertheless, if you have high expectations for your final result you will most certainly need some (if not all...) of the following equipment:
Digital Camera: Any camera that allows locking of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO settings can be used for shooting panoramas. Manual mode is the mode of choice here.
Lens: You can shoot Panoramas with lenses of any focal length, as long as you can frame your target area, but I find that standard zoom (such as a 24-70mm, for example) and telephoto zoom (such as a 70-200mm and longer) lenses are better suited to this task. You can always cover as wide an area as you desire, but you have the added flexibility of being able to zoom-in to leave unwanted elements outside your frame or simply get closer to your subject.
Tripod: The use of a tripod when shooting panoramas is not absolutely critical, as such, since you can shoot handheld or support your gear on any flat and immovable surface, but of course it affords the photographer much more flexibility, it makes perfect levelling of the camera a breeze and it is a must if you're aiming for accurate panning (rotation of the camera on the horizontal plane). A tripod is an essential piece of gear for any photographer and should always be used when available, but you can still shoot panoramas without one.
Tripod Head: There are several tripod heads you can choose from, some of which are ideal for shooting panoramas, while some others less so. What you should be looking for is a tripod head that will support effortless panning and will not allow unwanted tilting or vertical rotation of the camera while panning. A good, but by no means the only, example of such a head (and the one I'm currently using myself) is Manfrotto's XPRO 3 way head.
Remote Control or Cable Release: These are not really essential, but they certainly help produce images free of the dreaded camera shake. The camera's self-timer can also be used as an alternative.
L Bracket: An L Bracket is an accessory that replaces the mounting plate connecting your camera to your tripod head and provides three distinct and often crucial benefits:
It is a fast and easy way to quickly flip the camera from Horizontal to Vertical position, without the need to re-align and re-level the tripod head, as it has two mounting plates (one for each position)
It ensures that when panning in a Vertical position, your camera's nodal point is as close as possible to the rotation axis, thus minimising parallax errors
It keeps the camera's weight centered over the tripod and therefore significantly improves the stability of the setup, when shooting in a Vertical position
L Brackets come in various types, either generic ones to suit most cameras or camera-specific ones, which are always preferable, but may need to be replaced whenever a camera is replaced.
Polarising Filters: Make sure to remove your polariser when shooting panoramas, as it may cause problems that you will only notice once the images have been stitched together. The most common examples are panoramic images where the sky shows different shades of blue, caused by the light entering the polariser at different angles while panning. You could use other filters, such as Neutral Density Graduated ones, for example, but always be vigilant and make sure that they have the intended impact on your image throughout the frame.
Finally, there are plenty of dedicated panoramic setups you can use, but they are too technical and thus fall outside of the scope of this article. Such systems are primarily used by professionals who specialise in architectural panoramas. Of course, they guarantee the best possible outcome, if used correctly, but their significant cost, cumbersomeness and complexity of use make them a less than viable option for amateur and enthusiast photographers alike. Nevertheless, if you feel you might be interested in a dedicated panoramic system you could browse the catalogues of Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto, Gitzo and Nodal Ninja for some great examples.
It is imperative that all exposure settings are the same in every image you intend to use for your panorama. To achieve this you need to take the following steps:
Set your camera to Manual mode so that you can select all the exposure parameters yourself, without risking the camera changing any of them automatically. Take a look at my DSLR camera shooting modes article to gain a deeper understanding of the options at your disposal.
Switch to Manual focus and set the focus on a distant object. You want to keep focus constant throughout your frames.
Choose a small Aperture (large f-number) such as f/9, f/11 or higher (not too high as diffraction will impact image quality) to keep your entire frame in focus.
Select the lowest normal (not expanded) ISO setting possible to maximize image quality. If shooting handheld you might need to use a higher ISO to increase shutter speed and avoid camera shake.
After you have selected the required aperture and ISO values, you need to set your shutter speed by metering an average brightness area of your panorama. Meter a bright area and you will end up with an underexposed scene. Meter a dark area and you'll get burnt-out highlights.
Shoot in RAW format to avoid loss of crucial detail by in-camera processing. You can read all about the benefits of shooting in RAW vs JPEG in Part 4 of my Beginners' Guide.
Now that you've set your camera up correctly it is time to discuss the proper shooting techniques.
There are two ways to capture Panoramas:
By taking horizontal shots
By taking vertical shots
This is a good method to use when you are not particularly interested in the resulting resolution or the picture format of the final image. It can lead to very wide photos, but usually of smaller height than the original ones.
The following is an example of a panorama created by combining three horizontal shots:
And following is the stitched image:
The stitched image is wider than the originals, but its height is smaller, due to cropping.
Finally, by cropping out some uninteresting areas and with a bit of editing we get our finished panoramic image:
With this method the photographer covers the intended area by shooting vertical frames instead of horizontal ones. This is my preferred method of shooting panoramas, as it creates images of much higher resolution than horizontal shooting and also allows capturing a wider area of the foreground and background that can later be cropped to suit. The final image might have the "ultra-wide" look typical of panoramic photos, or it could look like the usual 2x3 format, but with much higher resolution. This allows for very large prints, but without any loss of image quality. Following is a typical example of a panoramic image that comes close to the typical 2x3 format:
And the final image:
The resulting image above features a whopping 75% more megapixels than any single shot from the same camera. The higher megapixel count allows the photographer to print the image in much larger sizes without any loss of quality. An very satisfying result indeed.
Once you have established the borders of the area that you wish to include in your Panorama and have set up your gear you should take the following steps:
Remove any polarising filters. Using a polarizer creates a change in contrast depending on the location of the sun. As you rotate the camera the effect of the filter will vary and this will result in severe light banding in your stitched panorama.
Place the intended left edge of your panorama in the center of the viewfinder and take the first photo. When stitching images in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop (or any other software application) you might need to crop out large areas from the sides of your panorama to remove the white space around the stitched image. By allowing extra space along the sides you minimise the risk of having to crop out parts of the frame you intended to include. Similarly, ensure that your last frame extends sufficiently beyond the intended right border of your panorama.
Start shooting from left to right and try to overlap frames by 40-50%. This allows the stitching program to find enough reference points to stitch your panorama correctly. You do not want to drop below 20% overlap.
Make sure that, as you pan from left to right, your camera stays leveled. If you don't have a tripod head that restricts tilt and vertical rotation you can always use your tripod head's spirit level or the focusing marks in your viewfinder as reference points.
When you are done shooting inspect your sequence of photos for any errors, unwanted items, sharpness issues, camera shake etc. and if you are not happy with one or more of them then start over again.
Try not to shoot panoramas where moving objects are present. This includes strong wind as well, as it causes trees and grass to move which makes it difficult for stitching software to select reference points. If you have to then wait for a drop in the wind between shooting your frames.
Try not to shoot panoramas when there are nearby objects present in your photos. They tend to appear in different positions against the background as the camera turns, which is known as the "parallax" effect. Parallax is the differential movement of foreground objects in relation to the background. Of course you can use a dedicated panoramic head to minimize the impact of parallax, if you happen to have one in your possession.
There are several software applications one can use to stitch panoramas from individual photos, but admittedly, the most commonly used ones are Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Up to the release of Lightroom CC in mid-2015, Photoshop was, by far, the most widely used application for stitching panoramas and rightly so, since it turned what used to be a lengthy and painstaking process into a "two-click-wonder". Lightroom CC introduced an even more simplified process to do the same thing though, without the drawback of having to convert RAW (.dng) files into TIFF which resulted in larger file sizes, longer processing times and some loss of image quality.
In the following two sections I will guide you, step by step, through the stages of creating a panoramic image with both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.
Once you have finished importing into your Lightroom Library the RAW files of the images you wish to merge, you will need to switch to the Develop module (hit the "D" key or click "Develop" on the upper right-hand side). You should then select all the images, right click on any of them and select Photo Merge -> Panorama. You will then be taken to a screen similar to this:
This is your Panorama Options screen and as you can see it is pretty basic. It only allows you to select a Projection Method and offers the "Auto Select Projection" and "Auto Crop" tools which I never use.
Take the time to preview all three Projection options (Spherical, Cylindrical and Perspective) and choose the one that produces the best output image. I usually go for Cylindrical, but in this case the Spherical option matched more closely what I saw on location. When you are satisfied with the result hit the "Merge" button.
Lightroom has now created the panorama (this may take a while depending on the number of photos you are merging and your computer's processing power) and you can proceed with editing it as you would do with any photo.
After a few minor adjustments and a bit of cropping we have our final image:
Being able to create panoramas entirely within Lightroom has two distinct advantages:
The resulting panoramic image is a RAW (.dng) file which means that it contains all the information captured by the sensor and can thus deliver results of much higher quality through non-destructive editing.
It does not require the use of Adobe Photoshop thus removing a major step from the post-processing workflow
The second most popular method of creating panoramas is, of course, through Photoshop.
The Photoshop panorama stitching method is known as the "Photomerge" process and it can be launched in the following two ways:
Directly from Photoshop by selecting File -> Automate -> Photomerge... Click on "Browse", navigate to your photos, select them and hit "OK"
Through Lightroom by selecting the photos, right-clicking and selecting "Edit In" -> "Merge to Panorama in Photoshop"
Both of these methods will take you to a screen similar to this:
Make sure you have selected the "Blend Images Together" option before you continue. Once you click "OK" Photoshop will start the process, which may take a few minutes depending on the number of photos, the file size and your computer's processing power. Once it has finished merging the images it will take you to a screen similar to this:
In the following screenshot you can see the fine lines along which Photoshop Photomerge has blended the three initial images into one:
As with the Lightroom workflow, I strongly advise you to take the time to examine the result of the different panorama stitching options Photoshop Photomerge offers, as the differences in the final image can vary from very subtle to quite dramatic. You can then decide which image best matches what you saw when shooting in the field.
Once you have reviewed the options and you have created a panorama you are happy with, all you have to do is crop the image to remove the white areas around it or remove parts that you wouldn't like to appear in your final image, fine-tune it in either Photoshop or Lightroom and you're done!
I hope you found the article helpful. As always, if you have any questions or comments please post them in the "Comments" section below.