Panoramas

by John Friesen | Apr 3, 2023 | 0 comments

Palouse Falls, Washington
Palouse Falls in Washington. Photo © John Friesen.

There are a variety of aspect ratios used to display photographs and paintings. Some aspect ratios are fairly standard, like 1:1, 5:4, or 4:3. To understand aspect ratios, the ratio 4:5 makes a 4” x 5”, 8” x 10”,
or 16” x 20” print.

Another common ratio is 16:9. It is common because it is often used for wide-screen digital display, even though it might not be so common for wall display.

You might be wondering what the ideal aspect ratio is. The answer is the one that works best for the picture you visualize. Usually a rectangular aspect ratio, in portrait or landscape orientation, is visually more pleasing than a square one.

At times you might wish to display a picture with an extended horizontal or vertical view. Such a picture is called a panorama. This article will explain how to take a series of pictures to create a panorama. This article will not explain how to do the actual stitching.

After reading the previous paragraph, you may wonder what aspect ratio defines a photograph as a panorama. In reality, there is no clear definition for what aspect ratio makes a panorama. For this article, I’m going to call a panorama a ratio that is greater than 16:9. However, some photographers call almost any photo that has been stitched from multiple pictures a panorama.

Good composition is always important. It is a skill that requires time and practice for regular photography, and it becomes even more challenging for panoramic photography. Composing panoramas is more difficult because we cannot see the entire scene in the viewfinder of the camera at once if we are planning on stitching multiple pictures for the final photo.

A well-composed panorama can look breath-taking. On the other hand, if it is not carefully composed, a person viewing the panorama may be confused about what the intended subject was. Just because we could create a panorama does not always mean that we should.

There are various ways of creating panoramas. The simplest way, no doubt, is to take a picture and crop the top and bottom of the picture to create an aspect ratio greater than 16:9. This method has limitations in that cropping reduces the amount of film area or digital pixels for the panoramic photo. That means the photo will have limited enlargeability. Such a photo may look fine on a digital display, but may display poorly on print.

A better method is to use a digital camera to take multiple pictures, and then stitch them together in post-processing. By using multiple pictures for the panorama, you greatly increase the final file size and quality.

Careful attention to technique is required when taking a series of pictures to create a panorama. Likewise, careful composition of each picture within the series is key to successful stitching of the series. With practice, this can be done while hand-holding the camera, but I will advise use of a tripod with a pan head or ball head with panning feature.

Make sure the camera support is level at the location where the camera will be panning. It is not sufficient to simply level the camera at the top of the ball head; the panning plane has to be level. The camera must pan on a level plane, otherwise pictures will be offset, and you may find that you need to crop out important parts of the final photo to get rid of empty areas on the grid. I use a leveling head at the apex of the tripod, then mount a ball head with a panning feature on top of the leveling head.

Also make sure to overlap your pictures by about one third. An easy way to do this is to enable “grid of thirds” in your camera display, and then visually pan accordingly. Take one more picture at the beginning and end of each series than you think you will need, and take a blank picture at the beginning and/or end of each series in order to more easily tell later which pictures belong to a particular series. Always shoot your series from left to right. You will find this works better later when you select your pictures for stitching.

Parallax error can cause stitching problems when near objects are included in the series of pictures to be stitched. This is due to items in sequential pictures not perfectly lining up with each other. You may recall that images get flipped upside down inside the camera lens. The point where the image lines converge and flip is known as the nodal point for the lens. That is technically the point where your camera/lens should swing while panning, not under the camera body. If you plan on creating multi-row panos, both the swinging point and the tilting point of your camera/lens setup should coincide with the nodal point of the lens.

To do the parallax correction on your camera support, you would need a nodal rail for single-row panos, and a more complex apparatus for multi-row panos. Let me suggest that you start by excluding near objects from your panos, in which case you can ignore concerns about parallax error problems.

Camera settings are also important when shooting for panos. Some photographers may advise that everything on the camera should be set to manual. I would certainly agree that focus, aperture, and white balance should be set to manual. Focus should be set to infinity or hyperfocal distance. An aperture of f/8 or f/11 is probably a good setting. If you shoot RAW, you can probably set white balance to daylight and do color correction in post.

It is reasonable to also set shutter speed and ISO to manual. In that case, you would want to pan through the scene and make sure to set shutter speed and ISO throughout so as not to blow out any areas. The concern is that changing exposure settings within the series might cause uneven lighting in the final stitched pano. However, if you shoot waterfalls, you may find that the camera sensor’s latitude is simply not wide enough when all the exposure settings are set to manual. I have already created a series of HDRs, then stitched the series of HDRs to create the pano.

I use Affinity Photo for stitching panos, and find the the app’s ability to equalize exposure variations works very well. One more thing, remove your polarizer from the lens when shooting panos—it has potential to mess up the sky.

While this article will not give guidance on stitching panoramas, here are several apps that can be used for that purpose: PTGui, Lightroom Classic, PhotoStitcher, Autostitch, and Affinity Photo. There are more apps that can do photo stitching. I am not qualified to give my opinion about the merits of one app over another, as the only app I have used for stitching is Affinity Photo. I wish you good success in portraying the beauty of God’s creation by creating epic panoramic photographs.

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