PANORAMA IS INVENTED BY A HIPPIE PHOTOGRAPHER. NOT.
Before we start the proper lesson on how to shoot panorama, I have an embarrassing confession to make… and it is very important for you guys to know the correct history.
I used to think panorama as “pan-o-rama”, invented by a hippie photographer who wore an artist beret hat and panned a camera around to create an ultra wide photo.
Well, I was wrong.
I later learnt that Panorama is a Greek word, and it meant wide or “all sight” of that sorts. There is even a city named Panorama in Greece. It’s true, not fake news. So yep, panorama photography simply came from the Greek word, and it meant “very wide photography”.
The next burning question is – how wide is considered panoramic? I have searched much of the Internet, and there are no iron rules on deciding what is panoramic, except “wide enough”.
So, I guess the answer is subjective to each person then. I consider my own Nikon wide angle lens with a 107 degrees view to be “wide angle”, but to a few, that may be “panoramic” already.
Also some may consider a fisheye lens with 180 degrees view to be “panoramic”, but to me, that is still “fisheye”. This argument can go on forever, so you decide for yourself what is “wide enough to be panoramic”… or just stick with “long and wide enough” as the rest of the world goes.
AN HONEST DISCLOSURE
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE EASIEST WAY TO GET STARTED – SMARTPHONE
I am sure that most people are not strangers to panorama. Just whip out your phone, and there is this “panoramic sweep” feature in iPhone and Android. All you have to do is to sweep across horizontally, and viola. The phone magically stitches a panorama photo together, instantly.
There’s something strange though. While “panoramic sweep” is very common in phone photography, it is nowhere to be found in DSLR cameras. Which makes me wonder, are DSLR cameras not supposed to be the better cameras? Well, when we don’t have “panoramic sweep”, we have to go back to old school.
That is what we will go through in this guide. The old school secret ninja method of taking many shots and stitching them in Photoshop. Troublesome. But image quality wise, nothing beats using a big gun and Photoshop.
P.S. There is nothing wrong with using smartphones for panorama. If the old school method is not for you, feel free to stick with your phone. Just understand how it works… and appreciate how far technology has come.
To get started with panorama photography, all you need is a smartphone camera. But that is not what we are going to do. We are going to do some “proper panorama”, and you will need some proper gear first.
At the bare minimum, you will need :
- A decent camera
DSLR or mirrorless camera. Compact cameras will work too, if they allow manual settings.
- A decent tripod
Although optional, I still highly recommend you use a sturdy tripod for panorama. [Selens] offer decent tripods at an affordable price, if not, go for the old reliable [Manfrotto].
- Editing software
You will need an editing software to stitch the Panorama together. I will recommend Photoshop and Lightroom. Click on the banner below if you do not already have a copy.
Having the following gear will make your photos better:
- Panoramic pan head
These toys will make panorama great again. [Get one from eBay]
- Remote shutter release
To reduce camera shake. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
- Bubble spirit level
These simple gadgets can save you from unwanted slanted horizons. If you are too lazy to fumble around to get the camera’s virtual horizon. [Bubble spirit level]
SETUP AND COMPOSITION
Just sweep the camera across, and take a bunch of shots. Yep, that is the entire idea of how to shoot panorama in a nutshell. But wait, there’s much more if you want an awesome photo. These are the things that you need to take note before taking the shot.
C1) KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED
Let’s get started, and the first step is composing your photo… but how? Simply apply the basic composition rules – look out for interesting colors, lines and shapes. Play with lead lines and weight the elements well.
A panoramic photo does not mean that all the composition rules do not apply anymore. Sure thing, some of those rules are kind of rubbish in a panoramic photo, but most of them are still very relevant.
- Always begin with planning your composition.
- Look around for opportunities, and there’s plenty to think about – Symmetry? Reflections? Patterns? Interesting objects? Striking colors?
- Decide where is the “starting frame” of your panorama, and where to “end” it.
|💡 Beware of background movement! A rapidly changing and moving background will be very difficult to stitch together later.|
C2) HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL STACK?
A reminder that the old school way is to pan the camera around and take a bunch of photos; It works by stitching the photos together to make one long panoramic photo.
So when you have your composition, it is time to put that tripod down on the floor, and mount your camera to the tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, handheld will work too. But know that you will be rather restricted to “fast shutter speed only”… Unless you are some kind of kung fu master with extremely steady hands.
The next million dollar question is, to frame it in landscape or portrait?
For those who are used to the smartphone sweep, you will most probably go for landscape. Both ways will work, but I personally prefer to shoot in portrait.
Because shooting in portrait will give us more vertical details, and that will give us more space to crop and play around in Photoshop later. Next tip – Remember to take off all filters that may cause heavy vignetting. They can be a pain to clean up later in Photoshop.
Not to show off or something, but it is a good thing that I am using rectangular filters. Expensive toys, but they do not introduce vignetting as circular filters do. You might want to consider using such similar rectangular filters.
|💡 Tripod or not, watch that horizon by panning the camera around first! Don’t just shoot blindly and return home with a slanted horizon. A horrible mistake to make.|
C3) NINJA MOVES
Composition done, setup done. Next move, the ninja moves. Most people probably already know “pan the camera”, but there are actually 3 different ways that you can move the camera around to take panorama pictures.
- Pan the camera on a fixed spot.
- Pan the camera around a fixed spot.
- Trucking the camera, or more commonly known as, side stepping.
Tripod users, you are stuck to panning, unless you are using one of those rails for movie production. Or you can ask your friend to push you on a trolley.
Technically speaking, trucking the camera will give you the least distortion. But there is no right-or-wrong to using each method though. Just try out and see which one works for you.
HOW TO SHOOT
People who are new to the manual settings are probably going to struggle with this one. Because we need to go into full manual settings for taking panoramas. But fear not, there are many tricks around this one.
D1) THE SETTINGS
So why use manual settings? The problem with using auto while taking multiple photos is that, the settings are going to change as you pan around. If the scene is bright on one side, and dark on the other end, you will end up with an unbalanced exposure like this:
So fix that mode dial to manual. If you are unsure about the settings, use the in-camera metering to help you.
- Set the ISO to a comfortable level, probably about 100 to 400 in good lighting condition.
- Switch to the aperture priority mode, I usually set mine between f/8 to f/11 for landscape.
- Pan the camera around and note the shutter speed.
- Average out the shutter speed, for example, the slowest is 1/100 sec, and the highest is 1/200 sec. The average should be about 1/160 sec.
- Switch to manual mode, and dial everything back in – ISO, aperture, and average shutter speed.
As for the white balance, modern cameras usually do a good job on auto white balance. But if you are lucky enough to get blue sky on one end, and an orange sunset on the other, you might need to guesstimate the white balance.
Not a major pain, as I usually shoot in RAW. The white balance can always be adjusted later in Photoshop. The final tip I can give on the settings for DSLR users – Shoot in the mirror lock-up mode, hands off the camera and use a remote trigger. That will give you a tack sharp photo.
People who are on hand-held, just keep the shutter speed comfortably fast, reduce that camera shake.
|💡 Always shoot in RAW. They contain a lot more data than JPG and are very useful in editing.|
D2) OVERLAP THOSE PHOTOS
How do we shoot? So easy. Press the shutter button and pan the camera. Yes, correct. But there’s something important to note. I usually start with the left-most frame, and work the way towards the right. Make sure that there is some overlap in between each frame. I will recommend at least a cross over of 25% (1/4 of each frame).
Will it work if you went from the right to left instead? I have not tried before, but it probably will still stitch together in Photoshop.
|💡 Don’t just go “one round”. After you are done with the first set of panorama photos, reset back and try a slightly different setting. It’s the digital age. No harm taking more spare photos, and no worries about how much film is left.|
EDITING IN PHOTOSHOP
This is the last stage, which is to do some Photoshop magic. In particular, stitching the photos together. Sorry to you folks who do not have Photoshop, for this section will only cover Photoshop. But I shall add in a small part on alternatives below.
E1) GOTTA MERGE THEM ALL
- File -> Automate -> Photomerge -> Browse and select the files.
- I usually leave the layout to “auto”, and it seems to do a pretty good job. If things turn out looking a little strange, you can always change the layout.
- Check the Vignette Removal and Geometric Correction if you must, but I usually leave them off.
- The merging part is pretty resource intensive, depending on how much processing power your PC has, it will take some time.
E2) CUT IT, CROP IT
When Photoshop is done, a “broken looking” photo will be generated.
- Save this image as a PSD file first, the following process will be pretty destructive.
- Merge all the layers (select all layers, Layers -> Merge Layers)
- Crop to an acceptable frame and try to straighten the horizon (it is OK to have some “empty spots”)
E3) FILL IN THE BLANKS
- Use the lasso tool to select the “empty spots” or “places that feel wrong”, content aware fill (Edit -> Fill -> Make sure it is Contents : Content Aware)
- Clean up the image, remove dust spots using the spot healing brush
E4) MAKE IT LOOK PRETTY
- Filter -> Camera Raw -> Do your own adjustments
- We are done! Save this as a different file if you want… or you will need to re-merge all the files again.
- Resize the image, and post them on social media.
E5) DON’T HAVE PHOTOSHOP? HERE ARE A FEW ALTERNATIVES
No Photoshop? No problem. There are free alternatives out there that can do the same stitching. There is an independent application called Hugin that does a pretty good job on stitching photos together. Otherwise, I will recommend GIMP, a free alternative that is on the “Photoshop” level. You will also need the Panorama plugin for GIMP.
GO OUT AND SHOOT!
Congratulations, you have finished reading this long guide. Give yourself a pat in the back. I have imparted my awesome ninja skills to you, and there is only one last thing you need to do – You need to go out there and shoot some panorama ninja stars. Nothing beats practical skills, and have fun!