Getting started is easy…
Panorama photography is a great way to extend your photography skills. To make a panorama you take a whole string of shots. Then later you match them up in software and “stitch” them together to make one long image. The photographic variables are all fixed. You take lots of photos. But, only have to set the camera up once. This means you can concentrate on the scene.
The essentials of panorama photography
Like any aspect of photography you need to have some essentials. Your camera and a lens get you started. But a tripod will give you more consistent results. It provides you with a firm platform. One that you can use to line up all the shots. A tripod is recommended because hand holding the shots can leave you with a whole bunch of badly aligned frames. Panorama photography is all about getting the full range of a scene. If you miss bits or fail to get neat alignment the image will loose its continuity. The eye is drawn a way from the image to the imperfections of the stitching.
To use a tripod properly you should also use a good tripod head. Set the camera up to get the scene you want. In this composition phase you will need to sweep through the shot. Look through the viewfinder and pan around the full scene. Get the tilt of the camera right. Have a clear idea of your sweep. Then, fix your tripod head so the camera will sweep through an arc without moving up or down. It will only pan “left <---> right” as needed. In the video you will see him using a “pan and tilt” tripod head. Once the scene is selected the tilt aspect is fixed.
Using the tripod and head means you will get an aligned sweep through your scene. This makes it easy to line up (stitch) the pictures together later. The fixed camera angles helps make alignment easy. But fixing the other settings also helps get consistent results.
Settings for the shots
There are some things that make panoramic photography easy. To get the best effect make each shot simple. Each should have settings the same as its neighbour. Wide variations of settings between shots make colours, brightness, tone and even focus create bad matches. The joins between images will show where the settings change. This disturbs the flow of the eye through the image. Here is a list of steps you go through to set up the camera – and why.
Focal length: As with the other critical settings set focal length to a fixed position. You should switch your auto-focus to manual so the focus does not change in each shot. Then, manually focus into the scene at a place that will give you good sharpness and depth. Then this should be left unchanged throughout the panorama photography sequence.
The exposure dial: Auto exposure settings change as you pan across different light levels. To avoid each frame being a different exposure use the “M”, or manual setting. Set up the exposure for the first shot. Then, keep that exposure setting through the the entire string of images. This means you will need to fix the settings for the full range of shots.
Aperture: Panorama photography is mainly about wide sweeping scenes. Landscapes are ideal. To make the scene realistic it is best to have sharpness right through the scene. Picking F11 is a good option for that. Practice your panorama photography with that F-stop to start. Once you have the techniques you can get more creative later.
Shutter speed: Hold the shutter speed fixed too. Your shutter speed depends on how you set your ISO, and the aperture too. However, don’t just think about the first frame. Study the entire scene. Is there going to be any variations in light intensity across all the shots? You want all the shots to have a similar exposure level. So do some test readings or shots with your camera light meter. Work out how much the scene varies. Avoid big light variation. It will make consistent exposure levels difficult. Look for even light across the scene. Then, find a shutter speed that will work well for all the shots.
White balance: RAW or *.jpg this is one time you MUST set the white balance to a fixed setting. If you use auto-white balance you will NOT be able to match the frames later. While white balance is generally quite stable, a colour cast from one bright reflection can significantly change the colour. That would not matter too much on one image. But it will if you have to try to match ten images each with a different white balance. That will end up giving your panorama photography a patchwork effect. Choose a white balance setting and stick with it for all the shots.
Getting the shots
Panorama photography calls on more than just scene composition and settings. Also critical is “overlap”. You want to join the images so they match. That means overlapping them in a way that allows a good join.
The skill is in picking features in your landscape you can use in the matching process. I like to use patterns or textures where possible. In the software you are going to line up each image with its neighbour. Those patterns or textures allow you to make a join look seamless. So, as you go through the scene make a mental note of where you want the join to be. Rotate the camera on the tripod for each shot. Make enough overlap each side of the frame for those points to line up. This is clarified more in the video at the end.
Landscape or portrait shots can be used for panorama photography. All the pictures need to be taken in one or the other. If you use landscape format the panorama will be very long and thin. If you use portrait format the stitched image will not be so thin. But you will need to take more shots to get the whole scene. You might choose differently for each scene. It is your choice. These choices are a key skill in panorama photography. Think carefully about your composition.
Panorama photography video tutorial
Most of the above are explained in the context of the shot sequence in this video. Panorama photography is great fun, but it does require a little thinking ahead and planning your sequence. The video should help you to fix the method and settings in your head.
What Digital Camera
Stitching the image together
There are two basic methods of stitching the final image. Again this is one of the main skills in panorama photography. You can do the work manually in an image editor. This work can be a lengthy and detailed process. Each image needs to be lined up by the patterns or textures you chose on the image as the overlaps. Then you might need to clone the images together. Bit by bit and image by image you can build up your final sequence. If you enjoy detailed image editing it is very rewarding.
The second method of joining the images is to use stitching software. There are lots of different applications available. Which one you use is a matter of personal choice. Some image editors have panorama photography stitching built in. For more advanced users there is also specialist software. These applications are available with a range of functions and prices. You should do some experiments and research to pick your preferred software.
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