Panoramic photography is a great way to capture more of a scene than you can in a single frame, or to produce a ‘wide’ shot with an extreme aspect ratio as a creative effect.
It’s really very simple to do. You just shoot a series of overlapping frames (an overlap of around one-third is about right) and then use panorama stitching tools to blend and merge them seamlessly. You can do this in Lightroom, ON1 Photo RAW, Capture One and lots of other photo editing applications.
But while today’s panoramic stitching tools are extremely good at blending overlapping frames seamlessly, you still need to get a few things straight (ha!) before you start. Here are some things I’ve learned, usually by doing them the wrong way first.
- 1. Use a tripod – and get it level
- 2. Shoot with the camera vertical
- 3. Be wary of tilting the camera
- 4. Don’t get greedy
- 5. Do you need a multi-row panorama?
- 6. Parallax is your enemy
- 7. Perspective is your enemy too
- 8. Panoramas vs VR
- 9. Panorama projections are different to wideangle shots
- 10. Should you just get a wider lens?
1. Use a tripod – and get it level
You can shoot a simple two- or three-shot panorama handheld, estimate the overlap between frames and get a decent result, but you’re likely to lose more of the image when it’s cropped because of slight changes in height between frames. A tripod will help you cut wastage from cropping, but you MUST get the pan axis level before you start, otherwise the horizon will fall away as you turn the camera. Good panoramic photography does involve going to a little more trouble.
2. Shoot with the camera vertical
Very often you’ll be shooting a panorama because you can’t get enough in the frame – and that applies vertically as well as horizontally. If you turn the camera through 90 degrees you’ll capture more vertical height. It means taking more shots horizontally to cover the angle of view you need, but that’s not much of an issue – and you’ll end up with a bigger, higher resolution panorama, too.
3. Be wary of tilting the camera
It’s tempting to tilt the camera upwards to capture tall buildings, but this introduces a different vertical convergence for each frame, which can make problems for your stitching software. You need to keep the camera as level as possible, so try a wider lens or move further away.
4. Don’t get greedy
The wider you make your panoramic ’sweep’, the more of the scene you capture – but you also create incredibly wide aspect ratios that end up being unusable. Often I’ll shoot a six- or seven-frame pano and only use two or three or four frames. More than that, and the image becomes too wide. You can fit the width in a print or a browser window, but the vertical height is so small that everything in the scene looks tiny, and it all looks a bit rubbish. Panoramic photography lets you go as wide as you like, so you have to know when to stop!
5. Do you need a multi-row panorama?
Most stitching tools can cope with multi-row panoramas as easily as a single pano sequence, but they are harder to shoot and they mean tilting the camera up and down, which can cause different levels of convergence, or keystoning, between frames.
6. Parallax is your enemy
Panoramas work best when you’re some way away from the scene and the objects within it. There are two issues if you’re quite close, especially with a relatively wide lens. One is parallax – the changing position of foreground and distant objects when you change the camera position. This will be made worse if you are shooting handheld. You can get round this using highly technical and painstaking measurements of nodal points and sliding camera plates, but this is suddenly a lot more work.
7. Perspective is your enemy too
The other enemy is changing perspective across the pano sequence. If you’re quite close to a long, horizontal subject, it’s going to be much larger in the center of the sequence and smaller as you turn the camera away from the center. You get a strong ‘bowed’ effect that’s nothing to do with the software and caused simply by where you’re standing and the changing perspective for each frame. All panoramic photography means changing the camera’s view of the scene between frames, with all the parallax and perspective issues this brings.
8. Panoramas vs VR
There is some crossover between panoramic ‘stitchers’ and 360 VR imaging, in that both mean capturing and stitching a larger segment of your surroundings, which you can think of as a sphere, with you in the center. In both cases you then choose a ‘projection’ to flatten out your curved capture into a flat plane. 360 VR is a highly technical discipline – though today’s 360 cameras mean you really only need to get technical for high-quality commercial applications.
9. Panorama projections are different to wideangle shots
Wideangle shots and panoramic shots are not the same because the ‘projection’ is different. With a wideangle the objects at the edge of the frame are kind of like what you see out of the corner of your eye. With a panoramic image (and a cylindrical ‘projection’ style), it’s like turning properly to look. A pano might capture the same angle of view as an ultra-wide lens, but objects near the edges will look more natural and undistorted.
10. Should you just get a wider lens?
Even though panoramic photography can give a less distorted look than ultra-wide lenses, if you’re shooting in a confined space or you can’t increase the distance to your subject, getting a wider lens could be a much better solution than trying to shoot a multi-row panorama. If you want the ‘pano’ aspect ratio as part of the effect, you can just crop a regular image top and bottom. A high-res 40-50MP full frame camera will give you a good amount of resolution to play with, and many cameras now offer a high-res multi-shot option which could prove easier than trying to stitch a pano.
So why can’t cameras be like iPhones?
iPhones shoot extremely good panoramic images, stitching them ‘live’. Why can’t cameras do that? Here are to reasons (there are probably more). First, iPhone images are only 12MP, so there’s less data to juggle. Second, iPhones have massive processing power where cameras have far less, and what they do have is designed for very specific tasks, not cutting-edge computational imaging. It’s worth bearing in mind that iPhone panos are up to 4000 pixels high and as wide as you like. That’s pretty serious resolution.
Good software for panoramas
I’m just going to recommend the two I use most often. I’m sure there are plenty more that are just as good, but these just happen to suit my workflow.
- Lightroom Classic/Lightroom: Adobe’s PhotoMerge tool (which also does HDR) can hardly be faulted. It produces seamless panos in the DNG format, so you still get a fully editable stitched ‘raw’ file to work with.
- Capture One: The pano merge feature only arrived in Capture One 22, and for a first attempt it’s really good. It doesn’t seem to blend exposures quite as well as PhotoMerge though (with lenses that have some vignetting) and I have seen a couple of jumps where objects don’t quite align as frames meet.